Amazing Powers of Observation – Thursday’s Children


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After a solid run of editing, it has become apparent that the dialogue in my WIP needs work. This is a good thing! I figure if you can identify a problem, you’re half way towards fixing it — and I already have some great leads to follow-up. So my goal this week is to pay attention to the way real people talk.

Sounds simple? Well it should be, after all I come in to contact with lots of people during the course of my day. Already I’ve been to school, the shopping mall, had a tradesman drop by the house and had a conversation with my elderly neighbour through an open window. The problem is, I can not remember one single detail about language choice, filler words, or colloquialisms from any of these conversations.


But because I’m not the kind to beat myself up over it, I got to thinking why this was a problem. And it occurred to me that some of us just look at the world in different ways.

When I was a second year law student, a criminal law lecturer arranged for some post-grad students to run into the lecture hall, knock some papers down and steal the overhead projector. We didn’t know it was coming and it happened very quickly. We were then asked to put together our own witness statements: How many perpetrators, height, descriptions, clothing and a detailed breakdown of what happened including time they were in the room.

The variances in our statements were shocking. We had different numbers of people, hair colours, ethnic groups and height estimations. More than anything I learned witness statements can be incredibly inaccurate. But it did encourage me to measure every person who visited our flat after that against the door post until I could more accurately measure height. (Strangely, that was how I learned I was so much shorter than my friends. I’ve always felt quite tall)!

You’d think my powers of observation would have improved after that experience. But a few years later I was a potential witness to a real life crime, and once again I was literally looking the other way.

We were living in the UK at the time, and a friend (a local) had been driving us around Essex. While we were driving home through the countryside a car overtook us at high-speed. A short time later we rounded a corner just as the car in question crashed into a wall and two young guys leaped out, jumped over a fence and ran off. The police, who were obviously after them, pulled up and gave chase. We stopped, and eventually were interviewed by the police.

What did I see?

A guy standing on the other side of the road outside a pub. No, I can’t remember any physical details about him either, but I do remember he had the strangest expression on his face. He was absolutely transfixed, staring with a mix of incomprehension and utter captivation; a man literally witnessing a car crash. And my writer’s brain was already building the story behind that expression. (Although if I’d followed his gaze, I might have seen the actual story unfolding…).

Fortunately, the three other people in the car were paying attention.

The upshot is, I have amazing powers of observation — I really do. It’s just that I look at the world in my own unique way. When someone is talking to me I’m not captivated by their word choices, because I’m looking for the meaning behind them. People often don’t say exactly what they mean — their body language, gestures and demeanor are all communicating too, and these are what I find fascinating.

The teacher at school was efficiently busy, but looked up when I spoke, smiled and her response was delivered in a lovely soft, clear voice that is easily understood by six year olds and their much older parents!

The lady from church I bumped into at the supermarket was wearing a vivid red top — because we spoke about how the colour was so bright and cheerful. She gave me a fast hug, and I was impressed, as I often am when I see her, that her eyes sparkle with genuine pleasure when she speaks with me.

The tradesman was softly spoken, efficient and kindly (not at all the norm). And my elderly neighbour who was painting his deck, stood up to speak with me. Although he’s not a tall man, he always stands up straight and I can hear the pride in his voice — especially today when he was recounting how he’d rescued his cat.

No snippets of conversation, but gleaning all sorts of little nuggets to file away for characters. It’s probably why my descriptions tend to be stronger than my dialogue. But I’ll get there. I’ll just have to start jotting things surreptitiously down in a little notebook and see if I get any strange looks!

Many thanks to Rhiann Wynn-Nolet and Kristina Perez for hosting this blog hop. I still can’t figure out how to make the linky run on the blog – but if you click here you can join in – or see what’s inspiring everyone else the week. Have a great week and happy writing!


42 thoughts on “Amazing Powers of Observation – Thursday’s Children

  1. Well, I am not at all surprised the lady in red enjoys talking to you! I’m sure I would too. Do you ever get your husband or a friend to read your work out loud to you? I was surprised to hear that my agent and her assistant actually do this with a ms before sending it out on sub. Reading out loud is useful for dialogue, as well as for picking up repetition of words.Also, I think you’re right that identifying the problem is half the battle.

    1. Yes, I have heard that – and is in part a reason I know it’s not working well right now. Amazing to think your agent does it too. Tried and true no doubt! Thanks for the tip.

  2. This is very interesting to me Raewyn as I have the opposite problem. Dialogue is not that hard for me to write – I find descriptive passages a lot harder. I can do it, but description doesn’t come as easily for me as conversation. I would like to be better at it. Maybe I should practice.

