How observant are you? Using observation in story writing.

How observant are you?

Do you register faint changes in facial expressions? Do you notice the body language as one person passes something to another? Do you recognise the real meaning in people’s tone of voice?

These are all elements you can write into your story to make the characters, and what they do, more believable.

People watching

People watching is a great way to build up a resource to draw on.

You could be in a café overhearing a conversation, or on the street in a crowd of shoppers. Watch what they are doing and how they are doing it. Watch their body language and their facial expressions. If you’re in a position to hear what people are saying take note of their tone of voice; does it match the words they utter?

You could pass a happy hour watching two people without being able to hear them and imagining what they are talking about. Watch their body posture and their physical actions. Do they seem to be at odds with each other or are they collaborating in their conversation?

Will I feel nosey?

If you are not used to people watching you’ll probably feel a bit intrusive at first. Don’t worry, tell yourself you’re doing research. It’s not as if you’re spying on your subjects – I hope.

Be discreet about what you’re doing. Don’t be nosey – you probably won’t be able to help a bit of that but we’re all human and we’re all curious – just observe and note what you are seeing and hearing. You don’t need to know everything. It might just be that you’ve latched on to something interesting about someone’s speech pattern or the gait of the man coming towards you.

Take notes

You’ll remember a lot about the people you observe because most of it will be familiar to you anyway. Facial expressions register emotions in similar ways, which is why we know that someone is smiling wherever they come from in the world. The same can be said of most of the ‘major’ emotions.

But we take things for granted when it is everyday stuff. That’s where you have to learn to observe. Observe without prejudice. Observe the finer detail of what you are seeing – the things you are not used to observing closely. For instance: hand movements, sitting position, eye contact, facial expressions – what happens to their face when they smile or frown?, what they are doing with their feet. The list grows the more you practise.

Write about it

Taking notes, and writing about what you see and hear, will further serve to commit it to memory. Don’t just write it once. Write it in as many ways as you can to capture the feeling of the moment. How can you use what you’ve written in such a way that you convey the underlying feelings, agendas, and hidden thoughts of your characters without telling the reader what they are thinking and feeling?

Show, don’t tell works. Have a read of some of your favourite authors and see how they convey feeling and emotion in dialogue. How do they build you a picture of what is really going on without telling you?

Red herrings and a twist in the tale

Remember, what you think you see and hear can often be wrong. You can use this in your stories to inject a red herring and a twist for the ending.

Parts of conversations and watched fragments of two people interacting only tell you what you think you see and hear. You’re only dropping into a situation for moments. You don’t know anything else about these people other than what you are seeing in the present moment. You can give the reader situations like that to mislead them and create more intrigue around the unveiling moment when you reveal all the twists and turns that don’t always lead to where the reader was expecting to go.

This is the ending you want. One that surprises the reader.