Storyville: Method Writing

So you’ve probably heard of method acting. You know, an actor studies up for a role by remaining in character—prior to the film, while shooting, at night, off set, for a long period of time. Basically going to extremes through study and action to become that person. Some famous examples that come to mind: Christian Bale losing 60 pounds to play the role of the emaciated factory worker, Trevor Reznik in The Machinist (a favorite of mine); Robert DeNiro driving a cab while preparing for his role in Taxi Driver (“You talkin’ to ME?”); Billy Bob Thornton putting crushed glass in his shoes to star in Sling Blade, creating that famous shuffle and limp; Nicolas Cage having teeth pulled (without anesthesia) for his role in Birdy; Jim Carrey refusing to break character while portraying Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. There are many others. That’s the method—studying the person, the place, the time period, and the trait; becoming the entity, through actual events and actions.

So what is method writing?

I’m glad you asked.

Take that same approach, and apply it to writing a story, or novel.

Let me explain.

In order to understand our characters, the protagonists of our work, we as authors much get inside their heads, feel their emotions, understand their perspectives—do what they did, live where they lived, experience what they experienced. But we can’t go out and kill people right? No. NO. We can’t. But what else can we do in order to get closer to that person? Here are some ideas.

When you are ready to write your next story or novel, tap into the potential of your protagonist by becoming them...It’s a powerful way to write.

THE JOB

Whatever your character, do their job. Talk to your friends that are cops, see if you can schedule a ride-along, get out there in the elements and experience what they do. Journalists do it all the time for exposés. If it’s a common job—waiter, barista, secretary, telemarketer—something you could actually GET, then go do that! Work that job and take notes, absorbing every aspect of the hard work, the fun, the menial tasks, the rituals, etc. I worked in advertising for twenty-five years as a graphic designer, and finally found a way to work that into my story, “Chasing Ghosts,” (Cemetery Dance #72) where the colors my protagonist selected for the palette and advertisements were a memory of his unfaithful girlfriend:

My color palettes are pulled from her body: Pantone 201, her pouting red lips; Pantone 348, her jealous eyes; Pantone 607, her vanilla skin.

When I create a job for a character I think of the time I spent working in factories, out on the river docks loading coal, delivering flowers up and down the highways here in Chicago.

THE PLACE

If you have the time and money, go to the locations in your stories. That’s probably why I write a lot about Chicago—I lived in the city, in the Bucktown/Wicker Park area for ten years, and that’s the setting for my novels Disintegration and Breaker. I used my old apartment, bars and clubs I haunted, rides and memories on the various trains and buses, as well as the people. Want to write a story about the desert, or the mountains, or the ocean? Go there, take notes, and study it up close and personal. Or just tap into that memory. From my time in Transylvania, this passage is from one of my stories, “Trinity”:

She let out a noise unlike anything they’d ever heard—an Indian on the warpath, a pig at the slaughter, a peacock calling for its mate—high pitched, squealing, shattering the dark, the headlights flickering, her arm coming down on the back of Bobby’s head.

THE CAT FOOD STORY

For my novel, Disintegration, I was writing about my unnamed protagonist and his descent into madness, his drunken escapades, when I hit a moment that I knew I’d have to research. Beyond looking things up online, I had to personally experience it. In the story, he is missing his cat, Luscious, and he’s sad, drunk, and sitting on the floor of his dirty kitchen. In a moment of longing and weakness he reaches out and grabs a handful of dry cat food and shoves it in his mouth. I knew I had to do it too. I just had no idea what it really tasted like. I could GUESS, but I really had no authority, no truth to share. It was disgusting. It was not only crunchy, which I expected, no big deal, but grainy, like there was sand in there, and on top of the weird salty chicken flavor, it somehow tasted fishy. I cannot recommend it. From the book:

Every time I pass her food bowl, the tiny bits of dry, brown food cling to each other under my squint and glare, and I resist the urge to count them, to hold them in my hand and smell the crunchy tidbits. On an impulse I drop to my knees and grab a handful and shove it in my mouth. I chew. It tastes like dirt and leather with a hint of stale fish. About what I expected, sadly.

EMOTIONS

When I got to the end of the aforementioned novel, Disintegration, I thought I might throw up. I was sick to my stomach. I cried. Why? I had BEEN that guy. I let myself go way down the rabbit hole, experiencing all kinds of horrible emotions—I had killed people in gruesome ways; I had seen my family die right in front of me; I had been shocked and abused in an underground sex club; and I’d fought to find a reason to live, after a crushing truth was revealed. I think this is one of the most important aspects of writing—you must put yourself in your characters' shoes, walk the walk, and talk the talk, putting that skin on, and experience everything they’ve gone through. With broad brush strokes we can all relate to how it feels when we lose, when we love, when we are running from danger, when we are lost, and alone. So whether you put that on Mars or in a cave or 200 years in the future—it has a chance for broad appeal. It’s the specific details we get through research and experience that really sell the moment. From the sex club scene in Disintegration:

I feel the metal teeth of the battery cables as they clamp down on my nipples. I can hear now, vividly, angels shrieking. The music is pounding. Great waves of screaming and moaning rise up to me, and the undulation of the bodies looks like an ocean, black as ink, rising and falling.

