Writing Reality: Method Writing (Through their Eyes)

14/10/2013 at 05:45 (Method Writing, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I am a method writer.

It’s hardly a new concept; a literary adaptation of the emotionally charged technique used by thespians on stage and screen. Method actors bounce light off of the mirror of personal inflection, bringing into focus the characters they wish to embody as well as portray; they seek “imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with unique and original behavior,” brought about by “performances grounded in the human truth of the moment”.

Which isn’t a million miles away from what writers are after.

Some film directors are known to use/have used versions of the Method, to induce a necessary emotional state in their cast. While working on The Shining, Stanley Kubrick “had his cast watch Eraserhead, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, to put them in the right frame of mind.” This is channeling external creativity, as a form of pseudo-mood input.

Before settling to write, I’ll use the same technique, as well as several others to create a mood within myself that’s relative to a scene and/or narrative voice. Creative outlets – music, film, literature – of similar genres and mood, can be filtered through personal memories to tap into an induced emotional state. The audience only sees the end results, of course. The inspiration stays hidden in the wings, whispering cues.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t maintain a steady mood pattern. We tend to oscillate between whatever’s going on in the immediate day-to-day, and the sort of abstracts that prey on anyone’s mind (existence, climate change, world domination, economy, etc.) That’s before we even get close to creative input, either imposed on us or sought out to entertain ourselves. Picking up a book and reading a few passages on my work break, can cause a U-turn for whatever mood I was in – from wistful (fantasy) to dialed-down sharp (science fiction, crime thriller). Which is fine, so long as I wasn’t intending to preserve the former mood for later writing.

Contrary to popular belief, the Method doesn’t need 24 hour submersion. Prior to writing, I’ll have a “build-up” of mood and character, and will become very careful who and what I allow in through the filters. There’s no call to be rude; it’s just a Fading Out from the real world for an hour or so, prior to and during writing. This is “closing the door”, and for me it’s not only about shutting off external noise. It’s damage limitation where mood is concerned; whatever I hear on the news, read in a book or feel for a song, might colour my writing with an unintended atmosphere. Working with synaesthesia, where sound and mood appear in colours, there’s always the chance that I’ll inadvertently write a character’s “warm” mood too “cool” because of a blue song going on a loop in my head.

A difficult day, a trying time of life, can make all the difference between a good and bad writing experience. If you’re aware of emotional flux, take responsibility for your moods and writing – work them around each other. Work them to your advantage, to avoid writing-blackout. I tend to keep several projects on-the-go at once, all of which have different genres, setting and tone. This allows for a margin of success; more chance of hitting the right note at any point in life.

Look to film directors for affirmation in doing this. If necessary, they’re prepared to work off the cuff, shooting non-linear scenes and forgoing a chronological framework, in favour of getting the best out of the cast and setting(s.) Sometimes the season is out of kilter with the plot; freak weather patterns can emerge. War can break out. A cast member might sicken. A piece of equipment may require updating. To avoid wasting time, other scenes will be filmed instead; the results edited together later.

Use this technique in your writing. Don’t feel bad for working outside a standard chronology of events. Life happens. If your mood fits one scene and not another, why waste it for the sake of keeping to narrative structure? You’ll find an enhanced sense of attachment to your characters; their actions/reactions can become symbolic of your own, and vice versa. A setting can seem your home-base, your emotional playground (or indeed, your personal hell.) The story will feel bound up in your own life-narrative. If it gets the work done – and as long as you take care to leave bread-crumb notes of what goes where – the audience isn’t going to know any better. They may be more likely to feel the story reverberate with what you were going through at the time, though only in emotional terms – the details remain your own.

Generally speaking, real life doesn’t allow for a sudden drop-of-the-hat reaction to a writing mood. I’m lucky enough to have few responsibilities or plays on my time outside of work, and can generally settle to a routine. This has its merits and drawbacks – it’s easy to get complacent. A writer would do well to push themselves out of their comfort zone, to test whether a character’s emotions and mindset are so easy to grasp when set against an entirely alien backdrop.

This is a useful technique when a story’s in pre-development. Take the early outline of a character – their name and whatever specifications are to hand – and write them into a scene of high emotional intensity. It can be outside of the story itself if you wish; I personally like setting characters in a war zone, or at the site of a volcanic eruption. It’s when we’re emotionally stripped raw, that true idiosyncrasies and flaws come to light.

Get to know your phone’s video/audio recording app. With the afore-mentioned dramatic scenes, I find recording vocal inflections and references to mannerisms (facial expressions, paralinguistic features like body language) priceless. Record whatever ad-libs come, symbolic references, interaction with other characters etc – these can all help to develop and strengthen a character’s voice, both in mannerisms and speech. Ideas are often triggered just by speaking in freeflow; the beauty of the app being, you can replay your thoughts at a later time.

A soundtrack crafted around a character’s personality can help enhance and inspire their thought patterns, actions and reactions. When listening to my iPod, a lyric may hangnail in my mind as something a character could relate to – either in general mindset, or at a particular point in their lives. This entry was an early compilation for my novel, End of the Line, when it was in its first draft. Songs attached themselves to characters and scenes along the way.

When creating your own soundtrack, make a point of heading tracklists with a characters’ name, adding notations as to which song is relevant to which scene. Then when it comes time to continue from where you’ve left off – particularly if real life has forced you to quit mid-scene – give that tracklist a listen, either before or during the writing process. It helps to define individual soundscapes for a narrative voice, for each chapter-scene.

This is equivalent to a film’s diegetic / non-diegetic sound; that is, what a character hears in their environment or prefers to listen to, as opposed to what sounds are outside the film-universe, laid over what is being filmed; outside the narrative construct and a character’s experience, but audible to the audience.

