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S is for seeing things

November 6, 2012

As I took a break from my work in progress, I read what other people wrote. Edna Buchanan. Lee Child. Chad Harbach. Deborah Smith. Ben Fountain. Robert B. Parker (Ace Atkins, actually). Brian Freeman. Alafair Burke.

All of these writers are more accomplished than I am. And several of them are much, much (times infinity) better at exposition than I am. My people tend not to do a hell of a lot. They speak. They move, but their movements aren’t the windows to the character they should be. Instead, the movements are mere necessity.

So, aside from studying the work of the people I’ve read, I’ve started to pay attention to people. On a business trip this week, I wound up in an airport for a few hours. And for part of that, I watched people. There are lots of people to watch in the airport, and considering the fact that many of them were overbooked on flights, there was some variety of emotions to watch.

I also watch television and movies from time to time. And now as I watch, I pay attention, to their movements, their facial expressions, their little ticks. Exactly how they say things.

Neither is wasted. If you watch people, you can see how people really are. It doesn’t meant you should write it exactly as you see it. In real life, people are inefficient. They might use 1246 words to say what a character would say in a couple sentences. They might fiddle around with little ticks and seemingly nervous behaviors that mean nothing, only to make one movement or say one thing that sticks with you.

In movies or TV, they are well-crafted, you’ll see an economy of movement and emotion. The extraneous is removed, leaving only what’s required for the final product. So you will see movement designed to evoke a reaction.

Either way, one of the great skills of writing is also watching–seeing what’s really out there, and then figuring out how to put it to work for you to make the story real and to evoke emotion.

  1. Charlene Edge permalink
    November 6, 2012 8:23 am

    I agree. Movie watching is good instruction very often. I just re-watched “Schindler’s List” to pay attention to this very thing – the deliberate actions of the main character to reveal his character. At the FWA Conference, guest speaker Janice Decker recommended the first 12 minutes of this movie as an example of this. Although it is a very tough movie to watch, given the unspeakable events it portrays, it’s a valuable teacher.

  2. November 6, 2012 10:58 am

    This post resonates with me. I also struggle to write physical beats that reveal rather than simply provide busy work for my characters. Economy with dialogue, gesture, and description delivers more effective writing. Time to power up my delete button.

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