Introduction: What is Method Writing?

What is method writing? Intuitively, it is to writers and writing, what “method acting” is to actors and acting.

  • Method acting is a range of techniques designed to encourage actors to inhabit the character they’re playing. This results in increased empathy, understanding and performances with greater authenticity.
  • It’s credited with enabling iconic performances and has defined some of the greatest actors of all time.
  • Oscar winners Marlon Brando, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kate Winslet and Christian Bale are among its devotees.

 

Crafting effective stories relies upon creating compelling characters, plot, and environment. This is even better if they are original, unique, and specific. Just as method acting enables actors to comprehensively embody a character rather than just fulfil a role, method writing should enable writers to design characters and what they say in an authentic way.

Ok fine, but how does this manifest itself for wordsmiths?

Employing Method Writing

Imagine if The Revenant screenwriter, Mark L. Smith, had himself lived in the wilds of British Columbia, negotiating icy rivers and eating a buffalo heart (as Leonardo DiCaprio famously did).

Would that have worked in making the role more authentic on the page? And furthermore, if there is too much instruction and performative detail already written on the page, does that mean less work or less satisfaction for actors?

The Case FOR Method Writing

1. Accelerated Method

One of the more direct ways a writer can strive to sell a script is to successfully get studio executives to connect with their characters.

  • The case for method writing broadly hinges on whether you believe in method acting.
  • Secondly, it hinges on whether you believe that by actively inhabiting a character, a writer can craft stories and characters that draw more empathy from readers.

 

Just as method acting involves immersive techniques for actors to tap into the character’s psyche, method writing involves focusing on the character and letting them guide the writer into the story and plot.

However, where method acting and method writing differ is that method acting occurs relatively late in a project’s development. By this time, actors are cast, the project has been greenlit and the story’s “die has been cast”. But what if the story and character has been spawned by immersive techniques on the page?

Traditionally, movies and TV shows benefit from immersive techniques, such as method acting, at a relatively late stage of development (i.e. principal photography).

However, perhaps validation of method writing as a technique could enable projects to receive these benefits earlier in development. Could, in this case, method writing techniques improve the chances of being greenlit at the pitch phase?

Method acting comes relatively late in the development process. Could the project instead benefit from enhanced character empathy in the project’s inception?

2. More Authentic Dialogue

They say that dialogue is to a script what garnish is to a dish, use sparingly and last before serving. However, empty, on the nose dialogue is an easy way to getting a quick ‘pass’. But if writers were to take more time to embody the world and the lives of their characters, it is understandable that there is a greater chance of more authentic conversations and unique voices.

Writing without preparing and developing each character can result in every character sounding alike. But this is inauthentic. In real life we know that people speak and sound unique. And how they do so can be deeply revealing of their character and background.

A writer who spends the time to embody their character in the early development phase may be able to generate more unique and compelling things for their character to say.

  • For example, actor Jared Leto mailed provocative letters and bizarre items, in character, to his fellow cast members for the movie Suicide Squad. This was part of his preparation process for the role of The Joker.
  • Just as Leto’s intention was to create a heightened dynamic between himself and his cast members/other characters, a writer using method writing could embody a character to attain an imagined state. This might enable them to access their character’s thoughts.

Embodying the Character

Screenwriter Jack Grapes, who teaches a version of method writing that focuses on attaining the writer’s “Deep Voice”, says that the point of the technique should be to get to a state where a writer thinks and talks like the character. Their dialogue will be as unconscious as writing a shopping list or a note to a friend.

Grapes acknowledges that readers react to the tonal shifts of language more so than the actual words. In a sense, learning how to combine words and phrases is its own code, and certain combinations engender a certain emotional response.

Michael Caine said that “Rehearsals are the work, performance is relaxation”.

  • This means that embodying the character in preparation should be so effective that when it comes time to shoot, the actor is not looking at dialogue as lines to learn and perform, but as second nature and everyday speech.
  • This will, therefore, allow them to focus on the subtext and motivations beneath the functionality of the dialogue.

 

In a writing context, method writing could enable writers to be so familiar with how a character speaks that the words flow unconsciously. This is particularly helpful if the writer has an ensemble of characters that all require unique tones and voices. If the dialogue is relatively automatic, then what is lying beneath it can be more easily implicit too.

3. Antagonism

A key to a good story is conflict: when a character’s objective meets an obstacle.

Although a lot of emphasis in writing is placed on developing what characters want, it is the exchange between the protagonist and antagonist force that propels the story.

It is conceivable that if a writer would be prepared to embody their character more deeply, they can get a better idea of the challenges they face, at least emotionally.

To be able to write with veracity about how a character feels and thinks about obstacles can provide more compelling story beats and more specificity. It can also provide more options about how to tell the story cinematically.

It gets back to that famed piece of writing advice – ‘write what you know’. If you already have a specific experience and choose to write about it, this does the method writing for you.

  • For example, to prepare for his role in My Left Foot, Daniel Day-Lewis spent periods of time in a wheelchair to gain a physiological, psychological, and sociological appreciation for his character’s plight.
  • Similarly, method writers could equally embody a character’s challenges to artfully represent and contrast them against their objectives.

 

There is a limitation to this, as there is no substitute for true lived experience. However, it can be at least a small window into an experience or at least a route to more empathy, understanding and nuance.

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