STATE OF MIND

How we think is also important. If you want to write a racist, you have to really dig into what that means and change your POV on everything (assuming you’re not already a racist). When I wanted to tap into the madness of my protagonist in Breaker, one way I did that was to grow a beard. I know that sounds silly, but the hair on my face was driving me crazy. It’s like when somebody says the word “lice” and you suddenly start scratching your own head. I became so irritable—I couldn’t sleep at night (which added to my fractured mental state) and it affected my focus, my patience, my normal personality. When I realized what was going on, instead of SHAVING my face like a normal human being, I let it go. I wrote that book in 25 days, almost 12,000 words on the last day, as the story spilled out of me—letting the mania and aggression and disconnect of my real world life seep onto the page, infecting my protagonist. It worked (I think). From Breaker:

I am ready for this, my atonement, and in the absolution, the acceptance, there is peace, a finality that will echo out into the darkness, a glimmering light sparking fear into the madness. What was blasphemous will now be reverent; what was babble will now be mute; what was lost shall now be found. It will be tamped down, eradicated, wiped from the earth, never to be spoken of again, an example for the beasts to witness, an unavoidable fate for those that wish to defy the laws of nature.

FEARS

This also come from experience, but if you want to tap into your own fears, why not face them? Afraid of heights? Go to the top of the tallest building in town. Scared of a certain animal? Find a way to hold or pet that tarantula, scorpion, possum, or wolf. (They have petting zoos, you know.) Don’t like being alone? Isolate yourself. Afraid of the dark? Go outside, into the basement, or deep into a cave. Don’t like guns? Go shoot one! Never been in a fight? Have somebody punch you (maybe not in the FACE). Agoraphobic? Head outside to that open field. Claustrophobic? You know you have to get locked up in a closet, or a small trunk. DO IT! There are so many ways you can elevate your horror or thriller by tapping into the very thing you are scared about, right? I personally hate mirrors—so reading a recent story, “The Granfalloon” by Orrin Grey really freaked me out. In a good way! From my story, “Requital” (Lost Highways):

Before I can find my way to the well outside, my throat clutching, forcing down a swallow, a tarantula the size of my fist meanders through the door, and I back up a bit, uneasy with the way its legs move, undulating over the faded wood floor, skimming the dust, the hair on its legs making my skin crawl. It looks so meaty—the idea of my bare foot squashing it sends a shimmer across my flesh, as my stomach rolls, my top lip pulled back in a snarl.

TACTILE ITEMS

When thinking about your protagonist, what tactile items come to mind? If they wear a uniform, what might that be? How do you feel when you put on an orange jumpsuit vs. a police uniform; an astronaut’s spacesuit vs. a Grateful Dead fan’s tie-dye; the scrubs of a doctor vs. what a homeless man might wear in the winter—six layers of each item, not showering for weeks. Speaking of scents, there are so many ways you can connect with your characters—avoiding a shower for a month, colognes, perfumes, spices when cooking, candles, oils, cut grass, oil from being a mechanic, dirt from working in the garden or landscaping, etc. They can all lend depth to your cast. Go find that weapon and hold it—a chef’s knife, a handgun or rifle, a hoe, a log or stick, a pillow, a scalpel, a machete, piano wire, a big rock, etc. Just hold it, heft it, see how it makes you feel. Empowered or sick to your stomach? Tap into the mindset of your characters. Here is an excerpt from an upcoming novelette of mine, “Ring of Fire” (The Seven Deadliest):

And in the moment, I feel as light as a feather, levitating off of the cold, concrete bench, or bed, or cell—whatever this is, wherever I am. I am nude, and over my skin is a rippling of sensations, what starts out as tiny, rubber flagellum, weaving and undulating, rustling under my body, raising me up, as if on a series of tentacles, my body limp and relaxed, floating in the air.

IN CONCLUSION

When you are ready to write your next story or novel, tap into the potential of your protagonist by becoming them—through your imagination, but also through the experience of being them—put on their clothes, do the things they’d do, go out into the world, inhabit their spaces, eat their food, and feel their pain. It’s a powerful way to write.

Image of Disintegration: A Novel
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Image of Breaker: A Novel
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Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

chris_diplacito's picture
chris_diplacito from Fife, Scotland is reading Twilight by William Gay January 11, 2019 - 4:58am

Hey Richard,

Another great column with priceless advice. Thanks a lot.
I’m a big advocate of this method so it was really cool to hear a pro’s perspective on it.

Whilst I’ve never went as far as eating cat food, or following Bale’s one apple a day diet, most of my work is written in a first person narrative, and to achieve a level of authenticity, I feel it is vital to inhabit the narrator’s ‘voice’ before beginning.

One thing that I find helps is living with that voice in my head for a few weeks. We all have a subconscious dialogue running in our minds throughout the day, and I feel that if you can let your character take over that internal voice (sort of like a guest take over!) then you can really get to know your character. For me, it isn’t always possible to just switch this voice on, but I find it helps me to do a pretty mundane, manual task, and let my thoughts drift into a semi consciousness state. The shower and driving are my two favourite places to do this!

Another thing that works for me is giving my characters hobbies and tastes/preferences that I may not particularly have myself (music, films, books, food, social activities etc.) – and then immerse myself in those things.

Right now I’m in the development stages of writing a story from the perspective of a young single mother living in isolation in the woods (might be my first attempt at a novel! Eek!) - and I am currently binging on Bowie, T-Rex, New York Dolls and Stooges records, reading Stephen King books (that I have always done anyway!) and attempting online fitness videos in my living room.

Social media is another great platform these days that allows me to immerse myself in a world that my character potentially inhabits. I currently have a fake Instagram account following the competitive world of Insta-Moms. This ‘scene’ is important to my plot, so this works as research as well as an immersive technique.

It would be cool to hear if anyone else has any specific techniques they use!

Thanks again, and as always, I look forward to the next Storyville column.

All the best
Chris