Put in a literary context, your Method soundtrack can be layered with the aesthetic and tone of a character – any song you feel fits their personality – as well as sounds mirroring unique reactions to a situation. Try subverting your own expectations of tone by shifting abruptly between a character or object’s signature “theme”, while writing a change in atmosphere and events. The resulting juxtaposition can really get under the skin, becoming symbolic:


(Hellraiser: Deader, Rick Bota)

You might even feel jangled enough to write this crossover into a scene, to evoke the same symbolic tension in your audience:

“What he heard was the clear, clarion call of a trumpet, its music cold as the air from the snow-covered mountains of his homeland. Pure and crisp, the trumpet call rose bravely above the darkness and death and despair, to pierce his heart.
Sturm answered the trumpet’s call with a glad battle cry…Again the trumpet sounded, and again Sturm answered, but this time his voice faltered, for the trumpet call he heard had changed tone. No longer sweet and pure, it was braying and harsh and shrill.
No! thought Sturm in horror as he neared the dragon. Those were the horns of the enemy! He had been lured into a trap! Around him now he could see draconian soldiers, creeping from behind the dragon, laughing cruelly at his gullibility… Fear knotted Sturm’s stomach; his skin grew cold and clammy. The horn call sounded a third time, terrible and evil. It was all over. It had all been for nothing. Death, ignominious defeat awaited him.” – pgs 121/122, “Dragons of Winter Night,” Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman.

Sometimes, circumstances can’t be passed over for writing. It becomes essential to jot down whatever notes you can, to later reactivate whatever you were feeling at the time an idea hit, or an inspirational scene was witnessed. This is memory-sense recall. The idea of key words was, for me, inspired by Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters. In the narrative, a girl writes the word “orange” on a scrap of paper, to carry as a constant reminder of one blissful afternoon spent with her family:

“Meg and Claire looked at each other. They could hear the clock over the stove, ticking. They could hear doves in the courtyard. They wanted this moment to last forever. The sunlight was orange. They had to remember that. Meg would make certain they did. She fetched a piece of paper and wrote down the word orange, then folded the paper in half. They could cut up pears and write down all of the colours of the light and listen to people laugh and smell the blooms on the chestnut tree and forget about the rest of the world… they would have this memory of sitting in the kitchen, being happy.” – pg 133, The Story Sisters

You’re looking to evoke the same emotional response you felt, by reading the sensory words and remembering exactly how the light was, what smells were in the air, how the air moved about you. This is Realism – walking back through time, recreating scenes from your life to bring scenes to the page. Reread old blog entries and that of friends, to engage once again with how you once felt in a situation similar to what a character might be going through.

Keeping a diary or journal framed in a character’s voice is a priceless component of Method writing. I regularly dip into the thoughts of protagonists by jotting down notes from their lives – mundane events, love interests, secret fears etc. I often write short poems through a character’s perspective, if they’re so inclined to do so. These may or may not enter the narrative proper; but they’re handy to have on the side, as a means of slipping in and out of character. Connections sometimes leap out of nowhere – things that were not apparent to me at the time of serious writing, but which become strikingly relevant when framed in a looser context.

Free-fall writing is equivalent to dropping stones down a well, listening for the splash. These are stream-of-consciousness sessions, which may or may not have an immediate bearing on an ongoing project, but are written in the style and tone of a piece I’ll be currently working on. These short blog entries are often framed in a character’s voice, or run parallel to its tone, and will sit adjacent to the actual story like a slip-road to a motorway. They are exercises in writing to music, spurts of creative output, for the sheer joy of imagery and often frantic emotional output. Words wind about and through the music, snagging lyrics and tugging them along for the ride, taking leaps between my own thoughts and that of a character. These entries are examples of the freeform style.

The end result often resembles a wordy Pollock painting, but they’re my most honest work next to life-blog entries. All formality, all boring thoughts of perspective and chronology, go out the window. Sessions like this are good for loosening the writing limbs before opening an actual project, or just to shake up the imagination – and they’re great for getting into character / setting tone.

This is Method writing to me. Preparation for what lies ahead; getting comfortable in a character’s perspective, picking up the narrative reins; grasping the sense of what an imaginary world is like, drawing on relevant personal experiences to colour up and enhance a mood and/or theme. Flipping the timer to let inspiration run between reality and fantasy.

 photo 0643a244-a6f3-4758-97a3-8b9c190575d8_zps85f47084.jpg

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3 Comments

  1. Gunmetal Geisha said,

    Interesting… I employ sensory work both when acting and directing, but it never occurred to me to apply to writing. Your paragraph on synesthesia brought forth to my consciousness that the tone and color of my characters could indeed shift based on my mood.

    Personally, I have to limit the amount of “homework” or backstory I allot to a character even in acting and directing. A great part of the work is instinct for me, which I don’t want to weigh out down with excess analysis. But I do use and refer to the voice recorder often and I’ve learned again and again that thorough preparation (through “homework”) guarantees a solid foundation – in auditions, performances. It stands to reason the same would apply to writing.

  2. Gunmetal Geisha said,

    (I tried on the British spelling of synesthesia, but I’m too unused to that extra “A”…)

  3. celenagaia33 said,

    I can understand how too much “reading up” on a character or possible traits, would be off putting. Ultimately you have to work with whatever comes naturally at the time, without feeling you’re “trying on” a role too soon; it might feel stilted. As to writing, it’s a slower preparation time, finding a voice that will be dipped into whenever needed. As the characteristics are built up, the narrative voice tends to loop around it, growing in strength with things like symbolism becoming apparent. That’s where having synaesthesia really comes in handy.

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