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October 14, 2021

Method Writing - What, Why, and How

What is Method Writing?

You may have heard about method writing, the cousin of method acting devised especially for screenwriters and novelists. But what is it?

The Urban Dictionary defines a method writer as "a writer or author who uses a writing technique in which he/she identifies emotionally with a character in the story and assumes that character's persona in the telling."

Thus, method writing is a technique a writer uses to get under the skin of a character and identify with their emotions and struggles.

Method writing promotes empathy and genuine reactions over scripted, planned stories with fixed outlines and goals.

But will it make a difference to you as a writer? Let's take a closer look.

Isn't Method Writing Just Normal Writing?

Depending on the wiring of your writing brain, this might all seem like a very complicated way to say "writing." You may think there's no other way to do it; how could a writer possibly write any character without empathizing with them?

But not all writers are the same. Many people will be wondering how they can empathize with someone who doesn't exist.

Even if you're not one of them, this tool isn't an on/off switch like most things. It's a spectrum. You may be a method writer to some degree, but there are always deeper layers you can reach, and there are always more ways you can hone and apply this skill.

For example, empathizing with your character who is going through a breakup is one thing. But have you tried acting it out in the mirror? How about with another person? Have you tried listening to a friend who has recently experienced a breakup? Have you seen one in public? Have these experiences colored your perspective in any way?

If you are a natural method writer, in a way, it'll be all the easier for you to find those roads into profound, genuine writing and explore what's further ahead than you've ever gone before.

Benefits of Method Writing

Method writing puts you into the skin of your characters and gives you extreme insight into what they might be feeling or thinking. As a result, there are several areas of your writing that might be dramatically improved, or at least changed in exciting ways, by practicing this technique.

Here are just a few of the things you can expect:

1. Better, more natural-sounding dialogue, especially if you've mastered our "How to Write Dialogue for the Screen" tips, first.

2. Stories people can relate to more quickly because they're based on genuine experiences.

3. Character arcs that happen without you needing to plan them, especially if you've done a little work towards creating fascinating character arcs already and are looking to broaden your toolkit.

4. Unexpected twists in your plot.

5. Villains that have depth and dimension.

6. Easier, faster outlines come to you more naturally, especially if you let Arc Studio Pro take care of the formatting.

7. At the very least, one extra tool you can access alongside your regular outlining, brainstorming, and other writing tools.

Method Writing Safety

Now that we've thoroughly sold you on the concept let's talk about safety.

Indeed, danger isn't often a consideration when it comes to writing, but it should be. There are many ways you can harm yourself or exert yourself to the point of burnout, and method writing might be one of them. Depending on what the themes you're tackling are, several things could happen.

Burnout

Method writing is exhausting, and there's a genuine chance you might push yourself to the point of burning out, hating your project, hating yourself, and generally having an unhappy time.

Be sure to set yourself firm deadlines for being finished, especially when starting. Make it only an hour or two at the most, and if you're 'in the groove' and don't want to stop, count your extra hours and add them to your next relax-a-thon instead.

Damaging Your Mental Wellbeing

When method writing coincides with writing about complex topics, there's a risk that you're putting yourself in harm's way. Method writing brings you closer than ever to your subjects, so the effects might be much more intense than you expect.

Be careful before engaging too closely with difficult topics like grief, trauma, abuse, death, personal fears, or any number of others. Consider carefully whether you're in a healthy place to deal with those topics and whether you have a support network to help you in case they become too heavy.

Bad Writing

Like any other tool, method writing can be used to create wonder or disaster. Just because it's practical doesn't mean it guarantees excellent results, and slipping too far into your head through method writing can easily create experiences that will only be entertaining to you. Always keep your readers and viewers in mind, no matter how you're writing your story, and remember to use a critical eye when editing.

When in doubt, get second and third opinions by opening your screenplay up for critique from your peers, which is easy to do with Arc Studio Pro's "Receiving and Managing Feedback" feature.

People watching is a great way to practice method writing.
People watching can be a great way to help you method write.

5 Fun Method Writing Exercises

1. Inside Your Body

Close your eyes and take a minute to stretch as best you can. Then, write or dictate a few paragraphs about what it feels like to be in your body in painful detail. Remember, this isn't meant to be entertaining to anyone!

Write about everything you feel: that crick in your neck, the ache in your hip, that bum shoulder that never healed. Write about how good it feels to stretch, and describe what that feeling reminds you of. Write about what moment in your life each ache or injury recalls and what your body is craving.

Learning to get in touch with your own body on this level is an excellent start to focusing your brain on the kind of in-depth details that will put you in your characters' minds and bodies.

2. A Day Out

Now that you're in touch with your internal processes take a field trip. Go out for brunch or a walk in the park. It's better to do this alone, in a familiar place, so there are as few distractions and worries as possible. Then, have a seat somewhere and focus on your surroundings. Try to forget what you expect, and focus on what's there.

What noises stand out? What catches your eye? What dangers are there? Who around you would you trust? What smells can you recognize? What do they remind you of? Write everything down like you're a detective looking for clues.

3. People-Watching

While you're outside, it's time to take the next step: learning to sit inside someone else's body. Watch passers-by and pick one that seems like a good character for your mental experiment, then try to apply the processes you've learned through the previous two exercises.

Focus your mind on what they might be feeling, thinking, wanting. Why are they there? Where are they going? What do they feel about it?

Don't be invasive or intrusive, but watch for people doing specific things like ordering food or having an argument. Put yourself in that position and ask yourself: What am I feeling now? What do I want from this interaction? Take notes.

4. An Unusual Experience

There are a thousand little experiences in every story, and there are just as many ways to replicate them at home to gain more insight. Try having a small, unusual experience that you can later use to access better your character's thoughts, feelings, or point of view!

For example, get into the shower fully dressed and turn the water on. What does it feel like to get drenched in your clothes? What thoughts does it inspire? What memories?

Or try lying on the floor of your kitchen for ten minutes with your eyes closed. What would someone who woke up in that place from a faint notice first? If you were knocked out and woke up on the floor, which parts of your body would be stiffest and most sore?

Come up with your micro-experiences and try to find ways in which they'll help you write more realistic scenes.

5. Spontaneous Use

Sometimes the best, least intrusive way to practice method writing is by using the spontaneous instances in your life to apply it. Rather than creating your scenarios, use what happens to you to add to your portfolio of feelings and experiences.

If your character goes through a horrible breakup, staging one for yourself would be drastic and likely unhealthy. However, you can always ask yourself: What would this character be feeling? Shame, fear, a little anger, maybe?

Then, look for situations in your own life where those feelings bubble up. An argument with your landlord, that time you lost your dog, that time you got into a fender bender; everything could provide small puzzle pieces towards that big picture that will help you write the perfect emotional moment.

Final Thoughts

When I first heard about method writing, I didn't take it seriously. I thought it was just a fancy way of complicating processes we already go through when writing.

But the more I challenged myself to develop new method writing exercises, the more I realized there's something to it after all.

Being present in the moment and being observant are two of the essential skills for any writer, and if there's anything we can do to cultivate them, isn't it worth a try?

Method Writing - What, Why, and How
Alex Woodroe

Alex is a screenwriter and editor. She specializes in dark speculative fiction, compelling characters, and snappy dialogue, and loves nothing more than showing others the editorial tricks she’s picked up along the way.

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