*This is the second in a multi-part series. To start from the beginning, go here.
To continue with my series on adapting Stanislavsky’s Method for actors so that we novelists can make use of it, this week’s post is going to focus on sense memory and physical actions. Our desired end to be able to get in the skin of our protagonists (and other characters) in order to authentically display how they are using their five senses and their bodies in the world of the book. We want to produce characters who leap off the page, characters who are so real that even we, the writers, aren’t certain whether we imagined them into being or are simply the chosen vessels of creatures on another plane who want their stories told. This topic can go really deep, so just know that for our purposes here, I’m really only able to scratch the surface of how you can harness sense memory and physical actions as a writer. As I mentioned in the last post, if this is really speaking to you, I can’t recommend taking a Method class enough. Learning how to act – even if you suck at it – will make you a better writer. But hold off on Broadway, for now: we’ve got work to do.
Getting In The Skin of Your Protagonist via the Method
The purpose for an actor in practicing sense memory and physical actions using the Method is so that when they’re performing, they’re able to be fully absorbed in the present moment of the scene, able to justify at any given moment why they’re doing what they’re doing and how their character thinks and feels about that. And, just as importantly, being fully present enough to react to what the other characters are doing in the scene, to what’s happening onstage. This where the old adage acting is reacting comes from.
In An Actor Prepares Stanislavsky puts it like this:
Whatever happens on the stage must be for a purpose. Even keeping your seat must be for a purpose, a specific purpose, not merely the general purpose of being in sight of the audience. One must earn one’s right to be sitting there. And it is not easy.
One of the biggest notes I give my students and clients is to get in the skin of their characters. Too often I read scenes where characters move for no reason–say, crossing a room for no purpose other than that the writer has noticed the character hasn’t done anything for a while. Even more often, I’ll read scenes with characters who are curiously detached from what’s happening in the scene, which is always the case when a writer it more concerned with narrating the scene rather than being in it. Usually when a scene falls flat it’s because the writer hasn’t embodied the character. They’re too worried about the moving parts. This is a difficult skill to grasp for even the most seasoned writer, which is precisely why the Method can be of enormous use to novelists.
If you’re a Method writer, then you–you–are possessing your protagonist. You’re pulling the trigger, kissing the boy, swimming for your life across an ocean. It’s your sense memory that’s being transmitted to the character. I’ll go into Stanislavsky’s concept of “substitution” in another post, but rest assured that it’s entirely possible to get in the skin of a killer even if you are not one yourself. Regardless of whether or not you’re substituting, the key is to home in on the senses, the ground from which everything springs.
Method Sense Memory
Do this for me: bring to a mind a scene in your book. Any scene, it doesn’t matter. Now, close your eyes after you read each of the following statements, take three deep breaths, and place yourself in the scene, in the body of your character:
- What does your character physically feel? The cloth on her body, the heat of the sun, the sweat dripping between her breasts? A jolt of unease when the electricity goes out? A tightness between her shoulder blades when she’s about to fight?
- What does she see? Not the basics, I’m talking: what does she see through the unique lens through which she views the world? You and I can both look at an apple and see very different things. I might see the bruises, you might see the shine. Does she see the nervous twitch in her enemy’s eye, the small tear on her lover’s collar, the dust motes swirling through the sun?
- What does she taste? Are the berries bursting on her tongue, the mint on the leg of lamb? If she’s not eating or drinking, is her mouth dry? Can she taste the wine she had an hour before?
- What does she hear? Train tracks in the distance? A bird chirping merrily while she watches her best friend get stabbed? The voice of her mother in the moment before she pulls the trigger?
- What does she smell? The tang of blood on a blade? The faint scent of roses, which always signal her dead sister is nearby? The rich, fresh earth beneath her boots?
The body remembers. I’ll say that again: the body remembers. You have experienced so much, lived so much. This vault of sense memory is what will allow your character to have authentic sensual experiences on the page. Don’t narrate your characters while watching them from the outside–be them. Go there with them. Feel what they’re feeling, smell what they’re smelling. If it’s cold, a Method actor doesn’t try to “look” cold, shivering melodramatically. Instead, they would think of a time when they’ve been cold as hell, bring that memory to mind in a very carnal way, and coax their body to recreate those sensations. They live in this moment, completely, and this is what the audience witnesses: a character who is chilled to the bone.
Being in the character’s skin means resting fully in the present moment. It’s just you and them and now. This immersion will bring about the immediacy your readers crave. It will help you avoid cliche action and narrative (especially internal narration) and give you space to reach for metaphors and objective correlatives that are precise–specific to your character and how she exists in the world. I know we’re all tired of clenched fists and churning stomachs and swallowing lumps down throats.
