Is There a “Method” to Your Writing? (Writing advice from the acting world)


Earlier this year, I met a writer who was also an actor, from whom I received some interesting writing advice.

It happened during a session of the writers’ group that I run.  At each meeting, we discuss a specific writing-related question that all attendees are given a chance to answer.

The question du jour inquired which element of writing craft folk felt they needed to learn more about.

When it came my turn to answer, I said character voice.

Specifically, the fact that I wanted to someday write a sequel to my WIP from the first person point of view of a different character, but was unsure how to make the voice distinct from the first person narrator of my WIP.

Hearing this, the writer-actor proceeded to question me about the character: is it a male or female character?  What does s/he do?  How was his/her upbringing?  To which I replied it’s a nobleman’s daughter in a medieval setting who has a bit of skill in swordfighting, and disguises herself as a male – and a mercenary – to run away and achieve a certain objective.

The advice I was given?  To put myself in a similar situation as my character: to spend some time in a dojo or fighting school – preferably one that actually teaches swordplay – that is frequented predominantly by men.

Furthermore, while doing so, I was told I should dress very masculine, as if trying conceal that I’m female, just as my character does.

The purpose in doing so?  To actually get into character.  To experience life as she would  and see what sort of thoughts and emotions it produced in me that I might use to inform the character’s narration.

In short, he recommended a bit of Method acting to help me in my writing.

Or as he called it, Method writing.

How does that make you feel?

I am no actor – a fact clearly evidenced by my having once been told on a performance review that it’s very obvious when I dislike a given task.

However, this surprisingly, wasn’t the first I’d heard of what’s also known as the Stanislavski Method, as pioneered by Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski (which was later adapted for American actors by Lee Strasberg).

(While in university, one of my housemates was an English/Drama double major, and used to hold rather vocal study groups in the middle our living room.)

But as I said: I’m no actor.  I wouldn’t know how to be anyone but my awkward, deadpan self if I wanted to.

Thus, upon receiving the writer-actor’s advice, I initially dismissed it out of hand.  For what could I possibly learn from trying to turn awkward, deadpan me into awkward, deadpan cross-dressing me?

Plus I could already fairly imagine how it would feel to hang out in a gym with a bunch of musclehead men, and wasn’t overly keen to make the experience a reality.

That writers’ group meeting probably would’ve ended my brief flirtation with acting theory right there.  But recently, I read an article on acting theory that has me thinking about it all over again.

I can’t actually recall what the article was about, where I read it, or even what it was called, so I can’t even look it up again (or link to it).

Emotion masksAll I remember is that it discussed two distinct styles of acting: classical acting, in which actors are influenced by their observation and study of real people and how they react and express themselves in specific situations.

And Method acting, which, beyond just “getting into character”, involves an actor using his/her own past experiences and emotions as a guide in the portrayal of a character.

And so it was that I made a happy discovery: even if I never avail myself of an all-male gym as recommended, I already am something of a Method writer.

For I mine my own feelings all the time to write the emotions of my characters, especially my main characters.

And especially as I get older and continue to deepen my emotional well, experiencing firsthand many of the darker emotions that heighten a story’s conflict – jealousy, betrayal, regret, the desire for revenge.

I don’t need to guess at what certain emotions actually feel like nearly as much as I used to.

Method writing also helps improve my writing at the sentence level – at the image level.  I always want to describe a character’s emotions and reactions in creative, non-cliché ways.

It’s far easier for me to do this for things that have actually happened to me – to hold that memory in my mind while thinking up a suitable comparison – rather than having to rely on someone else’s description of an experience – a description, which, depending on the format in which it’s presented, may itself be rife with clichés.

Most writers, I suspect, use Method writing in at least some capacity, for who could we ever know and understand better than we know our own selves?  Other people we can study and get to know as much as they’re willing to share with us.

We see ourselves both inside and out.

