Have you ever been in a situation where you catch another person looking you up (or down) from head to toe? Your first thought is probably something like “What is she (or he) looking at?” This is the exact thing a writer must do in order to create characters, develop scenes and incorporate details. Imagine if every book you read had only a plot? What if there was no character description, no setting imagery or no sounds mentioned? I think you would agree that most readers would find the book BORING. It is the incorporation of a writer’s observation that brings a book to life. A dark haired man is bland. A dark haired man with a receding hairline, beer gut and a tattered white t-shirt adorned with sweat soaked arm pits becomes interesting (or disgusting). A scene where a girl sits by herself on a bench in a park isn’t much of anything. Adding detail to the scene gives the reader a visual and helps bring them into the life the writer created. E.g. A teenage girl sits on a spray painted park bench under an oak tree and notices a large groups of kids huddled around the basketball court watching grown men play a game of hoops. The reader can now envision the setting because of the addition of minor details, such as the spray painted bench, the oak tree and the basketball game.
If you are a writer think of yourself as a sponge. Everything around you should be soaked up.
If you want to master the art of observing you must do the following.

*Wherever you are take in the sounds. Practice closing your eyes and assimilate all that is audible. How many sounds throughout the day do you ignore because they have become too common? E.g. Birds chirping, horns beeping, sirens, dogs barking etc.

*Watch the Activity. Try sitting in a highly active place (restaurant, park, casino, sports arena, concert, etc.) and write down what is happening around you. What is the waitress doing? Is there a child sliding down a slide for the first time? Are there groups of people listening to music in the parking lot prior to the concert they are anxiously waiting for?
*Pay attention to emotions. Does the gambler look excited or frustrated? Weddings, funerals and sporting events are great for observing emotions.

*Watch for mannerisms. Mannerisms as I have discussed in previous posts make characters relatable. Does the young waitress have a habit of licking her lips? Does the lead singer jump up and down before the start of a new song? Is the football player known for blessing himself before he leaves the huddle?

*Don’t forget about nature. Nature is free art. Getting in touch with nature may sound corny to some but it is a must for a writer.

*Watch the animals. Don’t ignore the birds that chirp on the telephone wire, dismiss the squirrels that scurry up the tree or fail to pay attention to the neighborhood cat. They all can add to a scene.

*Make note of a person’s sense of style. Do they have a flair that begs to be imitated? Do they appear sloppy looking? Is their pants one size too small or two sizes too big? All of this can be used for character building.

*Check out the atmosphere. Make it a point to scan your surroundings. If you are in a friend’s home look at their décor for inspiration. What unique things do they have that can add depth to a scene. Does your favorite restaurant have booths or tables covered in linen?

Promise yourself that this week you will take time to really observe. Soak in your surroundings. But, remember that too much detail can be overkill and turn a reader off. Find a way to add your observations in a non obvious way.

What observations have I missed that you think are important?
Where do you like to go to observe?


Filed under audience, books, character, character building, constructing, creating, dreaming, Fiction, Inspirational, life, meme, middle grade fiction, novel, platform building, query, random, routine, stories, story writing, Style, Uncategorized, Voice, writer's life, writers, writing, Writing, Writing Contest, Young Adult

8 responses to “THE ART OF OBSERVING

  1. Thank you for the reminder. I am going to make time this week to observe. Maybe my artist date will simply be to go somewhere busy to watch the people; to listen to their voices flow on the air and see what odd snippets of words I hear; and to smell the combined scent of their perfumes, hair product and sweat permeate the atmosphere.

    And then I’ll turn my attention to the little things you mention like the way the bench I sit on is painted or whether there are birds flying around or whether there is any rubbish on the ground.

    Thank you for the inspiration. I have the perfect spot and the perfect idea for it.

  2. Maribeth

    Herby, you mentioned a few important things that I failed to mention. Listening to conversations are a huge part of observation. I know some might argue and say that’s eavesdropping but a writer needs to so they can write believable dialogue.
    Another one is the smells. The addition of aromas can definitely draw a reader in to the scene.

    Good luck with your observation trip this week. I’d love to hear all about it. Maribeth:)

  3. Pingback: Oh the amusement of tweens and teens | Living As Herby

  4. Great post! Observation is so essential to writing, without it, our wips would be very limited. For one of my psych classes in college, I had to observe people for an hour. While some people went to the mall, or the park I chose to observe the courthouse.

    I sat in on the crimnal calendar and will never forget the man who was already in custody. When the judge went over the charges and sentenced him, he broke out into a fit, screaming “who is going to take of my daughter?” “Who’s going to take care of my daugther?”

    I watched him flail his arms and have to be forcibly removed, I remember the pitch of his voice and the look of genuine concern on his bearded face, as the judge and baliffs kept their faces cold and stern.

    When I wrote my paper, I made sure to include all of it, the people I saw lining up in front of the courtroom before the doors opened, to the crescendo of the man’s pitiful fit, but I also remembered to include how it made me react because I was as much a part of that courtroom as the overwrought inmate that day. And sometimes I think writer’s forget themselves while they observe others. We have just as much to offer our writing as the people we eavesdrop on. ;p

    • Maribeth

      Wow, a court house is a great place to observe. I agree with you and you presented a valid point. We think of ourselves as writers but we are first human. Observation can invoke feelings of our own and we mustn’t ignore them.
      Great reply.


  5. Inspiring post. I’m a defunct writer trying to find her mojo again after taking a three year sabbatical to learn photography. I’m starting to realize, I can do both. A bit rusty though. Thanks for reminding me to be still and observe. 🙂

    • Maribeth

      Hi Cindy, thanks for stopping by. The way I see it is once a writer always a writer. Unfortunately sometimes life gets overwhelming and writers need to take a break. Look at it this way, think of how much material you have over a three year span that can be incorporated into your writing. You should start by journaling. Write down everything that happened in three years and you might be surprised by what inspires you.
      Nice to meet you. I always admired photographers. I’m sure you know all about observing.

      Have a great day. “)

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