Method writing


There are many different schools of acting, perhaps the most famous being that of method acting in which the actor immerses herself in the role she is playing and tries to feel the emotion of the character to bring out a better, more genuine overall performance.  For a while now, I’ve wondered if there is an equivalent for fiction writers, something that we might call, say “method writing.”

When I am writing a character, I tend to know what emotion it is I am trying to convey but in most instances, I don’t have to feel that emotion myself.  Instead, I know I’m on the right track when the words zoom onto the page without effort and upon rereading the scene, I can feel the emotion that a reader might experience.  These are my Yes! moments, so called because I will typically finish up the scene, push my chair back from my desk, pump my fist and hiss “YES” aloud to the empty room.  Rereading these scenes can sometimes bring me to the bring of tears (a climactic scene toward the end of my recently completed Story #7 did just that.)

Sometimes, though, I know the emotion I want to achieve but I can’t seem to get there no matter what I put the character through.  In these cases no amount of emotional pining on my part will move things forward.  I get into this “I’m a writer sitting here at a comfortable desk and have no connection whatsoever to my character who is freezing to death on a Martian plain” kind of mode and this is where I think method writing (if such a think existed) would come in handy.  Instead, I resort to music–the only time I resort to music during my writing–to carry me through.

Early in the year, I wrote a story called, “In the Cloud” (my first readers will know which story I’m referring to, as will my fellow Arlington Writers Group members).  At the climax of the story is a scene where the main character is close to death, where she is hallucinating and where she makes a made dash across the surface of the Martian moon, Phobos.  There is an intensity to the scene which culminates in a sudden brightening of lights–she thinks that the aliens she’s been searching for have returned–and in that moment of light, where she is frozen in time, casting a stark shadow against the dusty rock, there is an emotional realization upon the part of the character (and, one would hope, the reader) about what is actually happening here.  I must have tried four or five ways of writing that scene without the impact I was looking for.  Nothing seemed to work.  I decided I was simply not a method writer.

And that’s when I remember how music can sometimes move me emotionally.  I thought about songs that involved lights of some kind and Coldplay’s “Fix You” immediately came to mind.  I remember putting on my headset and playing the song on repeat a dozen times or more.  The pacing of the song was just what I was looking for and I tried to rewrite the scene paced to the song, ratcheting up the level of anxiety, slowly at first, until things become confused in the middle, and finally when she’s out there on the plain, timing the lights she sees to the abrupt change in tempo at the end of the song when the lyrics say, “Light will guide you home…”  The scene seemed to work much better after that, although for me, I visualize it with that song playing in the background, working up to that pivotal moment.

So I wonder, is there such a thing as method writing?  If so, I certainly don’t use the method, but I wonder if there are writers out there who do (or are willing to admit they do).  And if so, I wonder if there are corresponding examples of science fiction stories written in this fashion.  Does anyone know?


  1. I never would have thought to call it “method writing,” but I think the approach I often take with stories would qualify. I’ve done a fair deal of theater (albeit on a non-professional level), and I’ve found that some of the techniques for approaching a character on stage can be applied to my writing. I even did a whole guest blog post about it, so it might be easier for me to offer the link rather than try and remember what I said: I don’t know of any specific examples of other writers applying “method writing,” but I’m sure I can’t be the only one to take that approach.

  2. Thanks for the link, Barbara, nice piece. For me that challenge that I think I have as opposed to a true “method writer” is in that third point: “What is the action like to me?” I can imagine what it is like to *me*, generally, but I have difficulty with what it is like to my character, whose take on it may be different than mine.

  3. Some acting books I’ve read describe this better than I probably can, but maybe something that would address that is to, instead of trying to imagine what the specific situation would be like to you, try to imagine a different situation that would put you in the same sort of emotional state you’re aiming for with your character–finding the emotional truth rather than the situational truth. You might not react to meeting an alien for the first time the way your character might, but there might be an entirely different kind of situation in which you would react in a way similar to your character.

  4. I may give that a try. I have some scenes to write in a few days that require some of that emotional punch and I’ll see if I can think of a parallel situation that compares to emotional impact I’m trying to achieve.


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