Comedy Tragedy masks

Writing lessons from the (Acting) Method

When we write, we’re sharing a piece of ourselves, as transformed through our novel or short story memoir or even non-fiction book. Often it can get emotional, and that’s not always an easy place to get to. Our performance on paper (or in the word processor—you know what I mean) requires us to be ready to get to that place, mentally, emotionally. And in this, what we do on paper is not unlike what actors do on stage and in film.

I’m writing about this because of a challenge I’ve been facing in my own writing the past couple of weeks: Getting my head into the scene and character in a particularly difficult section of the novel. Most of the time, I don’t have a problem getting into the right headspace. But now I’m getting into the nitty gritty of the novel, and I need to be able to cut through to the bone. And I’ve been struggling. Life distracts us, work demands from us, comfort insulates us, and we find ourselves not in the midst of our characters and action, but rather on the outside looking in, unmoved, untouched. At least that’s what it’s been like for me.

Silly me that only this morning I recalled the acting exercises and techniques I learned in acting and directing workshops. Maybe those techniques can help? This post is primarily a note to myself, but hopefully it may prove helpful to others.

The Method

In gross terms, there are two kinds of method acting.

  1. The Strassberg method—This focuses on the actor’s internal toolbox, so to speak, and gets into things like sense memory. By practicing these techniques, actors can get into character, get into a scene quickly, without having to “wait for the mood to strike them.”
  2. The Meisner method—This focuses on the the story, the character and her motivations, and starts with a script breakdown to analyze objectives, obstacles, beats, and so on. This approach uses the text as the basis for creating “the reality of doing under imaginary circumstances.”

(Note that I am oversimplifying each, and both methods inform and share with each other. I’m keeping this very basic because this is not a post defining method acting—there are plenty of resources for that—but rather a post taking the high points of the acting method and seeing how they may apply to writing. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve added some links to some online references and books at the bottom of this post.)

Comedy Tragedy masks

Sometimes facing the darkness of the story or the vulnerability of your character can be difficult. Method acting approaches can help.
Photo: Phil W. Shirley (Creative Commons)

Feel your character

This is where Meisner can help. I don’t have the space to explain it all here, but basically what you want to do is break down your scene, analyze the beats, understand your characters’ objectives and the obstacles they face (from circumstances and/or each other), and get yourself to a place where you not only understand where your character is, but you can feel it.

  • Who’s scene is it?
  • What does she want?
  • What does she expect?
  • What/who is her obstacle?
  • What’s the attitude of her obstacle?
  • Where does the scene turn?
  • How does this play on her past?

And so on.

In this, you have to let go a bit as the author and really put yourself in your character’s shoes—if only for a while. This will be obvious for many writers who already do this instinctively or have learned it in workshops, but for others, Meisner technique can help. (Of course there’s much more to Meisner technique, including focus on spontaneity via repetition exercises and listening, which could also be useful in your writing. After all, how closely do you listen to what your characters are saying and doing? Are your characters really listening to each other?)

Get your head into it

This is where Strassberg can help. Again, there’s no space here to get into it in detail, but basically there are acting techniques you as a writer can practice to help you get into the emotional space you need to be in order to write what your characters are doing and going through. One of the big ones is using sense memory, where you recall an event from your own past to help you get into the mental and emotional space called for by the scene. I learned this technique in acting classes at HB Studio years ago, and though I’ve not practiced since, let alone worked as an actor, I can use this technique in limited ways as a writer.

For example:

When I was ten, I saw my dog, a wonderful, happy, friendly German Shepherd named Wolfgang, get hit by a speeding roadster, throwing him thirty feet. He yelped and barked and tried to pick himself up, but his body was shattered. It took him over an hour to die, and he was in pain the whole time, bleeding from his nose, fading bit by bit. I screamed for an animal ambulance to save him, but there was no such thing. I could do nothing but watch him and talk to him, trying to make him feel better. Then he stopped breathing, his eyes faded, and he wasn’t there anymore. I stayed with him for two hours, when Animal Control finally came to take his body away.

That was the first time I witnessed death first-hand, and I’ll never forget it. Even now, as I write this, I’m fighting back tears. This one memory that is so vivid in my mind brings me to tears every time I think of it. With the Strassberg Method, I can use this memory as a technique to get myself into this emotional place…assuming it’s useful for something I’m trying to write.

It’s a trick. It’s a technique. And when you practice it—with all kinds of memories, with different emotional content—it’s something you can draw upon at a moment’s notice. The best actors can do it without your even noticing it at all in their performances. As writers, we only need to convince ourselves enough to be able to let go of the bright sunny day and delve into the scene in the story.

For more study

I hope this post is helpful to some people. Here are some quick links for those who’d like to learn more:

Online info on the Method

Books on the Method