A few ways to practice this skill is to simply remember. Take a few minutes out of each day to sit with your eyes closed, breathing through various memories until they are real to you, until you can put them on the page as you experienced them and are now re-aexperiencing them. Then write. Start simple: building a snowman or riding a bike down a hill. Be gentle with yourself and don’t force yourself to go to places you’re not ready to visit. It might not be the time to relive how you experienced your friend’s funeral through the five senses.
Side note: this sense memory extends to setting, as well. I get so disappointed when a writer doesn’t really take me somewhere, transport me. If they’re in Marrakech, I want to know what it smells like, what sounds are unique to the souks, what Moroccan tea tastes like. Again, it requires the writer to go there, to use all of their five senses and report back through lovely descriptive writing, and, of course, through their proto’s skin.
Method Physical Action
All action in the theatre must have an inner justification, be logical, coherant and real.
~ Constantin Stanislavsky
Your character is sobbing. Okay, she’s sad or whatever, maybe it’s easy to justify sobbing. Except. It’s always, always more interesting to watch someone try not to cry, than to watch the dramatics of the waterworks. A character trying not to cry has a lot going on under the surface, no? It also makes us feel deep empathy for them – we’ve all been there. Is she trying not to cry to spare someone else’s feelings? Or to hide how much she cares about the cad dumping her? Or, let’s say your character is doing something pretty mundane, like tidying up her room. But instead of her justification simply being to get the room clean for a guest, you insert a rich internal justification: she’s cleaning the room because she wants her visiting mother’s approval, and this is just one way she intends to get this approval she’s gone years without. See how this opens you up to so many more possibilities?
So how do you do tap into physical action as a Method novelist?
I actually think other methods do a way better job in this arena, and I’ll talk about that a bit more later, but for now, let’s try a simple exercise:
Pick up a pen. Now set it down. Note any physical sensations or sensory sensations you had. Now think about what you’re going to write with the pen before picking it up. Go there. Wait. Okay, now pick it up. Rest in that intention. Set it down. Again, note the sensations. Now recall the last time you wrote something that was hard to write, but you had to do it. Wait until that memory is very clear. Pick up the pen. Decide you’re not going to write this thing after all. Set it down. Note the sensations.
I hope in this exercise you were able to see the physical changes within you as your motivations for picking up and setting down the pen changed. Most were likely quite subtle. Could you put those into rich experiences into narrative detail while in the skin of your protagonist? See the difference:
Alora picked up the pen and began the letter that would change her life: Dear John…
Alora watched the pen for a moment, hesitating. Choice. There was always a choice. A train sounded in the distance–going somewhere far away, and fast. She reached for the pen, fingers tingling, as though it were bewitched. And wasn’t it?
To hell with it.
Alora grabbed the pen and, with its solid weight resting between her fingers, she began, the ink sinking into the page. She couldn’t erase this. Didn’t want to. Dear John…
Now, you might think the second example is too purple for you, and that’s fine. Not every single action needs to be laden down with metaphors and similes etc. But I wanted you to see both how the first tells and the second shows, but also how the reader is given an opportunity to get in Alora’s skin in the second example. We feel the weight and gravity of her task, her uncertainty, and the relief in her final rip-the-bandaid-off approach. This is expressed through the senses and through an acutely realized physical action with a strong justification and interiority behind it.
One of my favorite ways to train as an actor and director was using Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints. This is something I had my actors do in rehearsal as we explored their roles and the space they’d be inhabiting, as well as what happens when they share that space with others on stage. In the photograph to your left are actors art BAM using Viewpoints, perhaps the Grid Walking exercise, which is one of its most well-known training modalities.
Viewpoints is not the Method AT ALL, but I bring it up here because of one way they connect, which is in terms of physically embodying a character. If your main character has a limp, practice what that limp feels like in action in your living room, walking back and forth until you get it just right. If she’s a dancer, how does she walk in a way that reflects that? What comes up for you when you walk as your character? Perhaps you realize that she has a habit of snapping along to the music in her head. All of these things provide the rich detail that makes narrative soar.
I think one of our hardest tasks as writers – more so than any other art form except perhaps dance – is that our medium necessitates that we explicitly convey the interiority of our subjects. Where an actor must embody a character to bring them to life (work they do on their own, inside, where no one can see), we have to lay our characters’ inner lives out in broad daylight. But to do that well, we’re not allowed to tell, we must show. And this showing is what brings us in alignment with the work actors are doing. For them, doing a poor non-Method job would be to make their character a caricature through broad actions and general emotions. The subtly that the true art of acting requires necessitates deep internal work on the part of the actor. So it is with us: we are both actor and writer, so we’ve got to work even harder. I hope you’ve found these tools to be helpful for you. I’ll be deepening our understanding of how we can be Method writers over the coming months. Please comment below and let me know how this is working for you, and what you experienced in the exercises.
Break a leg, friends.
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