Method Writing

by Mike Shea on 25 March 2005

I saw a good example of this in The Magnificant Seven the other day. Our heroes led by Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) get surprised and trapped in the village by the main Mexican bandit chief, Calvara. Instead of blowing them away, a very accurate response considering the grief our heroes caused to him, Calvara the Mexican bandit takes their guns, lets them go, and then gives the guns back to them when they're outside of town. Guess what happened? The Magnificant Seven go back into town and kill every one of the bandits. Duh.

I always spend more time pondering the process of writing than writing itself, a violation of the number one rule of writing: Write. Yet, a few ideas came to me about ways to make writing more realistic and less plot driven. I've dubbed this "", a direct and inaccurate ripoff of method acting.

A lot of fictional writing is plot-focused. An author might sit down and write an outline for a story from beginning to end already knowing how things are going to work out. Characters in these stories are vehicles for the plot. They are either designed to see the plot to its end or, if it isn't in their nature to follow the plot, they break their nature and do it anway. This leads to idiot plots, plots where characters either do stupid things or do things they would never do.

So here's my idea for . Instead of building a full plot to its end, build characters and locations like children in a sandbox. Give characters traits, background, and motivation. Give the location sight, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. Make it real and define it with the most important details. Then tie the whole thing up with a seed, a one sentence "what if" tagline that gives your characters a kick in the pants.

At this point, a writer can sit back and let the story drive itself from the reactions of the characters inside the location with the seed driving them to start. Like marbles rolling into eachother in a plastic box, we don't know exactly where they might go given all of the variables. Characters will live and breathe as they would in life. They react based on their background and motivation to the world around them.

Here's a War of the Worlds idea:

Characters: Jack Chestwell is a hard working farmer. He's a high school graduate who took over his family's farm. His mother and father died of bacon poisoning at the age of 60. His girlfriend is Ruby Fedora, a young girl who came back from college but dreams of becoming an actress in New York City. Jack's grammar school chum is Bob Thickglasses. He's a science fiction writer who writes for trashy pulp mags. He wants to be famous like Stephen King but his flowery style doesn't sell well. Bob lives in a tiny apartment in the town and writes for the local paper to make ends meat.

Sandbox: The small town of Hippo Pennsylvania, a town of about two hundred people. It has an A&W Rootbeer stand, a crumbling movie theater, and a laundrymat.

Seed: One night while out on a date, Jack and Ruby see a meteor streak across the sky and crash into a local wood.

So that starts the story. Where it goes from there, who knows. We know what Jack and Ruby and Bob will do given various circumstances, but beyond anything else, they should always act in character. If Bob ends up trying to ally with space aliens to get off of this decaying rock, so be it. If Ruby gets captured by space aliens, maybe she will try to bluff her way out with her soap opera acting skills. These characters are one dimentional by design, but a few bits of background and traits would make them a bit more believable.

This type of writing does a few things. As a writer it is a lot more fun to watch the story develop on its own. Focusing on the characters helps readers identify more with them instead of just seeing them as vehicles for a story. Continually asking questions like "What would Bob do in a situation like this?" helps the writer avoid idiot plots. If you're a writer who wants a lot of control over your own story, this isn't such a great method. You have to be free to let the ending happen as it will.

Perhaps the Magnificant Seven should have been shot down by the Mexican bandits in that trap. Perhaps they should have blown their way out in a powerful Sam Peckinpaw shootout. Perhaps all seven of them shouldn't have come riding into the middle of the town in one big group when they didn't see a single villager wandering about. The writer of the Magnificant Seven had an idea in mind, he wanted his heroes to be put in the middle of a trap. Problems occurred when we cannot understand why they fell into it or why they got out of it the way they did. He didn't let his characters act as they should have. He never asked himself "What would Calvara do and what would Chris Adams do in return?"