Thursday, July 19, 2018

Method Acting for Writers by Preslaysa Williams

Before I started writing, I was an actor. I’d started acting at the age of nine. From the start, I worked on TV commercials and Off Broadway work and print ads. When I was fourteen, I landed my first television role on Nickelodeon’s “The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo”. Acting came naturally to me, and I had fun working on Nickelodeon set with the likes of the late Pat Morita and then television writer Suzanne Collins (author of The Hunger Games series).

My acting “training” was through watching TV. I have vivid memories of watching my favorite weeknight sitcoms and mimicking the characters on television. I’d also read a lot of books on acting technique, but I didn’t work with an acting coach until I was a college student. It was during this time, that I learned the actual method behind what I’d been doing instinctively: accessing the character’s emotions. Learning acting technique enabled me to prepare for auditions on a moment’s notice. It also helped me when I worked with Academy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright, the late Horton Foote, in his production of “The Death of Papa.” That was a challenging role and the techniques I learned helped me bring my best to each performance.

When I started writing in 2008, it felt like pulling teeth. Translating a character’s feeling onto pages while also juggling the thousand other Do’s and Don’ts of writing made me freeze and either: 1) not write at all at worst; or 2) write cardboard scenes.

Unfortunately, I carried all those paralyzing writing rules in my head for a long time until I finally learned to trust that I knew what I was doing. 

That freed me to let loose on the page.

Still, writing dramatic scenes wasn’t so simple. So later on in my writing journey, I recalled all the acting techniques I’d learned. One of them that stood out for me is a technique called sense memory.

Sense memory is an acting technique where an actor takes one simple image or memory—like the feeling of standing outside in the snow waiting for a school bus (one of my memories)—and applying it to the scene in order to connect with the fictional character.

(Disclaimer: NEVER use actual traumatic memories for writing or acting scenes. Please consult with a medical professional or counselor to help you with processing painful life events.)

Prior to sense memory work, it’s best to relax so you can fully focus on the memory and the scene you’re about to write. I once had to write a scene where a secondary character felt like they were being slighted by the school principal. For this, I asked myself: What in my past best serves this text? I used a memory of being picked last for a dodgeball team in gym class, and I relived it. The key is to relive and not just remember the memory since you’re pulling from your physical experience.

Strong acting and strong writing is both imaginative and deeply personalized. Yes, those two dynamics—imagination and personalization—seem at odds with one another, but they aren’t. You can build entire fictional lives and stories from the seed of one real life experience. 

(Back to my dodgeball team example!) I spend a few moments reliving the feelings of being picked last: the self-doubt, the insecurity, the speculation, and worry. I try to feel those emotions all over again. Sometimes a relived experience will be easy to relive and other times, I’ll have to dig and ask: how did it feel physically when that happened? However, if I have to dig too deep, I’ll simply search for another memory.

Then, I move from that emotional experience directly into either writing the scene or asking my character a few pre-writing questions about the scene.

In Uta Hagen’s book, “The Challenge for the Actor”, she created “Six Steps” for creating a character. The Six Steps hold a lot of similarities to writing techniques. Writing and Acting are first cousins! So, after re-imagining my past experience, I’ll use these questions for my scene. They are:

1. Who am I? (What is my present state of being? How to I perceive myself?)

2. What are the circumstances? (What time is it? Where am I? What surrounds me? What are my immediate circumstances?)

3. What are my relationships that I’ll encounter in this scene? (I also like to add ‘How do I feel about the relationships in my last scene and how do my feelings affect this one?’)

4. What do I want? (Character Goal)

5. What is my obstacle? (Character conflict)

6. What do I do to get what I want? (What is my behavior? What are my actions?)

Then I write! After doing a sense memory exercise, the first draft usually provides me with a lot of fodder to re-work and polish at a later point. After I write one scene, then it’s back to the drawing board with pulling a memory for my next scene and reliving it through my senses.

The famous writer-actor Sam Shepard said this about writing and acting: “There are places where writing is acting, and acting is writing. I’m not interested in the divisions. I’m interested in the way things cross over.”

I’m also interested in the way writing and acting cross over, and my interest helped me stave off writer’s block and keep writing forward. 

Question for You: How do you, as a writer, get into character prior to writing or revising a scene? 

Bio: Preslaysa Williams is an award-winning author and actress. After graduating from Columbia University, she began writing fiction. In her spare time, she enjoys spending way too much time on social media and training for half marathons to force herself to exercise. Visit her online at
You can also find her lollygagging on Instagram and Facebook @preslaysa or on Twitter @preslaysawrites