Method Writing

By John Gilstrap

I used to be fairly addicted to James Lipton’s show Inside the Actor’s Studio, during which he would conduct incisive interviews with famous actors. It used to come on every Sunday night, but got shuffled in the schedule a while ago, and I’ve not been able to catch up with it again. The stories of creative courage, and of success in the face of repeated rejection inspired me. I think the show was inspiring to anyone of a creative bent.

Back in high school, I used to toy with the idea of becoming an actor—having been a star in our production of Godspell and learning to love the sound of applause. (I’m the holder in the picture, not the holdee) Then I was cast as George in the school’s production of Our Town, and I realized that I was far too self-conscious to strip away the social armor of adolescence and show real emotion to a room full of strangers. I went through the motions because that was what I’d signed on to do, but acting was not for me.

I chose instead to do my emoting on the page, where I have the luxury of limitless attempts to get it exactly the way I want before I show it to anyone. It’s part of my nature as a control freak.

While the up-by-the-bootstraps stories were inspiring, I also took great interest in the guests’ discussion of method acting, in which actors insert themselves emotionally into their character’s reality, and then leverage their own emotional and sensory memory to deliver a convincing performance. The Method, as it is called, contrasts with “classical” acting, in which actors merely simulate their characters’ emotions through external factors such as voice and facial expression. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the definitions.)

We talk a lot about point of view here at The Killzone, and for me, there’s a lot to be learned about POV by what little I understand about The Method. I’ve never articulated it as such, but when I write any given scene, I am in the emotional space of the character to whom the scene belongs. I see and hear what they see and hear. When I’m truly in the zone, writing a scene is merely a matter of reporting what I see and what I feel. I can be that much in the moment.

To the degree that I have a gift for writing (how’s that for a pretentious phrase?), I think that gift lies in my ability to bring readers into my characters’ heads. I’d been writing that way for long before I watched my first episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio and learned about The Method, but the more I think about it, the more I believe that the processes are similar.

As I write this, I realize that there’s also a writing analogy to the classical style of acting. It manifests itself in the writing styles of many of the titans of the mystery genre, starting with the Great Agatha. While I enjoy her stories, I never feel terribly bonded to her characters emotionally. I admire them for their puzzle-solving abilities, but I don’t feel that I know them personally. (Having written this paragraph, why do I feel like I should be digging a bunker to hide in?) As a result, those stories feel dated to me.

What about you, fellow Killzoners? Do you think there’s a link between acting and writing?


11 thoughts on “Method Writing

  1. You’re absolutely right, John. If we can’t get into the head, the soul of our characters and feel and see and hear what they do, then we can’t choose what parts of the scene the readers need to experience in order to make the story come alive for them. If we can’t live it with our characters, then the reader won’t either. Good post, by the way.

  2. Having trod the boards myself, John, I do think there is a lot to be brought over from acting to writing. I definitely believe doing improv work helped me with characters and dialogue. Also, as you suggest, getting into “the moment” with method technique (like sense memory) heats up the POV.

    Dig the pants, BTW. Can you still fit into them?

  3. Absolutely. Now that I make myself aware of the writing in any movie or TV show i watch, I also pay attention to the actors’ delivery. It’s not enough to write the “right” words; they have to sound right. I’ll sometimes change from the “right” word to one that might not convey the meaning quite as precisely, because the perfect dictionary word won’t sound right coming out of that character’s mouth at that time.

    Even when the writing is highly stylized (think DEADWOOD), the rule applies. Picture your character, then imagine him saying what you just wrote. If it doesn’t feel right, all the proper meaning in the world won’t save you from the reader increased unwillingness to suspend disbelief.

  4. Nice post, John, and great picture. On the stage, just like on the page, we’re dealing with humans (in most cases) communicating with other humans. So the link, in my mind, is obvious. One small technique I use that utilizes both is reading my work aloud. In doing so, the words move from inside my head to become dimensional audio (soft, loud, etc.) And the emotions become more realistic when they are heard. Many times, I’ll ask my wife to read my latest chapter aloud. Hearing the dialog spoken from another person somehow makes it more real. It also gives me the opportunity to concentrate on the words, not on the reading. And when she stumbles or hesitates, it’s easy to find the flaws. Reading the written dialog aloud seems to bring the stage and the page closer together.

  5. I do believe that writers can learn from the methods employed by actors. I’m even trying to summon up the courage to take an acting class, to see what it’s all about. (I’ve long since forgotten anything I learned during my high school turn as Celia in As You Like It.)

  6. Having been involved in acting for more than 30 years (stage, audiobooks, stand-up) writing seemed a natural extension for my creative energy. This became more apparent to me as something I needed to do when I reached the point that I realized I now look over 40 and playing 20 something parts is in the past except in voice only.

    I find that as I write I think as an actor, often speaking my parts aloud as I write and catching myself making facial gestures along with the characters. To be able to build emotional feeling in a scene is the most important thing to me. I remember a few years ago I was doing a one man show of Deitrich Bonhoeffer in which I only used a chair and my clothing as props. As I did the show I found myself envisioning the scenes within my own mind rather than trying to play the audience directly. Getting lost in the story myself, pulled the crowd in too. By the time it was over there was not a dry eye in the house my own included.
    That was not as much a testament to my acting ability, as it was evidence of the power of imagimation and emotional imagery. Now, as I continue to learn to write these stories on paper I hope to be able to employ those same skills in putting images and emotions in front of readers as I’ve learned to do on stage.

  7. Yeah, yeah, sure, John, but:

    What sound do you love?

    When you die and go to the Pearly Gates, what do you want St. Peter to say to you?

  8. Jim, about the pants: Even with my recently reduced girth (45 pounds and counting from this time last year–hooray!), I figure I’m waaay past the time of fitting into them. The bigger question is where did I find them in the first place? I have no memory of where they came from, though I do remember sewing the suspenders on.

    Joe, I like the idea of reading aloud. Two years ago, I was on the subway trying to edit the page proofs for NO MERCY and the lady behind me was so loud on her cell phone that I turned around in my seat and started reading the pages aloud to her. Not really the same thing, but I thought it was an interesting story.

    Mark: Um . . . Huh?

    John Gilstrap

  9. I think there’s a definite link and I often find myself picturing scenes so I can get into the zone before writing them. It’s like acting in the brain rather than on stage.

  10. There’s a great book, Getting into Character, by Brandilynn Collins that deals with just this. It’s been called “Method acting for writers.” And I highly recommend it.

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