They Don’t See What You See

If you aim to be an author, you must observe the world as a writer does. You’ll write better stories if you do.

When I use the word ‘observe’ I mean it in the general sense of perceiving by one or more of the five senses (or beyond those five, even). I’ve blogged before about conveying the five senses in your stories, but here I’m referring not to your characters, but to you perceiving the real world.

Writer ObservationBefore we get to writers, let’s discuss observation in general. While acknowledging there are other epistemological theories, I’ll assume there is a single, physical world out there, and each person observes it differently. Those differences are due to observations taken from different physical locations, accuracy of senses, mood, previous experiences, and many other things.

Observation, then, is a combination of a signal from one or more senses, and the mental activity resulting from the signal. We perceive with our senses and our brains.

Early in life, we discover the universe is too big and filled with too much stuff for us to see every little detail, so we learn to filter some things out. We focus on the parts we find most useful.

We recognize patterns, and form mental models of how the world is. That way we can tell at a glance if something doesn’t fit, and we can fill in the details we can’t sense but assume are there. Some people hone their senses to a fine degree of accuracy through practice, and some do not.

What does it mean to observe the world as a writer does? A good writer:

  • Considers the world as a source of story ideas, details, and descriptions;
  • Sees places as potential story scenes;
  • Notices people and incorporates aspects of them in story characters;
  • Hears all talking as potential dialogue;
  • Watches people when they’re experiencing intense emotions, so as to pick out appropriate appearance, expressions, and gestures for story characters;
  • Tastes food with the intent to describe it as a meal in a story;
  • Picks out the most telling details in real places or people, so as to better describe scenes and characters;
  • Goes ‘people-watching’ and imagines background stories for the observed people; and
  • Practices observing with all senses to improve both sensing accuracy and the ability to describe in words what is sensed.

You might doubt this advice will help in your particular case. Maybe the scenes in your stories look nothing like the world you live in, and your novel’s characters are completely unlike anyone you know or see. That’s common when writing fantasy or science fiction.

Even in such cases, it benefits you to practice and improve your powers of observation. That ability to pick out and convey the right details, in a manner that transports the reader to your fictional world, will help you no matter how unusual your scenes and characters are.

For further study, I recommend you read this WikiHow article and also this post by Maria Popova.

If you practice perceiving the world and people around you, really strive to develop that skill, one day you might achieve the acute observational prowess of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

February 28, 2016Permalink

13 Rules for Writing Fight Scenes

Conflict is central to fiction. Not all conflict is violent, of course, but at some point, one of your stories might require a fight scene. Therefore, even if it’s distasteful to you, it’s best if you learn how to write such scenes.

Fight ScenesViolent interactions can take many forms beyond individual combat. These include war, rape, terror, shooting sprees, etc. This post focuses on fights between two characters, but many of my suggestions apply to other situations.

People use a variety of weapons when fighting, including bare hands and feet, clubs, knives, swords, guns, any object available in the environment, and a wide array of science fiction or fantasy weapons. Again, most of the guidelines for fight scenes are general, and applicable to any weapon type.

For the following list of fight scene rules, I drew from, and combined, ideas from the following people’s blogs: Joanna Penn, Angela BourassaAmber Argyle, and the contributors to Wikihow. They’re all great sources of information, and I recommend you read each one. Now, here’s my list:

  1. If possible, observe a real fight. Note offensive and defensive movements, tempo, exploitation of speed vs. strength, etc.
  2. Study fictional fight scenes written by great writers. Pay attention to details selected, sentence structure, word choices, and techniques used to heighten tension.
  3. Ensure your scene is relevant to, and advances, your plot.
  4. Consider using the fight to reveal or further develop the characters’ personalities, and maybe the story’s theme. SwordintheStonePosterMy favorite example of this is the “wizard’s duel” in the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone. During their fight, Merlin and Madam Mim are each turning themselves into various animals. Madam Mim’s animals emphasize power and strength; Merlin’s emphasize cunning and intelligence. The superiority of brain over brawn is the lesson Merlin has been trying to teach young Arthur, and is the major theme of the movie.
  5. Ensure you’ve established that both characters have appropriate motivation. Why is each one fighting? What does he or she hope to gain by winning? That helps the reader care about the outcome.
  6. Break up the lunges, punches, slices, gunshots, etc.—the mechanics and logistics of the fight—with short dialogue or description to keep from boring the reader. When using dialogue, skip the ‘said.’
  7. Don’t overdo the description of the fight itself; trust the reader’s imagination to fill in such details.
  8. Use short sentences, with few adjectives or adverbs.
  9. Weave in all five senses in the fight, to put the reader there.
  10. Show the Point of View character’s thoughts and emotions as the fight goes on. This is as important as the description of the fight itself.
  11. Ensure your word choices and detail selections are appropriate to the genre and your intended audience. A fight in a military thriller must be accurate, believable, and authentic. A fight in a romantic adventure should focus on the POV character’s feelings.
  12. Don’t forget about the aftermath of the fight, how much the POV character hurts, his or her feelings about the opponent, thoughts about whether the fight was worth it, etc.
  13. In subsequent drafts, cut to the minimum.

It’s my hope these rules will help you write effective and compelling fight scenes in your stories.

Not to brag, but your characters couldn’t last one round with characters written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

February 14, 2016Permalink