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!
In this study, scientists from Washington University in St. Louis scanned people while they read short passages. They found that different brain regions activated depending on what was in the narrative.
.... the scientists used a brain scanner to see what regions lit up during the reading of a story. They watched the brains of volunteers as they read four short narrative passages. Each clause in each story was coded for the script it should theoretically trigger: movement in space, sense of time passing, characters’ goals, interaction with physical objects, and so forth. The idea was to see if different parts of the brain lit up as the reader’s imagined situation unfolded.
There is one particular passage from the story that caught my attention. It takes place in the slave hold. Kven has just been captured, and his friend Cassim was put in a nearby cell. The narrator watches Kven's reaction as a strange man enters Cassim's cell.
"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. There were a few eternal seconds of silence, broken only by the man's whispered curses, before the girl began to scream. At the first cry, Kven lunged against the bars that served as doors, swearing violently in a stream of curses that seemed to flow endlessly from his lips. He stopped straining against the iron a second later and slumped back down to the floor, tears coursing down his cheeks. He did not sob, or cry out, or swear vengeance; he just let the grief and anger overtake him and flow out from his eyes.
I like how the action slows down in this scene. It's an intense moment -- the point at which Kven realizes his new helpless state. The author, Adriane Russo (who wrote it in 10th grade!) takes us through second by second. Not only do we hear everything Kven says, but we see every action and every expression that crosses his face to get the full emotional impact of the scene.
"After an unidentified cow swallows an armed nuclear device in a botched Homeland Security raid, Agent Tom Anderson is thrust into an unlikely partnership with buxom organic farmer Daisy Jones to sift through three hundred cows and 10 barns full of manure as the clock runs down in a desperate quest to save Kansas City from a moo-clear disaster."
As much as I would like to run off to write for Hollywood now, the majority of the credit for this entry actually belongs to my husband Jeff, who is by all accounts a pretty funny guy (Or was it funny looking?). The "moo-clear" pun that everyone fell in love with? That was his invention. Perhaps there is a future in screenwriting for him, if the whole astrophysics thing doesn't work out (Yes, he's an astronomer. How cool is that?).
So lets raise a toast to those around us who give us the ideas and inspiration to write at our best (or our worst). Who are your muses, and in what ways do they help you?
P.S. Speaking of contests, the finalists for Nathan Bransford's first paragraph contest were just announced, and their paragraphs are absolutely wonderful. Go check them out, and vote for your favorite before Sunday.
The fundamental attribution error is a classic psychological principle. This basic idea is this: people tend to attribute the missteps of other people to character flaws while attributing their own mistakes to circumstances. For example, if you're late to our lunch date, then I'm likely to assume it's because you're inconsiderate. However, if I'm late to our lunch date, it's obviously because things were crazy at work and the bus was late.
There are several reasons we do this. One is pretty simple: We know much more about our own circumstances than we do about others'. I know about all things that made me late (that stupid bus!!). However, if you show up late, I have no information about why. Therefore, I attribute your actions to your personality.
Writers should be aware of how this basic human tendency affects how readers feel about their characters. If a character does something bad and we don't know why, we'll definitely dislike them. However, if we know the reason, we're more likely to feel sympathy. Here's an example from Princess Academy.
In the story, priests have foretold that the next princess will come from Mount Eskel. Therefore, Miri and all the other marriageable girls are sent to a school to learn the ways of the court. At the end of the year, the prince will meet the candidates at a ball and select his bride. While all the girls have a chance to be chosen, the best student at the Princess Academy wins the title of Academy Princess along the right to wear a special dress and dance the first dance with the prince.
One girl, Katar, is Miri's main competition for the title of Academy princess. Katar is petty and mean and does her best to turn the other girls against Miri. For the first part of the book, Katar seems like the stereotypical girl-nemesis, and as a reader, I don't like her.
But then, we get to another scene. Miri comes upon Katar crying. She approaches, and Katar reveals she doesn't actually care about marrying the prince but wants to be chosen because she hates Mount Eskel. She has no friends on the mountain, and even her father ignores her because he blames her for her mother's death. Katar was vicious in her quest to be Academy princess because it was her best chance of getting out.
I was surprised at how quickly my sympathies shifted for Katar. After this revelation, Katar still had the same unlikable characteristics she did beforehand (there's a reason why she has no friends on the mountain). However, I still empathized with her and wanted her happiness.
This example isn't a perfect one because there are other factors here that also make Katar more sympathetic -- for example, the vulnerability she shows. But I think it's still true that simply knowing the reason behind an undesirable action will sway the reader toward a better opinion of the actor. Have you had an experience where your feelings about a character or person changed drastically? What caused that change?
RSS and email subscribers might have gotten a few background pages delivered to them that weren't really blog entries. I apologize for that. It's a side effect of Blogger's lack of static pages.
But hopefully, after the dust settles (soon!), we'll have a shiny new blog! BTW, if you're curious, many of the changes I've made to the design stem from the feedback I received when Jordan McCollum featured my blog in her website review series.
This mountain setting and related quarry economy then spills over into the rest of the culture. A few examples:
1. Physical appearance - Because the people work in the quarry, most villagers are fit and well muscled from carrying heavy rock.
2. Values - The inherent difficulty and danger of quarrying rocks by hand creates a society where hard work is valued and uselessness is highly disparaged.
3. Language - The emphasis on strength and hard work gives rise to sayings such as "skinnier than a lowlander's arm," used to describe something thought to be useless. When the girls are sent off to school, a parent urges them to study hard and learn quickly, telling them to "show those lowlanders the strength of Mount Eskel."
4. Recreation - In festivals, both men and women participate in contests of lifting, running, and throwing stones for distance.
5. Customs - Mountain girls always hold hands when they walk together. The custom originated as a safety measure to prevent them from slipping on the rocks.
Lets have a brainstorming session. What are other examples of how a setting can affect a society? Feel free to use examples from books you've read or your own writing, or just make something up.