I believe there are two main elements to observation for writers:

  • Seeing better
  • Interpreting better

Seeing Better

At age 18, I went to art college. Without any training, I was pretty good at drawing and painting, or so I thought. Good enough to win some competitions and get my A level in Art. Fortunately perhaps, the art college I attended was old school. While students at Chelsea Art College a few miles away were writing poems about Coke cans in the gutter, at North-East London Polytech we were going through art boot camp.

One of the first things we were taught was how to see. Obviously, we knew how to see in terms of getting from bed to studio without walking under a bus. But, we were told, we didn’t know how to see with an artist’s eye. And this was true in two areas at least: spatial attention and tonal determination.

An exercise we did for the former was to paint a person but to work on all the shapes around her, not concentrate on her. In everyday life – indeed in movies too – we tend to automatically focus on what we consider to be the main object of the moment. For example, if someone is talking to us, we’ll look at their eyes, mouth, nose, and so on. We may glance away out of embarrassment but not to check  what surrounds the person and what that might say about them. In fact, we would probably tend to think there isn’t really a particularly meaningful relationship between person and their surroundings.

But of course, in truth, what surrounds a person often says more about them than their actual words/body language. For instance, if they’re sitting in their own living room, while their current state is reflected in their face and speech, their more permanent self, possibly their more true self, is reflected by the objects, choice of colours, etc, that they’ve surrounded themselves with.

Where tone is concerned, we painted pictures entirely in one colour, using only tone to distinguish shapes. Prior to this, we had to paint a tone wheel: first three prime colours – red, blue and yellow; second, to paint several shades between each but with each tone changing exactly the same amount. Harder than it might sound. What blue is exactly just blue and nothing but blue?

In terms of improving a writer’s observation, what constitutes the important surrounding detail and what is tone?

Well, where artists are interested in the visual truth of a scene and how that reflects more universal truths, writers could be said to be most interested in the story of a scene and the tonal truths behind it. As said earlier, this means for instance taking as much notice if not more of the objects surrounding a person, including their clothes, and the story they portend. Often, this will be in direct contrast to what they’re actually talking about in the moment.

It means listening more to the way they say something than what they actually say. Because the meaning almost always lies in the background, under the surface, hidden behind a smile. The path to meaning is perception but we’ll talk about that more next time.

Another important element of what surrounds a person is their community, culture, place. In the modern western world, we’re obsessed with individualism and like to think that it’s more powerful than culture and community. So much so that modern people tend to think their ‘I’, their essential self, exists inside their heads. But anthropologists have shown that if you ask tribespeople where their ‘I’ is based, they’ll tend to point at the surrounding forest.

This possible disconnect between modern person and self/surroundings is great for writers. It means you can show the reader truths about your characters that they may not be aware of themselves. Or, you can show degrees of knowing perception in individuals which tips off the reader that they may be more clued-in and therefore worth paying attention to.

It’s often said that you can tell a person’s character from what they wear – and, to extend that, to what they fill their house with. However, I believe for the purposes of really convincing fiction, a writer has to understand that this truth is modified in direct relation to an individual’s degree of self-awareness, which supplies in turn their degree of choice.

One time, Kenny Dalglish manager of Liverpool Football Club was on the touchline during a match. He was looking at the same event as the thousands of fans around him. But when he was asked by someone what he was looking at, he said, “Next Saturday’s match.” It’s doubtful many fans were looking at the next match, or even if they were, would be seeing the same things Dalglish was. And you would have to realise this if say you interviewed him after the match. Because in speaking about how his team performed today, he’d be describing how they need to be next week. Without you ‘seeing’ that, you probably won’t understand his answers, even if you think you do.

A general rule of writing is that the reader should be seeing the story with at least as great a perception as the most aware character in the story. And if there is nobody in the scene who’s particularly perceptive, the writer needs to ‘see’ the surroundings of the characters for the reader’s eyes. This is another level of the Show Not Tell rule.

I’m aware this piece is a bit of a patchwork. Perhaps that’s a property of ‘seeing’ as opposed to seeing. Someone who only sees, tends to find what they expect to see and focus on it, even if it’s not quite what they think it is. Someone who ‘sees’, enters a room, a street or a scene in a story and glances around at everything, looking for the links, the patterns, the hidden clues.

Which leads quite naturally to talking more about perception.



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