Observational stretching

Writers create worlds for an audience to slip into.  Through craft alone, they can take us on a flight to Mars, on an elevator to the other side of the world, or convince us that trees can talk.

It is the finer details that convince; the ability to show the world clearly through description. Here are some exercises that help you to heighten your perception. They are designed to adjust your perspective so you can see things… differently.

At some point over the next day, when you’re stuck in traffic, riding an elevator or waiting in a line, stop the DJ in your head and notice where you are. Don’t think about that power struggle at work, or what you need to do tomorrow or what you should have done yesterday. While you’re at it, toss out judgement. Try to see what is, not what should or could be.

This kind of exercise is called noticing. When you notice the world around you in detail, you’re seeing with fresh eyes. The more you work at seeing in this way, the more accurately you’ll be able to capture it in your writing.

Start by just noticing aspects of your own experience:

  • As you’re getting ready for your day, stop for a moment and look around you. Notice the room, the light, the taste of your coffee (or tea or whatever).
  • Feel the water of the shower, your hands on your scalp as you apply shampoo. Smell the fragrance of the soaps you use. Hear the sound of the water.
  • As you walk, notice how the light falls on the buildings, hear the traffic flow.
  • If you’re racing somewhere or your thoughts are running wild, stop them. Step back. Take a breath. Look where you are. Notice your breath. What’s going on? What is that like?

Here are suggestions to broaden your noticing:

  • You’re waiting in line. Look at the other people standing there with you.
    • Ask yourself, what’s the primary emotion of each person I notice?
    • What is it about their expression, stance or activities that send an emotional message?
    • What one aspect reveals their character?
  • You’re on a bus. Move your attention from one person to another. For each:
    • What is their dominant emotion?
    • What do you think they do for a living?
    • Where are they going? Where are they coming from?
    • What are the thoughts spinning through their brains?
    • Imagine what they were like as a 5-year-old child. What about as a baby?
    • What did their mother love about them? What was the secret fear she had about their life but never told them?
    • What is the one thing they hunger for more than anything else?

And last, suggestions for fine-tuning your noticing:

  • Focus on what you see around you. The faces, colours, light, shadows. When something pings at you, try to describe it in words. What emotion does each visual evoke?
  • Focus on sound. Can you differentiate sounds? Is one sound irritating? How is it irritating? Is another sound soothing? What makes it soothing?
  • Focus on smell. Can you connect a smell to an emotion?
  • Focus on relationship. When you look at a table of people talking over coffee, or a couple walking down the street, can you tell the nature of the relationship? The quality of that relationship? Can you imagine what they’re saying?
  • Focus on conversations. Can you hear what people around you are saying to each other?

Noticing is like a muscle. The more you develop the ability, the stronger it becomes. And since it is a form of meditation, it will also help you to find calm and distance in your day-to-day life.

How do you use this in your writing?

If you’re asking this question, you probably haven’t tried it yet. So go ahead!

When you do try, even if just for a moment, you’ll create a sense memory that you can call on when you need it.

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Goals

Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

Goals = actions

Roles help you think about the relationship. Goals gets your character to think about what they want to make happen in the scenes you write.

To get there ask, “What does Amy want from Fred right now?” What do they need so badly from the other person that they’re willing to take extra steps to get it? That’s their goal for the scene.

Some examples:

  • I want my tasty tart (role) to give me big, sloppy kisses (action).
  • I want my father confessor (role) to listen without judgment and forgive me (action).
  • I want my cheerleader (role)  to slap me on the back and say I’m doing a great job (action).
  • I want my Help desk support (role) to fix all my computer, phone or login issues without getting angry, frustrated or judgmental (action+attitude).

This is what your character wants the other person in the scene to do to affirm the relationship. The trick is, how do they get them to do it? Do they bring a gift, give a massage, share a story or play a game? There are as many tactics as there are situations.

The character’s job is to use these strategies to tease what they want out of the other person.

Now, meanwhile, the other character wants something, too. As writer you need to know that so you can fine tune the conflict. Here’s a quick attempt I sketched out:

Jaime arrives at the restaurant and since his girlfriend Janet isn’t there, he finds a table. Well, guess what? His ex Amanda walks over with this guy that she’s dripping over. She introduces him as her fiance. When Janet arrives, Amanda and her fiance drift to the bar.

Janet’s had a hard drive over here and is pissed… super duper pissed about the availability of parking in this city. She wants to rant and she wants him to be her ranting partner. As soon as she sits down she pulls some paper out of her purse and starts a petition. She demands Jaime brainstorm with her.

Amanda’s sitting at the bar, looking over and smiling at Jaime from time to time. Jaime wants to show her that he’s past her (he isn’t). He wants Amanda to be his crazy ex. To get that, he needs Janet to be his tasty tart girlfriend. He wants her to kiss him, to ooze all over him, like she usually does. But Janet’s going on about a petition! All he needs is one kiss. One big, sloppy wet one.

Do you notice how this translates into character action? But not just any action, emotion-revealing action? As Janet’s pulling out paper and pen, ranting, Jaime’s trying to kiss her.

Also notice how part of finding the action involves finding motivation. Jaime is motivated to work for that kiss because his ex girlfriend is there.

Could some motivation be added for Janet’s reason to write a letter? Could she decide that the restaurant is a great place to start getting signatures and start running around. In fact, what if a city counsellor is in the restaurant, too? Maybe Jaime’s ex is a city counsellor. (Oh my!)

Okay, perhaps that’s stretching it. (bit of a shrug) But it does demonstrate how playing around with the details of a scene can heighten the dynamics.

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Watch for negative goals

Negative goals sap away dramatic potential. Examples of negative intentions include:

  • To get away from…
  • Want nothing do with…
  • To want the other person to crawl up and die…

Negative intentions (to leave, destroy) end relationships. A story is all about how relationships change and move forward. If your character wants ‘nothing’ from the other person, what’s keeping them in the story at all? Why don’t they just run?

They have to want something from the other person, and it’s your job to figure that out (or cut them).

There’s no dramatic benefit to a negative choice. And that’s what we’re interested in as writers, digging into the relationships to create dramatic scenes full of conflict.

One additional note: a character may appear negative on the surface, but you can’t settle for appearances. As Michael Shurtleff says in his most wonderful book, Audition:

The story of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" 
is not about three sisters who didn't make 
it to Moscow; it's about three sisters 
who fight like hell to get there.

Okay, last tool in this series: emotional bank accounts.


Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.