The Writer As An Observer

It’s oft quoted that fiction isn’t made in a vacuum, which is completely true whether it’s cultural influences, what you saw on television last night, or a laddered fence. And yet I’ve met a surprising number of writers who claim not to see the point at having a good old look at the world around us. In this case I have to wonder where they get their ideas because details can make a story, whether it’s how someone folds their napkin or an amusing side jaunt.

This is how I first came to pick up a camera. I was out and about, as people often are, and I was seeing all this strange and amazing stuff but by the time I got to writing about it the detail was fuzzy or I’d forgotten it completely. For me my camera is as essential a tool as my note book, but that’s just me, I’m not going to start saying everyone needs to start taking weird fence pictures.

However it’s not only the inanimate world where a writer can get interesting details to bring a story to life for the reader, I think writers need to pay attention to people too. The way they behave, the way they speak, all those little quirks and ticks that make people interesting and real.

One of my tutors once said that writers are professional earwiggers, by which she didn’t simply mean we sit around listening to other people’s conversations, she meant we listen to how they speak. This could be as simple as an accent or dialect or more complex such as verbal ticks. If you consider it a common verbal tick in the UK is ‘y’know’, when usually you don’t because the person is explaining they just don’t know how to phrase it, or they’re checking to make sure your listening.

What I find most bothersome when I’m reading fiction though is when writers forget that people don’t simply speak with words they speak with their bodies too. Whether that is where or how their standing in relation to the other person, the hand gestures they use, or the things they fiddle with, people are rarely static. And yet in many stories I’ve read over the years the characters seem to stand around with their hands in their pockets (but this issue is a complete article in itself). Suffice to say that I believe, and you can disagree as many have, that writers need to be soaking this stuff up for their work to make the world and the characters more real.

However, I’m not going to tell you that all your characters have to have obvious verbal ticks (more on dialogue in later articles) or expansive gestures I’m merely saying that in my mind story comes from people and they should be as well rounded as any you’d meet on the street. Details can be pivotal in stories, it can make it more real and enjoyable for readers, and these details come from observation of the world around us.

Perhaps the next time you’re struggling to find that moment in your work or something doesn’t seem quite right in a scene close your eyes and try to imagine it as a film. How might you envisage someone acting this out? Put your favourite actors in the roles if it helps.

If you’re stuck describing a scene maybe imagine yourself standing in that place. What details stand out? How does it feel? How does it smell? Because what we see isn’t all we perceive. Maybe it’s at the back of a laundrette with the thudding of the hot air vent and a soapy washing powder smell in the air. Or it’s that room your character goes into every day and every day and thinks ‘God, I hate that wallpaper’ or ‘I really need to fix that chair’.

There don’t need to be huge reams of details but a well place scattering of them can really help build the world for the reader. So the next time you’re out and about think what you notice about that place and the people in it and you might find something that helps you in your fiction.

As I say you’re free to disagree with me but there’s no harm in giving it a try, right?

Article Archive 1

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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