Using Sense Memory

My husband and I have just watched the movie Stand By Me for at least the tenth time.  About every two years we seem to crave another viewing, usually in high summer, which is when the movie is set.  This time instead of renting it, we gave up and bought the Deluxe Edition, since it’s become obvious that we’ll never be tired of it.  It’s a boys’ coming of age story, set in the late fifties, about a tree-housed “gang” of four twelve-year olds right before they enter junior high. They’re randomly and cruelly terrorized by an actual gang of much older delinquents.  The action is kicked off by one of the young ones overhearing how his older brother’s buddy, a member of the delinquent gang, found the body of a dead boy for whom everyone has been searching.  The child had wandered far off picking blueberries and been hit by a train.  The teenage thugs first decide they can’t claim credit for finding him, however, because they’d been driving a stolen car.   

There was no such problem for the young eavesdropper, who rushes to the tree house where his cohorts are smoking cigarettes they’ve stolen from their parents to spill his secret.  Hey, no car theft obstacles for them!  The four twelve-year-olds hatch a flaw-ridden plan, lie to their parents about camping out in each other’s yards, and set out on a twenty-mile adventure hike to find the dead body so they’ll become famous heroes.  As they make their way through the woods, they reveal their inner and family struggles, fears, hope and hopelessness, periodically cavorting like the children they still are and minutes later showing the men they will become.

No spoilers.  I hope that if you’ve never seen the movie, you will.  It’s quite faithful to the novella, The Body, by Stephen King.  The writing shines and the characterization of the boys is distinct, beautifully done.  There are no tricks, no use of the supernatural in this work; its brilliance is in how these boys and their relationships to each other and their worlds are revealed.

The Deluxe Edition of the movie has bonus features, including an extended twenty-fifth anniversary interview with the director, Rob Reiner, and some of the principal actors, now in their mid-thirties.  One not interviewed is the late River Phoenix who played one of the twelve year olds in an amazing performance when he was, in fact, twelve, turning thirteen.  Rob Reiner explains that most of the young boys had no prior acting experience; he’d cast them based on his perception of a character similar to one in the story and how that boy read for the part; then he’d spent a couple of weeks with the chosen four in a camp-like setting doing bonding games and teaching them acting basics. 

Here’s what I learned about what he taught River, a take-away for fiction writers about depicting emotion credibly.  River played the role of Chris, a smart, sensitive good-hearted-boy who came from a troubled, low-expectations background, automatically assumed to be guilty when anything went wrong at school.  He’d been badly betrayed by a teacher when he went to her to right a wrong.  He knew his word would never be taken over hers, so told nobody what had happened until the trek.  Late at night, as the two are on guard (with loaded gun, pilfered from a parent) by the campfire deep in the woods, he tearfully opens up to Gordie, the young writer, while the others sleep. Gordie believes and encourages him to not to be bound by societal expectations.  Not in those words.  Gordie  says what school and parents have failed to say, gets it right in twelve-year-old language. 

Rob Reiner tells us that River wasn’t portraying the scene with deep or credible emotion when they began shooting, not reaching the shatter inside a child from an authority figure’s betrayal.  Rob took River aside to talk.  He asked River to go off and think about a time he’d felt betrayed by an adult he trusted, how he felt.  He wouldn’t have to tell Rob what had happened.  He just needed to go back into all the feelings he’d had, and let Chris, his character have them.  Sense memory. 

After a while, River came back and shot the scene in one take.  All the emotion there, strong, specific, true, believable.

I think this is something that can fit in a writer’s toolkit, something we can learn from actors.  What to do when we’re writing an emotional scene and haven’t had a specific experience:  Can we find any experience that’s in the same category?  Burrow into the memory and write from there. 

I wonder if good readers instinctively tap into a similar widened capacity for empathy?   Any thoughts about these connections out there?


3 Responses to Using Sense Memory

  1. I wonder if good readers instinctively tap into a similar widened capacity for empathy?
    I think that’s why we are good readers and more importantly, why we read.
    It is exactly those connections that breathe life into the characters and compel us to finish the story, without them, we may as well be reading a textbook.

  2. I hope you’ll be pleased to learn that you have only one degree of separation from this fine film and the people who made it. My friend and one-time neighbor here in the Chateau des Fleurs, Madeleine Swift, had been an actress and a dancer and a sound editor before getting the job as Rob Reiner’s personal assistant on STAND BY ME. (She also has a bit part in the film. That’s her as the waitress in the blonde beehive hairdo: “Who’s been blowing up cherry bombs out here?!”)

    Mr. Reiner attended a screening of STAND BY ME last year at the American Cinematheque and conducted Q & A with the audience, of which happily I was a member. He’s very proud of the movie and I daresay he’d be very touched and pleased to learn of its impact on you guys and your loyalty to it.

    The story he tells about River Phoenix illustrates one of the bedrocks of what’s come to be called “method acting,” although that terminology is really irrelevant. Good acting is good acting, and there are many individual approaches toward getting the job done. The kind of exercise Reiner called Sense Memory, which can be found in more than one approach to acting, I’ve usually heard referred to as “EMOTIONAL (italics mine) memory.” “Sense memory,” in my limited experience, usually refers to the physical senses, i.e., Can you remember what it felt like to taste that tomato… ? to get slapped…? to smell the night air…? that kind of thing. To relive a personal emotion that parallels the character’s emotional experience in the drama is one of the basic techniques for bringing a sense of reality to an actor’s performance, and I can think of no reason why it shouldn’t also prove helpful in giving a sense of authenticity to a writer’s scene. But I think it all boils down to the writer’s emotional involvement in his story and characters, and his emotional committment to them. How can you move a reader with a story that didn’t move you while you were creating it?

    • Thanks for a helpful clarification from an actor/screenwriter! and for the interesting anecdote. I wondered about the term “sense memory,” also–because emotion really isn’t one of the senses. I used it because it’s the term Rob Reiner used in the interview I cited. I really appreciate your clarification–because it makes me think about being more precise in other descriptions by consciously using sense memory, as well as using the emotional memory technique for the strongest possible authenticity when depicting drama.

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