Method Writing

It’s been a stressful few days here in DC, between putting in an offer on a house, planning a move, and a bad, bad stomach flu, it’s been interesting. With what little time I’ve had for my own writing, though, it has led me to discover a phenomenon that I’m sure I’m not the only one to experience: As soon as I’m not feeling well, at least one of my characters doesn’t feel well.

There have been a few earlier times I have experienced this, earlier this year I had a bad fall that left me with a banged-up knee. While that injury was a little more conducive to writing (stuck in bed and mentally wide awake) than a stomach flu, suddenly I couldn’t quite bring myself to make my characters kneel. Perhaps it wasn’t going to be painful to the characters, with their young, non-banged-up knees, but I still couldn’t bring myself to think of it while I personally couldn’t kneel.

Honestly, it seems completely understandable when it comes to how I write. I physically imagine myself doing what they are to think about how the scene is set up. Is one character going to swing their arm? Then I’m imagining swinging my arm for the motion (if not actually swinging my arm around…) and thus them kneeling made me think of me kneeling. And me not feeling like doing much moving at all while sick, made them not feel like doing much.

And so, perhaps there is another name for it, but I have thus dubbed this writing style Method Writing. Even if you aren’t a theatre/movie person, I’m betting that most readers out there have heard of Method Acting. For those who haven’t, Method Acting is a style of acting in which the actor attempts to become their character (or have their character become them) by truly feeling/experiencing what the character does in the hopes of showing more authentic reactions, rather than attempting to play someone else. When there are stories of actors remaining “in character” throughout a film shoot (acting as the character they’re playing would even while off stage) or living in a cave for months in preparation for character who does likewise, they’re generally method acting. (Cracked.com actually has some great examples of over-the-top Method Acting here.)

While doing that for writing might be a little more difficult than for acting (an actor’s playing one person, an author’s writing (probably) at least dozens) Method Writing has the same sort of idea behind it, we, the author, experience what our characters are feeling to make their reactions more realistic.

But is it a good way to write? I believe the answer simply is, if it works for you. Personally, I’d find it really hard to write without trying to feel how my characters are feeling (why I have been known to sit crying at the keyboard on occasion while writing an upsetting scene or make really angry faces during a fight…I’ve been told I’m interesting to watch…) but writing is very personal, what works for one writer doesn’t work for another.

So, if you’re still developing your writing style, or are looking for some other writing strategies and are interested in trying something like Method Writing here are some of the pros and cons.

Pro: It’s easy to understand how your character feels. Perhaps the main reason why you would consider “Method Writing” By making yourself feel what the character does (or having the character feel how you are feeling) it becomes simple trying to work out their reaction to a certain situation obstacle. When you can physically feel how your character does (heartbroken, elated, enraged) it’s easier to decide what they’re going to do next.

Con: It’s easy to get over-invested. If you didn’t pop over to the Cracked.com article up above, there are some pretty crazy examples of Method Acting over there, notably:

In the film [Oldboy], Choi’s character uses a piece of hot wire to count off the years he has spent in prison on his own body. Not content with the fact that this could be done with makeup and special effects, Choi actually performed the act on himself multiple times, on camera. That’s right, that’s his actual flesh being burnt in the movie.”

While I’ve never quite gotten to the point of self-mutilation to understand a character, I can tell you that it’s relatively simple to get yourself in the same sort of [emotional] situation when Method Writing. You’re so invested in a scene you’re writing, that you physically feel as though you’ve been in a fight, or you end up feeling depressed for hours after because you made yourself truly experience how a character’s death affects everyone else in the story. If you aren’t willing to put yourself through that (or know you’re going to be especially awful to your characters) perhaps reconsider.

Pro: There are some simple ways to get in the right frame of mind. In the vein of sick me = sick characters, Method Writing also allows for some pretty easy ways to get in the right mindset for a scene. Are your characters somewhere that’s really hot? Go sit in a hot car for a little bit while writing. It’s pretty simple to get your characters feeling hot that way. Is your character really hungry? Wait to write the scene until you’re really ready for lunch. I wouldn’t suggest going to extremes (getting to the point of heat stroke or not eating for days to get the exact feeling down) but the little things make it easier to understand the character and, in my experience, easier to write the scenes.

Con: It can be limiting. While sitting in a hot car might easily get me in the right frame of mind for a desert scene, a hot summer can also make it really difficult to write a story taking place during the winter. I have actually set stories aside waiting for the proper season to hurry up and get here before. Walking home when it’s 90-degrees out may give me a lot of inspiration for a summer story, but it makes it difficult to write about characters being caught in a blizzard…

Pro: It makes you want to finish the story. One big problem a lot of authors find when trying to write a novel is stopping before actually getting to the end. It’s understandable. Most novels tend to be around 80,000-120,000 words. Just in the typing/writing alone, that’s a lot of time. And far too often planning a novel is more fun than actually sitting down and writing one (there’s a reason you get a lot of people talking about novel ideas they have and they never actually even start writing…) Halfway into one story, you suddenly have a brilliant idea for an even better story, stop what you’re doing, and then start the next. Then halfway in to that brilliant idea, the same thing happens (or even you just get bored with it). When you feel emotionally connected to your characters, you actually want to get them to the end of the story. Sometimes it’s the added little push you need when hitting a mid-story slump.

Con: It can  make you care a little too much. While you should always care about your characters, putting too much of yourself into a character can be limiting–and can be the start of a Mary Sue problem. Suddenly, you care so much about your Main Character, you can’t take any criticism without feeling personally attacked and the entire fabric of your story starts morphing around that “you” character–not a good thing.

I’m sure there are many other pros and cons people who are likewise Method Writers (knowingly or unknowingly) have experienced, but those are the biggest for me personally. I’d love to hear any other thoughts on Method Writing or other writing styles if you have them (feel free to comment, contact me on Twitter [@JessicaDall] or email me at jesskdall(a)gmail.com). And so, blog readers, are you Method Writers?

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