The Art of Internal Observation
Everyday life is full of internal observation--observation we don’t even notice.
Let’s say I have lunch with my fictional bestie, Kate. We eat, we chat, and we drink coffee. While we’re eating, I’m making mental notes about Kate’s mood--she’s yawning a lot. Is she tired today? Am I boring her? Meanwhile, Kate might be wondering if I really do like her shoes or if I’m just being polite, while I take care not to mention that I absolutely hate the faux leopard print muumuu she’s wearing.
Internal observation can be a very powerful way to make your writing stronger. Consider my lunch with Kate.
None of our thoughts are very deep, but they are quite telling. My worrying that I’m boring Kate might play into an insecurity I have--maybe Kate doesn’t like me. Maybe Kate’s taking pity on me. After all, she’s a successful CEO and women’s rights activist with half a dozen letters after her name while I’m a struggling writer trying to balance book, work, and Baby.
Like most everything else writing-related, internal observation is a bit of a double-edged sword. Writing the observations is the easy part. Fitting them into the text without interrupting the flow of the story, however--that requires real skill.
Let’s take a look at this passage from the The Slave Hold:
"If that drunken son of a Telik witch lays his hands on her ..." Kven began. He stopped, and I saw the realization in his eyes. He could do nothing. He was powerless here against these people. He could hate as much as he wished, but he could do nothing. "If he hurts her, I wish him dead," he said fiercely, his voice low. "I would give much for his death." I heard the scrape of the metal door on stone as the man opened it into the cell beyond. Neither Kven nor I could see past the darkness that lay over the air, something for which I was profoundly grateful.
It starts with dialogue, then transitions to internal observation and back again without missing a beat. Nothing in the passage is forced; at no point do I feel like the author is beating me over the head with facts about Kven’s character. The power of the observation is two-fold: learning about Kven draws me deeper into the story while also giving me some insight into the narrator. How does it do the latter? The things we notice are almost as telling as the things we do.
To give a simplistic example: walking in the park, I might notice the tulip-filled flower beds first, while you might remark upon the abundance of people playing frisbee. i.e. I’m a bit of a nature-loving introvert while you’re outgoing and sociable.
Learning to use internal observation successfully takes time. The best way to get a feel for it is to read a lot. Pick books that are character-driven, and make notes on the parts you like and why. In your own work, highlight passages that rely on internal monologue and observations to see if your over-doing it. Read your work aloud, and listen for jarring transitions, or things that don’t quite make sense. If you can, get someone else to read to you--hearing another voice, another cadence, helps us catch things we might usually skim over because we know what happens next.
Most importantly, though, write. Lots. Write from prompts. Free write. Scribble sketches based on a conversation you heard at your local Starbucks. It doesn’t matter what you write, or how, or where--the point is to get practice. And when you think you’ve got it? Practice some more. There’s nowhere to go but up!