The Art of Internal Observation

Note: Last week, I posted an excerpt from the short story "The Slave Hold" as an illustration of slowing down the action during intense moments. My critique buddy Peta left a comment saying, "The thing that really stands out for me, [about the passage] is the way the writer transitions to internal observations then back again without missing a beat." I asked her to expand on that thought, and she is the author of today's guest post on the same excerpt. It's always fun when two people look at a passage and see different things. If you find this post interesting, check out Peta's own blog Insert literary blog name here.

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!


  1. Great post. I'm a big fan of internal observation in fiction, but I couldn't have described why as well as you have.


  2. Thanks for validating my recent outbreak of Starbucks addiction.

    I find that, as a writer, I get caught up in my own internal observation. Ditto writing my characters. Now I'm chock full of validation. Your blog is like chocolate for my soul. Ha ha.

    Can I make a suggestion? Could you leave a blank line between paragraphs? It makes the blog post more digestible to the eyes.

    Now, onto some commentary. Today I was exploring my love of certain fictional characters. It is their thought processes and the actions to which they lead that cause me to admire them. Buffy and Chuck Bartowski (from NBC's 'Chuck' which I haven't seen since my husband deployed but I love it) are my two favorite "heroes" because I just adore that they place compassion before reason and treat every situation as individual and they're always the ones their peers look toward for any help. Please bear with my run-on sentences and rambling! My point is that in recognizing my reactions and reading your blog posts, I see that my writing can resonate more strongly with me if I will characterize with the direction and revelation of internal observation.

    Thanks again for a great blog post Livia.

  3. Hehe, yeah, I don't know what's up with paragraph spacing cuz there are spaces in the edit window. Something with blogger formatting -- I'll fiddle with it if I have some time later :-P

    Hmm chocolate for the soul huh? I hope I don't make anybody fat...

  4. Blogger has a problem with cutting and pasting posts. Sometimes you have to do manual paragraph tags; if that doesn't work, div tags usually do.

  5. Aww, no fat souls here. Dark chocolate chock full of antioxidants.

  6. So, writers need to make sure that action, setting, dialogue and internalizations are all present in the right place in the right proportion, none of them are jarring, and intertwined so that each adds to the weight of the others? That doesn't sound so tough:)

  7. Lol -- that's the spirit, Kelly!