Particularly if a writer has led a full life to date, his/her own emotional spectrum can provide a rich source of insight into numerous aspects of a character.  Not the least of which is the character’s voice.

How much do your past experiences and emotional states influence how you write your characters?  Have you ever intentionally done something extreme to “get into character”?  Tell me about it in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2)

8 thoughts on “Is There a “Method” to Your Writing? (Writing advice from the acting world)

  1. If you ever have the spare time for it, you should read Uta Hagen’s book “Respect for Acting”. It had a profound effect the way i work when I first read it. The technique she discusses is similar to what you’re talking about, and I think you’d find it interesting.


    • Thanks for the recommendation, my dear, and I’m glad to see you’re finally able to comment! Next time we see each other, I want to hear more about your acting technique (I can’t believe I’ve never asked you before).


  2. Before I forget: I never got a notification from WordPress that this post went up. I was about to email you and ask if you were taking a break or something.

    I often write in character, even when using third person, which is why my writing voice tends to reflect the MC’s nature. The antihero of the story you read on my blog was manic, so I used out-of-place exclamation points and abrupt tonal shifts to convey that. Not a conscious effort, mind you; it was simply the character bleeding through on the narrator.

    I also make faces as I type. When I wrote my first manuscript–which was on the melodramatic side–in 2008, I felt more emotional than I normally do. I recall feeling quite angsty during that period, which is so not me.

    None of this translates into acting ability however. I’ve had actors ask me to be a scene partner for rehersal purposes, only to have the whole thing fall apart within a minute because my “performance” caused actual physical pain to my counterpart. I took drama in high school and only ever got the part of “one of the Cratchit kids.” I could probably be an extra in a Wes Anderson movie or in a sequel to Napoleon Dynamite.


    • Uh oh – I hope Gmail didn’t spam me. Their filters have gotten really aggressive lately, to the point that I rarely receive spam anymore but now need to make a point to regularly check the spam folder for the few legitimate emails that invariably land there.

      My first (shelved) novel was written in third person and like you, the voice reflected the protagonist’s nature, unbidden. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. Or rather, I suppose it’s another stylistic option available to writers that’s probably most effective when consciously chosen. With first person, it’s obviously to decide how the voice should sound even if the execution presents a number of challenges.

      I took drama class in grade 10 and actually really enjoyed it. I like playing improv games, which I find helpful for writers, and writing my own play. It was about five minutes long, had no lines at all, and was set to music. My friends and I presented it to a full auditorium of our families and friends as part of our final exam, which was well-received and also a lot of fun. But most of the time when I try to act, my delivery of the lines is stilted and don’t know what to do with my hands.


      • I don’t subscribe via email. I just look in my blog reader daily, and I noticed you didn’t show up at your normal time. Probably just a glitch that will fix itself. I know to come looking.

        I’m sure I take a risk in letting the character affect the voice, because not everyone is going to get what I’m doing. My overall approach is to be spare with details and exposition and to tell the story through dialog and action, and that doesn’t change.


      • My approach is just the opposite: I’m generous with details and character perceptions (hopefully not TOO generous) and more sparing (hopefully not TOO sparing) with dialogue. I recognize it’s not a style that works for everyone, but it’s one I’ve deliberately adopted, which at least should give it a sense of consistency.


  3. I don’t think i could act to save my life, Janna – but i write what i know. This means I create situations in my stories that I have experienced before. I would probably do the dojo or fighting school if it was required by my main character because I would be determined to get it right.


    • I’m warming up to the idea of the fighting school more and more, Dianne. I did take Karate once upon a time without totally enjoying it because all the other girls were so much smaller than me (so I felt I couldn’t go all out against them), so perhaps a dojo that’s predominantly male would be better (although maybe then the guys would have a similar problem of feeling they can’t go all out against me. Getting my black belt is one of the things on my bucket list, so perhaps doing as the writer-actor suggested would kill two birds with one stone.


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