Using Method Acting in Your Writing

6 Jul

By Sammy Bina

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The first time I ever acted on stage was my freshman year of high school, when I played a 90-year-old nun in the show (warning: terrible pun ahead) Nun of Your Business. I’d never acted before, and knew next to nothing about it. I figured it couldn’t be that hard to pretend to be someone else, but it proved to be more of a challenge than I thought. As a 14-year-old, I had no idea what it was like to walk around using a cane. I still had all my teeth. Hell, I wasn’t even Catholic.

Lucky for me, I wasn’t the only one feeling like a fish out of water. So, to help us get into character before rehearsals, our director would have us sit in a circle and ask us mundane questions like ‘what’s your favorite breakfast food?’ or ‘what kind of errands did you run today?’ And we’d have to answer them from our character’s point of view. Now, as a frigid old woman who could hardly walk, I didn’t run many errands, but I waxed poetic on my love of all things breakfast, particularly buttermilk pancakes. I still remember that. I also remember insisting that I did not wear dentures.

Writing, it turns out, is a lot like acting. You have an entire cast of characters, each of them unique, and you have to manage to keep them all straight. You have to make sure they don’t blend together, and that each has a very distinct personality. I’ve been hard at work editing my current WIP, and was having a little trouble with one chapter in particular, where I couldn’t seem to get the mother to sound like herself. Up until that point in the manuscript, she’d been kind of sarcastic and grumpy. In this particular scene, the main character was in need of some comfort, and I couldn’t figure out a way for this older woman to offer her support without sounding trite and completely out of character.

So what did I do? I went back to my high school days of method acting. I sat myself down, closed my eyes, and tried to envision myself as a 47-year-old woman who’s hiding a fugitive in her basement, whose eldest son has turned out to be a major disappointment, and whose world is crumbling around her faster than a leaning tower of Jenga. I may have considered even putting on a frumpy dress and an apron for this, but couldn’t find any. (But if dressing up helps you, then by all means, go for it.) I envisioned what she’d had for breakfast that morning, and what kinds of errands she’d had to run. Knowing the scene took place in winter, I thought about how snow might affect her mood. Then I read through the entire scene out loud, much like you’d do at a play rehearsal. The problem, I found, was that a script is all dialogue, save for very specific sections of blocking. In between my lines of dialogue, I’d have a paragraph describing the lump in someone’s throat, or how badly their head hurt. When the thing I needed to work on most was voice, all those extra words just got in the way.

How did I solve the problem, you ask? I opened a new Word document, copied and pasted the scene I was working on, and deleted everything that wasn’t dialogue. And after I read through that, I realized why I couldn’t get the mother to act the way she’s supposed to. The problem was that the paragraphs between the dialogue were concentrated on the main character, as she’s the one narrating. So her voice was pulling me away from the one I needed help with. Once I took away my MC’s narration, the scene began to fall into place. I had a much better grasp on the mother’s voice. Keeping those emotions I’d dug up at the front of my mind, I was able to rewrite the scene in a way that stayed true to who both the characters were.

I haven’t acted since I started college, but I’ve found method acting to be a useful took I like to keep in my writer’s toolbox. It’s come in handy on more than one occasion, and I hope you guys can take advantage of it as well. Just start with the basic question of what’s the best breakfast food, and see where your imagination takes you!

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Sammy recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Creative Writing. She is currently in the midst of moving to New York City, where she hopes to find a job in publishing. Her free time is spent editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and you can find her on twitter, or follow her blog.

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12 Responses to “Using Method Acting in Your Writing”

  1. Martha Ramirez July 6, 2011 at 12:24 AM #

    Great post, Sammy. Act away 😉 it def helps.

    • Sammy Bina July 6, 2011 at 12:44 PM #

      Thanks, Martha! I’m always surprised by how useful high school lessons still seem to be 😉

  2. Holly July 6, 2011 at 9:32 AM #

    Yep, my acting past definitely helps when I’m trying to work through a tough scene. I do the same things. 🙂 Great post!

    • Sammy Bina July 6, 2011 at 12:45 PM #

      It’s a really great way to try to get inside your characters’ heads, definitely! I’ve been using it more and more these days. Glad I’m not the only one!

  3. Caitlin July 6, 2011 at 10:40 AM #

    Method acting is definitely a good way about it! It’s funny, because I’m a fairly good writer but an absolutely dreadful actress most of the time. I think it’s because while I’m good at imagining how the characters feel, it’s easier for me to present that through writing, one step away from myself, than through acting, which is still very much me.

    I was at an author panel once and the writers were talking about the method acting idea. Maggie Stiefvater said that obviously she had never dated a werewolf… so she thought back to the time she’d dated a vampire instead! It was hilarious. 🙂

    • Sammy Bina July 6, 2011 at 12:46 PM #

      I know what you mean. I definitely am better at presenting how a character feels on paper, but the acting background has definitely come in handing on more than one occasion. Sometimes I think it helps to spice things up, you know what I mean? Gives you a fresh perspective on a character you already love.

      And Maggie Stiefvater is hilarious. I love her.

  4. nkeda14 July 6, 2011 at 12:18 PM #

    This is a really good idea… I never really thought of it as acting before, but i can see how that would help! I’m going to use this, thank you for the advice!

    • Sammy Bina July 6, 2011 at 12:47 PM #

      I hope it works for you! It takes a little getting used to, and might seem weird at first, but in the end it’s totally worth it.

  5. Rowenna July 6, 2011 at 3:23 PM #

    I definitely have conversations as/with my characters 🙂 And I love thinking about banal questions for them–if they went to a bar, where would they sit? What would they order in a restaurant? What does their desk look like? It’s fun 🙂

    • Sammy Bina July 7, 2011 at 1:06 AM #

      I totally agree. Sometimes it’s those really stupid questions that allow you to really get to know a character and what kinds of things they like. Have you ever filled out some of those character interviews that are floating around?

  6. debbie July 21, 2011 at 1:50 PM #

    That’s really helpful. I never thought about just taking out everything that wasn’t dialogue before. So off to try that now…

  7. Caitie Claus March 31, 2013 at 8:43 PM #

    Its funny. I’ve been doing that since I was about ten. And before that I just invented myself into places. If it helps, your characters are kind of like imaginary friends. I take my characters everywhere. I ask what drink would they get a Starbucks? What’s their favorite roller coaster? All that and I get a very solid person, who could very well be real.

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