Method Writing

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There are 2 school of acting in English-speaking films: the American way, or method acting, and British acting.  As the Guardian says,

This difference is encapsulated in the classic confrontation on Marathon Man where Dustin Hoffman was delaying proceedings by searching for his character’s motivation. His scene-mate was Sir Laurence Olivier – tired, perhaps, and exhausted by theorizing. At one point he whispered to Hoffman, “Just pretend.”

(Or, alternately, “Try acting.”  That’s an interesting link, BTW, for different reasons–it says that Americans assume that people who speak intelligently are evil.  I’ve always assumed it’s because people who aren’t evil probably aren’t very intelligent).

The method actor works from the inside out, trying to understand the character’s motivation first, so he can discover how the character walks, talks, and drinks his coffee.  The British actor works from the outside in, trying to find a combination of clothing, mannerisms, and speech patterns that fit the lines and each other.  A famous British actor (I can’t remember who, and neither can Google) told the story of how a character fell into place once he found the right hat for him, and told actors to “let the hat do the work!”  A joke about the Star Wars prequels is that the British actors were so much better than the American actors because the Americans were trying to discover characters that weren’t there.

Not coincidentally, these are the main two ways of creating characters on the page.  Google quickly shows somebody else already thought of this and is trying to make a buck off it:  Dick Bentley teaches a course at the U of Mass and by mail on “Method Writing”.

“The method”, imagining a character’s past, her emotions and motivations, corresponds to what writers are usually told to do.  The key point of both method acting and good character writing is the same:  Each character, in each scene, must know what he or she wants.

But method acting adds more:  the method actor is supposed to intentionally use pieces of his past to create the character.  He tries to create the emotions in himself that the character feels by remembering similar things that happened to him.  I confess I don’t do this intentionally, though I might accidentally.

My first reaction is that for writers, “method writing” is right, and the British approach is wrong.

Here a Scottish acting coach gives 10 reasons why he hates method acting.  Most of his reasons sound like laziness to me, and his arguments against “the method” only prove that it is the correct way to create characters:

3. Unnecessary Focus on EmotionActing is not emotion. Acting is action. The incorrect focus on emotion comes through an embarrassingly arrogant view of Stanislavski’s work that was developed by Lee Strasberg and called The Method.  We do not have control over our emotions. We have less control over them when we’re under the kind of stress that actors feel on stage. If we could control them, we’d be robots and no longer need therapy, counseling or Prozac! You can fake emotion (badly) and you can force out some tears, but that’s not much of a basis for acting. Truly great acting moves the audience, not the actor.

Wow, this is such bad advice for writers.  I believe your writing should move you first of all.  A story is ready for writing when thinking about it would make me cry a little.  Theoretically.  If I did that sort of thing.

(It’s also wrong.  Acting is not emotion?  That’s defining the problem away.  But it’s a physiological fact that appearing like someone appears when they have strong emotions sometimes requires having those emotions, because some facial movements aren’t under conscious control.  We do not have control over our emotions?  Not if we refuse to try to have control over our emotions, no.)

It’s true, though, that making the motions associated with an emotion can create that emotion in you.  So maybe you can start with the cliched actions of a movie hero or villain, and get from there to emotions.  Maybe.

I don’t think so, though.  Actions are always cliched.  Every action has been done a million times before.  Actions are generic, and give rise to generic emotions.  Good character motivations are not generic.  I don’t think there’s any way to pile up enough actions and mannerisms and odd bits of clothing to generate a distinctive character.  Maybe for an actor, who (though you wouldn’t know it to listen to them) already has a character complete on the page before him.

6. PsychosisThe Method’s ill-educated and misguided approach to tinkering around in the mind of the actor is frightening. Stanislavski gave all of that up in favour of an approach focusing on ‘action’. Your own psychological state is not the playground of an acting teacher; you don’t know what a potentially explosive minefield of unresolved issues that you are poking around in. Messing with that stuff isn’t brave, it’s stupid.

In other words, he says, Don’t go poking around inside your own head; you might stir something up.  Which I think is the main point of writing.

7.  Self-IndulgenceWhen you’re a Method-actor, you do ‘research’. You go off and learn to fire guns so that you know how a soldier feels, you learn Swahili so that you can say three lines in the film, you talk to real prostitutes about their craft to play Prostitute Number 3 or interview real criminals to play ‘Second Crook from the End.’ It’s an excuse to do something fun and call it work, but:

None of this will help you play the scene. I’ll say it again, NONE OF THIS WILL HELP YOU PLAY THE SCENE.

That’s stupid.  If you’ve never spoken to a real prostitute or a real criminal, you shouldn’t play one on television.

But I think this is a disagreement about what storytelling is rather than about how to act.  If the only point of storytelling is to entertain, regardless of whether you’re telling truths or lies, then, sure, why bother portraying reality accurately?

He gives us one point to ponder.  Point 9, the method takes you out of the scene:  Pausing to recall your own similar experiences, besides slowing you down, may lead you back to the exact circumstances of your past rather than toward the things that belong in your story.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t pause to recall your own past while writing.  I don’t, not often.