If you’ve ever seen or read anything that includes Sherlock Holmes as a character, you already know a very important key to improving your writing – the art of observation.
Holmes, in nearly every iteration, seems nearly supernatural in his ability to deduce information about people, situations and – most importantly – crimes. How does he do it? He observes. He takes the individual bits of what he sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels and he pieces them together, arriving at a conclusion based on how all those parts fit together.
Plenty of people do this in a far more casual way. They sit in a public space, observe people who are unaware they are being watched, and make up stories based on what they see. This practice forms the very basis of any realistic character and dialog creation, and for me not being able to do it would significantly detract from the quality of my writing.
Unfortunately, dear reader, you are probably failing at this right now. Why? Because there’s a pretty good chance you’re reading this blog post on your smartphone or some other portable device. If you are, chances are also good that you’re doing so somewhere out in public.
If that’s the case, you are frittering away valuable time you could be spending eavesdropping on the conversations and observing the behaviors of people who – if you’d just look up for a few minutes – could possibly become the characters in your next story or novel.
But what are you doing instead? Checking Facebook, where the same passive aggressive narcissists are posting the same tired complaints/not-so-subtle pleas for sympathy. attention or consolation; or the same politically fringe friend is going on once more about the hyperbolic political scandal of the moment.
The same could be said for Twitter, Instagram … pretty much any social media site that begs to be refreshed is keeping you from doing your second most important job as a writer. The first is, you know … writing. The second is observing.
This month I’m pulling a short-term writing gig for a Philadelphia university, which requires me to take SEPTA, the regional mass-transit system for the city, from a stop near my home to the city about 30 miles away. Why? Because our highways here are terrible, the main route into Philadelphia, in particular. Why else? Because for a guy who usually works from home, it’s a welcome excuse to get out of the house and among real people living their lives.
What they don’t know is that I’m spying on them the whole time.
A great example from earlier this week. The train home from Philadelphia was standing room only by the time I boarded. While I didn’t have a true seat, I instead had a metaphorical front row seat to the interactions between my fellow passengers, which normally would be obscured had I not been upright in the aisle and facing away from the front of the train..
Instead, observing them from a standing position put me within sight and earshot of a middle-aged man and a woman, married – but not to each other – carrying on a delightful flirtation that, aside from the adulterous implications, was really quite sweet. He would crack jokes and compliment her, she would blush and gaze at him fondly as he spoke. Both found little excuses to chastely touch each other for no real reason. Classic.
But then there was a twist. After a couple of mentions of his wife, he shared that she had cancer – specifically a massive tumor. His eyes teared up as he spoke of her and her diagnosis. Suddenly the scene turned less romantic comedy and more literary fiction. It was a little heartbreaking to watch.
Did I feel like a voyeur? A little. But isn’t that really what we do as writers? We are voyeurs and liars. We watch other people without them realizing it, purloin bits of their lives for our own purposes, then make up stories that might ring of truth, but are often fabricated from whole cloth.
The rest of the passengers? Oblivious. Some were reading (some of them actual books!), but the rest scrolled dutifully on their digital pacifiers, hoping in vain that someone they know – or follow, or are “friends” with – would post something – anything – besides click bait, cute cat videos and BuzzFeed quizzes. Meanwhile a few rows forward or back there was real human drama taking place, no electronic device required.
Please note: I’m not anti-tech. But to really observe others, you first have to look up from the things that consume you. To really be able to write dialog and human interaction well, you have to witness it in action. You have to consciously take note of all elements of the environment using all your senses – a most Holmesian practice if there ever was one.
But to do that well, you first have to look up. You have to engage in your surroundings and absorb what’s around you.
It might not even be a physical object. You might immediately plug in to your device to listen to music. You might be so self-involved that you wear invisible blinders to the constant stream of drama and joy that goes on around you. And if you’re trying to be a writer, that’s going to be the first place you fail.
Your situations will read as stilted interactions. Your dialog will be wooden. No one will ever have an emotional stake in what you write, regardless of your genre or style.