Sunday, March 2, 2014

Method Writing

Photo by Angela Natividad
Courtesy of Wikimedia
Don Draper, the fictional creative director of a fictional ad agency on the TV show Mad Men, once said it’s not what the ad says or what it’s trying to sell. It’s how the ad makes the viewer feel.
The same thing, more or less, applies when writing fiction. It’s not so much what happens, not the plot line or the action or the love story in the book. It’s how all of that comes together and makes the reader feel.
This, I think, is the primary difference between fiction and non-fiction writing. Non-fiction, including blog posts like this one, are about information. Readers read non-fiction to learn something new. Readers turn to fiction to experience something. And that experience, to be effective, has to have an emotional impact.
How do we get feeling into what we write? I’ve sort of half-jokingly said I’m a method writer. I like to get right into a character’s skin and see if I can write them from the inside out. If a character falls in love, for example, I draw on my own experience of what that feels like. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Like most things where story writing is concerned, it’s not. If it were, everyone would get the emotions right each time—and we’ve all read books where the emotion fell flat.
If we can, as writing readers, figure out why they fall flat, we might be able to move past some of the pitfalls and closer to offering the reader the emotional experience they’re looking for.

Let’s take an example:

He was walking on air.

This, as you can see, is meant to portray happiness. And I’m sure that, in reading the sentence, you thought “he’s happy.” Trouble is, the sentence doesn’t work to make you feel the happiness. Why? Because walking on air is a cliché.
Most clichés become clichés because they are good, true description. And being happy does make you feel like you’re walking on air (or in the clouds or  as though your feet are off the ground). The problem isn’t that the metaphor isn’t accurate, but that it’s overused. And because it is, readers stop paying attention to it.
By going deeper into the character’s experience, we can get closer to the emotion:

  An ice cream truck
Photo by David Levinson
Courtesy of Wikimedia
played a jingle and kids ran towards it from up and down the block. It was a wonderful day for ice cream, a wonderful day for kids and laughter. Heck, he might buy a cone for himself. Maybe he’d treat everyone on the street to a Popsicle

This conveys what the character is thinking and lets you experience the world through the filter of what he’s feeling.

This works with any emotion. Here’s another example. Let’s say your character is walking into a disserted parking garage and she’s afraid of being assaulted:

She got out of the elevator. She was afraid! She had never felt so afraid! A tremor ran up her spine.

Again, you get what’s going on. But do you feel the tremor? My guess is you don’t. The passage is overwritten. It tries to get at the emotion by naming it and adding  exclamation points. The idea of a tremor up the spine has become a cliché .
Let’s move deeper into the character’s experience. When I thought of this scenario, the first thing that came to my mind was a course I’d taken once long ago in college on how to ward off an attack and protect yourself.

The elevator door slid shut behind her with an ominous whisper. Halogen  lights, posted in rows  around the perimeter of the garage, did little to light the place, leaving jagged shadows and dark corners everywhere.  She clenched her car key between her fore and middle fingers, the teeth biting her skin. “Aim for the eyes” the defense instructor had said. “A key to the eye will give you time to run.”
Would she be able to stab an assailant in the eye? What if he pinned her down and she couldn’t aim for anything?

By describing the scene through the filter of her emotion and mixing in some thoughts and actions, you begin to feel the anxiety.
Move deeply into your characters experience to make the feelings real and you’ll create characters that are real, and stories your reader won’t soon forget. 

"Til Next Time


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Absolutely. We must connect with the readers fears and emotions. But cliches work on Twitter.

Big Mike said...

Well put. I often mentor, "Put yourself in the characters brain and visualize what would you think, feel, smell, etc... and NO cliches.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)