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A Writer's Greatest Learning Tool

OBSERVATION is A Writer's Greatest Learning Tool

Train yourself to observe

Whether your a writer, artist, or storyteller in other media, one of the greatest skills you can develop is keen observation. There are many who see, but who lack vision, and there are still others who have vision but lack the ability to constructively communicate that vision to others. If you are to become a good or even great storyeller, you must be able to observe, and observe in detail.

Observing is more than just looking

Ever meet someone who can glance at a scene for a few moments and then tell you a great number of details? Some people do this naturally, but most have developed this ability, deliberately or not, over time. It's one thing to look, it's another to really SEE. One way to develop this ability is to spend some time at an ordinary place and start keeping track of what's going on. An intersection or a bus stop can be useful.At first, keep it simple, like getting a good image of what the place looks like, then start counting how many people/animals/cars pass through. As time goes by, start paying attention to the various details, e.g., appearance of people, the kinds of cars going by, and so on. Over time you will start to notice differences in how people talk, walk, and gesture, types of shoes, etc. It can also help to take a snapshot once every so often, perhaps even from different angles.

If you're an artist, you better carry a sketchpad of some sort with you everywhere you go. You don't have to sit and create the world's greatest life drawing, but it will help to use your sketchbook to train yourself to catch the details and subtleties of movement, mood, lighting, etc. I know of one artist who spent a whole year drawing stick figures to train his figure composition skills to great effect.

Become a people watcher. Try not to be creepy about it, some people won't react well to what they think is some leering perv staring at their every move, and some may like it too much. Start with individuals, just focus on a few details at first, like movement or mannerisms, and soon the other details will become easier to retain and capture.

Watch movies, particularly some of the classics, like the Hitchcock thrillers. Use your pause button and you will find yourself learning a lot about setting a scene, mood, etc just through camera angles, establishing shots, and composition.

What is the sound of a captive audience?

Another, very overlooked aspect of observation training when it comes to comics (and a good deal of other kinds of literature) is listening. It is entirely possible to depict very distinct dialects and 'voices' without making your work look like it was written by someone with very bad grammar and spelling. In some cases bad grammar might be necessary, But it is usually overdone. Don't just listen to sounds, but observe the actions connected to and resulting from those sounds... the way a pickup's bed sways and the cargo rattles as it goes over some rocks, or the way a person flinches when there's a sudden noise. These can be used to create be dstinct, defining scenes that will give your stories more gravity in your reader/viewer's mind.

These principles can be applied to all the senses, and while your readers will probably never smell or taste your work, being conscious of the involvement of all the senses and emotions in the common and every day will better enable you to weave tales that will draw your readers in and capture their attention.

Sam Medina is an American writer from New Jersey. He is the creator of the popular award-winning webcomic series Jake the Evil Hare, and Darkfell: The Fetters of Wizardry. He received his BA from Princeton, and afterward served in the United States Marine Corps before going on to work as a stockbroker for a number of years, after which he founded started a wireless ISP company, and then opened a consulting firm which he operated until 2009, when he went began writing full-time with Jake the Evil Hare.
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  1. Good post, Sam, and thanks for sharing Tonya.
    Invoking the senses sure is a great way of placing the reader right into the story.

  2. Yes, you can pick up great novel ideas from just a key moment in a movie or tv show.

  3. This is true- observation can take your writing a long way. Thank you :)


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