Why Writers Must Be Observers

Photo credit: Raymond Larose on Flickr
Contrary to popular belief, a writer must be more than a person who just writes. Of course writing is our primary goal, but in order to write authentically, we must first be vigilant observers. All the time.

You see, we writers have a pretty unique job; we are tasked with a mission to bring the impossible to life on the page, to create stories that pluck our readers from their everyday lives and to bring attention to details of the world around them that ring perfectly true. 

But in order to achieve that, we must first observe the world around us. When there’s a wicked thunderstorm and the trees are bowing to the wind and the claps of thunder and lightning send most people searching for their flashlights, the writer should be listening and watching very carefully, while asking, how would I describe this?

When overwhelmed with emotion—whether it’s happiness, anger, frustration or something else—writers must pause and pay attention to exactly how they feel so that when their characters experience the same emotion, it can be described with authenticity. A great example of this is one of my favorite passages from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green:

“Much of my life had been devoted to trying not to cry in front of people who loved me, so I knew what Augustus was doing. You clench your teeth. You look up. You tell yourself that if they see you cry, it will hurt them, and you will be nothing but A Sadness in their lives, and you must not become a mere sadness, so you will not cry, and you say all of this to yourself while looking up at the ceiling, and then you swallow even though your throat does not want to close and you look at the person who loves you and smile.” (Page 213-214)

I know that seems like a pretty depressing favorite passage, but the reason it stuck out to me so much is because when I read it for the first time, I nodded along and thought, yes, it’s exactly like that. Granted, my way of thinking when upset is pretty different from Hazel’s (the POV character), but the clenching of teeth and looking up at the ceiling and swallowing when your throat is so tight it’s painful are all things I’m sure many of us have experienced when trying not to cry.

Another (lighter) example from Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi:

“Every butterfly in the world has migrated to my stomach.” (Page 155) 

This example is less literal than the first, but I think we all know the feeling Juliette (the POV character) is referencing.

Our goal as writers is to take every day real things and translate them into words that remind our readers of that exact moment. That ring true and honest and have them nodding along and saying yes, that’s it, it’s just like that. But in order to do that we must first pay attention to everything, all the time, and take mental (or real) notes as we move through our lives and experience the world.

Then after observing, we translate those moments back into words so that we can share them with someone else.

Have you ever encountered a sentence or passage that felt exactly right? 


Kamille Elahi said...

Basically, a whole load of Harry Potter quotes. If there is one thing that JK Rowling got absolutely spot on, it is the messages she includes in the HP series.

I love the The Fault In Our Stars quote!

Ava Jae said...

You're entirely right about the Harry Potter series (come to think of it, I'm not sure why I didn't think of that when I was searching for good examples. Hmm). Also, the TFIOS quote is one that really stuck with me from the moment I first read it (which was actually before I read the book, thanks to tumblr).

Lauren Shearer said...

I love that Fault in Our Stars quote. I know exactly how that feels.

Observing is a habit that I need to get into more often. Finding ways to put feelings into words is a powerful thing.

I can't think of any passages off the top of my head that feel exactly right, but I know I've run into them before. :)


Ava Jae said...

I don't think John Green could have described it any better, so I knew I had to use it as an example. I like what you said about translating feelings into words being powerful--it is, in my opinion, a sign of a great writer.

Author Steven said...

Nice Post! :) Ya, lately I've been REALLY observing things (especially art and pictures) for inspiration. This especially helps with fantasy worldbuilding. I'm desperate for inspiration! Thanks for inspiring me to inspire myself so inspirationally! ;)

~Author Steven

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Steven! Art and various pictures can be a great source of inspiration. Happy this post inspired you to be inspired! :D

Ara Grigorian said...

Great post (as usual).

One more way to improve your observation skills (beyond being a people watcher, which I've been accused of) is reading--a lot! As you point out, there are a lot of phenomenal writers (Green and Mafi being perfect examples) who will describe a situation or an object succinctly or beautifully, such that you remain transfixed and say, "Can I reuse that line?" Good stuff, Ava.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Ara! I don't think you can over-stress how important reading is for writers. Trying to write without reading is like trying to cook without food or paint without paint.

CC2012 said...

Its refreshing to know that others think and observe this way. Multiple times, I have found myself in a situation where I experiance this overwhelming need to turn my exact feelings into a passage. Sometimes, I catch myself "writing" in my head, paying close attention, and wanting to make sense of an event or setting. I've always felt weird trying to grasp the essence of a moment. Now that I have seen your post, I know that others have mutual feelings. (It is somewhat of a relief!)

Ava Jae said...

I think many writes catch themselves "writing" in their heads (I know I certainly do!). It's a helpful exercise for writers though, because when you're able to translate an experience into words in the moment, chances are you'll be able to recall it (or recreate it) when you need to while writing in the future. You're certainly not alone!

Ky Bux said...

DFW wrote an essay about this in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. It is very interesting perspective on the life of writers.
I wonder if this constant observing makes us less authentic--a taking ourselves out of the game in order to gain a third-person perspective...
It would be ironic, then, that writers are those who portray human emotion best, despite their constant distancing themselves from the most emotional creatures on the planet.

Ava Jae said...

I wouldn't say it's distancing—in fact, I'd say it's the opposite. By observing and paying attention to our surroundings, we're immersing ourselves more, not less. We're really paying attention to as much as we can and trying to fully experience the world around us.

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...