Method Writing means different things to different people. Is it a writer version of ‘method acting’? Is it a specific school of writing? Or does it just mean using a methodical or systematic approach to writing? Here’s an overview of some different definitions of the term “method writing”, and how I use it myself.
Is method writing like “method acting”?
“Method writing” sometimes refers to a creative process similar to method acting. This definition is now included in the Urban Dictionary, so clearly it’s taking hold!
So what’s method acting? It’s an acting approach that people often associate with performers such as James Dean, Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis. In popular use, it means acting where the performer learns to embody their character by putting themselves into similar situations.
For example, when Day Lewis played the title role in The Boxer, he tattooed his arms and trained in boxing several times a week, so that he could embody the character more authentically.
For him, it wasn’t just about developing the right physique so he could look the part. It was about portraying the character from the inside out, after experiencing the pain, exhaustion and physical reality of the boxer’s world.
This is an over-simplification. Strictly speaking, method acting refers to a specific kind of training from an influential acting school. But how might this idea be relevant to writing?
Well, what if writers used similar immersive techniques? What if they put themselves through the mill physically to get a more authentic sense of their characters? Could they write more effectively or from a place of greater “truth” by taking a “method” approach?
Method Writers movement
Writer and journalist Thomas Hodgkinson set up his Method Writers group to promote this approach to writing. To write his novel about a stalker, for example, he shut himself in a cupboard to experience feelings of confinement, estrangement and isolation.
To me, this makes perfect sense. It’s research. You could argue it’s the writer’s job to research their characters and their world in whatever ways are accessible.
Clearly, there are limits! No writer is going to become a stalker or murderer in order to write those characters – that’s a research step too far! And not everyone who wants to write a sailor can get access to a sailing boat. Plenty of writers use their imaginations, and research in other ways, to create their version of an authentic character.
But within obvious practical constraints, writers can use physical research methods to get far closer to their characters.
Even in small ways, physical research can make a difference. For example, I was writing about rugby players. I didn’t find out what their pitch felt like until I walked on it, touched it, lay down on it. You’d think it would be hard underfoot, but it was springy and spongy, like moss. I got second-hand rugby boots so I could experience what they felt like to wear. Without that direct knowledge, I could have got it completely wrong. That sense of texture really helped to bring the description to life.
How might you use method strategies to get embody your characters more authentically? Try getting away from your writing desk and exploring the unfamiliar.
Method writing, systems and Stanislavski
Method acting goes deeper than this, however. Its foundations go back to the work of the Russian theatre director, Konstantin Stanislavski.
Stanislavski is the man behind the concept of “beats” in scriptwriting. If you’ve heard of “beat sheets” or breaking a scene into “beats”, you’ve encountered his influence.
One of his ideas was that if you analyse a scene to understand its “beats” (simply “bits” with a Russian accent!), you can put it back together and understand the whole structure much more effectively.
In a sense, he brought an engineering sensibility to acting training. This in turn has influenced writers, especially in scriptwriting. Most scriptwriters – whether for film, stage or radio – use the concept of beats when talking about chunks of dramatic action.
Beats are an incredibly useful concept for dealing with time and shifts in emotion and status between characters.
They can be used in fiction writing, too, and more writers are becoming aware of their usefulness for structural editing. Dramatic techniques can seem methodical, in some ways. But this isn’t surprising when you consider the collaborative nature of filmmaking and theatre as art forms. It’s simply more effective to have a working shorthand that everyone understands.
Writing teachers, schools and thinkers
Other writers and teachers have used the term “method writing” in different ways, including Dick Bentley (Stanislavski approach) and Jack Grapes (writing from the deep voice). Other writers using this terminology include those in the Method Writers project.
I teach dramatic writing and teach and use physical research methods and beats, so you might expect this Method Writing site to be about that. However, that’s only a part of my interest in setting up this teaching resource.
I’m interested in process and creative practice, and the different methods that writers use to develop their work. This can cover a broad spectrum of writing methods, from freewriting to the creative constraints of Oulipo; from found poetry to traditional forms; from plotting to pantsing and everything in between.
Writing methods are just as individual and gloriously diverse as methods used by other artists.
At the same time, unless your writing is highly experimental, there’s a core of process which all writers share. Drafting, editing, researching, gathering. And unless you’re writing only for yourself, reaching readers.
I’m always experimenting with process, and seeing where I can improve and learn, and helping students to develop their work. So I love hearing what methods other writers use, including new ways informed by technology. Handwriting, typewriting, computer keyboard, dictation – that, too, is part of process.
As a multidisciplinary writer, I’m also fascinated by what different writing disciplines can offer each other. For example, what can fiction writers learn from writing for performance? What can playwrights and copywriters learn from poets? What can poets learn from journalists?
Method, muse and mystery
Above all, I’m interested in the methods as well as the mystery of writing. Too much emphasis on muse rather than method suggests writing is remote, inaccessible. It suggests it can only be done by a chosen few. Demystifying writing and its techniques is important, as it puts it within reach of anyone.
Writers can learn to write in the same way that musicians learn a musical instrument, through study and deliberate practice.