Monday, June 12, 2017

Method Writing

Method Writing 

While mentoring in a writing clinic at Novel-in-Progress Bookcamp some time ago, I was describing how to make character point of view work. I’d been working with the author for some time, and all it once, it clicked. I could see it in his eyes, his posture, his expression. He put on the face of his character. He even began to speak with his character’s voice, and when the author looked around the room, I saw the way he tilted his head at the way the chairs were arranged and at the pictures on the walls. It was as if he was seeing those things for the first time.

Yes! This author finally figured it out—see only what your character sees. Hear only what he or she can sense, know only what’s inside that one person’s head, and react based on—okay, ouch, backstory. Verily, my friends, this is why you—the creator—need to know your backstory, which, seriously, your reader does not.

It occurred to me as I watched this author transform and begin to scribble fresh that what we were doing was very close to method acting. The author internalized the character and could only then begin to understand how to make the story dance and sing without holding the strings or arranging the set.

Image result for method actingWhat is method acting, you ask? The quick story is all that avant garde stuff coming out at the turn of the century, the predecessor to the flapper era and Vaudeville, of Realism from one’s own perspective in painting, decorating, dress, speech, travel…hep cats…started with the Theatrical Realist Movement, through acting coach Constantin Stanislavski in the early twentieth century. Stanislavski taught his actors to consider the characters they were portraying, dredge their own psyches for emotional ballast, and meld that to a physical interpretation of the character for the stage. A couple of decades later, Stanislavski’s colleague Lee Strasberg (above) advanced the “System” into today’s Method Acting. He taught a full immersion into the character. The actor becomes the character in order to portray. You can read about the extremes some of today’s actors go to here.

I turned to the New York Film Academy for advice and found the four guidelines of method acting very applicable to authors. Please note that this will not apply very well if you consider yourself a seat of the pants (SOTP) writer because some planning is involved. Note I didn’t use the other P word—plotting, but planning. It will take some discipline to set up your character so you can bond.

1  Analyze your story. What are your character’s goals, objectives? What are they willing to do, to risk, to achieve those goals? What is his or her desperation level? What would knock her out of her comfort zone? Does he even have a comfort zone? What needs to fall in place in order for her to reach for the prize?

2  Build a Back Story. I can hear all the rejoicing! Yes! But think of this almost as journaling. Most of this will never make it into the book. “To know a character, you must know about their past.” What in the character’s history will help you figure out what he or she is capable of? How can you grow your character’s psyche from how he was raised? What things happened to her at school or home?

3  Connect. If you were physically being this character, what would it feel like? What could you alone see, hear, touch, feel, know, only as that character? This is, in a nutshell, point of view.

4  Practice and Apply. This is your opportunity to work out scenarios. Ask a lot of “what ifs.” Hurt your people and see what they do. Don’t be afraid to write a scene several different ways. Is this person the type to pray only when hanging by fingernails? Will she follow strict orders to stay put? Is he afraid of dogs, when the dog has the answer?

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I appreciated the way the article ended, with a question and answer, which we apply to writing—what is method writing? It’s letting your characters act out your story.


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