  3. Do you ever travel to places where people speak very differently from what you’re accustomed to? We live in Newfoundland, but I grew up in Ontario, and here I have no choice but to pay attention to the words people use; the words themselves are often different, and many people’s accents are thick enough that I almost have to translate in my mind before I answer. It’s interesting, and I think it has helped me become more observant about speech patterns.

    You mention living in the UK, but maybe your experiences were different. It’s a thought, anyway.

    1. That’s a good point – when we lived in the UK I often had to pay close attention, and can think of a number of individuals I struggled to understand at all because of accent or language usage. Perhaps I’ve become a bit lazy.

      But hopefully the more I think about it, the more I’ll actually observe. Thanks for that!

  4. I have to agree with Elaine on this one. Dialogue seems to come easily to me — not sure why that is, maybe because verbal sparring is somewhat of an art form in my family? Anyhow, I’m terrible at noticing the visual things — what people are wearing, etc. Except that I do notice *how* they say things.

    My husband and I were in a meeting with his two sisters, one brother-in-law, and a mediator type. The hubby took his sister’s sudden looking at her watch as being bored. I listened to what she said, how she said it, sudden shift in posture, lack of eye contact as her not hearing what she wanted to hear so suddenly she wanted to take her toys and leave the sandbox. LOL Big difference there. Still, even immediately after, couldn’t have told you what any one of them was wearing!

    1. Now the *how* I’m much better at, and I think probably pulling out the details (which I think comes from the legal background – you read and deal with screeds of words and pull out the relevant details… although a bit scary to think I might do that in day to day life too).

      But it does fascinate me that people can both experience the same thing – like you and your husband – and have a completely different take on what it means.

      And you do write great dialogue!

  5. Body language and visual stuff can communicate as much or more than words, and so I consider them an important part of dialogue. Be glad of that, as it’s rare for people to be good at that aspect!
    I see reading aloud has already been mentioned to you. I second that. Don’t just read aloud, though. Read it, monkey with it, read it again and again until you don’t hear the exact words anymore, just as if you were talking to someone. Then you’ll know you have it. Chances are, save in rare instances, your characters aren’t thinking about or listening to the exact words exchanged. πŸ™‚

    1. I’m actually quite excited to be spending some time working on this, as I’ve never set out to really craft the dialogue in this way before. Thanks so much for the tip (it sounds like it could be quite fun)!

  6. Interesting! I’m like you: in the real world, I rarely pay attention to detail β€” whether it’s something I’m seeing or hearing. I’m always just looking for the big picture. That makes it very tough when writing though, because it’s all about detail!

    Challenge yourself to do this: imagine stripping away all of your character descriptions. Would readers be able to picture your characters just by the way they talk? The things they say? Whether they interrupt, speak in long monologues, or change subjects every sentence?

    Use your dialogue in the same way in which you use your descriptions. Write your lines as if the reader is blind to what the speaker looks like.

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks John – that is so helpful. I’ve not really tried to picture my characters in this way before, so a great tool to push deeper.

      Reading your Thursday’s Children post this week was another great example of how well you nail dialogue – and a great example for me. The voices were very strong!

  7. Nice, seeing beyond the surface. I recently had this conversation how, when we may not of noticed when, say, a coworker cuts her hair. Or a neighbor shaves his beard. It may be that many of us–see beyond what is.
    I love how the lady in the red dress eyes sparkle with genuine pleasure when speaking with you. Writers must see beyond–way beyond, until The End. πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Karen – oh and I’m terrible noticing things like haircuts too – unless it’s glaringly obvious. And I agree, we have to keep looking beyond (and for me try to look at the immediate a bit more too)!

  8. I love the details that you noticed about the people you rain into today! They’re so telling of character without any dialogue at all. πŸ™‚ That’s a real gift. And I honestly think that effective dialogue is easier to learn than good description – but maybe that’s because I find dialogue easier. πŸ˜‰

    1. It’s funny ever since I posted on this I’ve become hyper-aware of the people around me, so must use this enthusiasm while I have it. (Not sure I naturally pay anywhere near that much attention).

      Good luck yourself!

  9. Dialogue isn’t easy for me either. One thing I had to do was not just read aloud. I have to use a mini cassette recorder to tape myself reading aloud and then play it back. I have no idea why this is the case, but it helped me a lot. Also I have to figure out what ‘markers’ I’m going to use for each character’s dialogue voice: how long their sentences are, what kind of words they use … I have to think it all through before I revise, but as the revision goes on the whole processes becomes more natural feeling.

    1. Thanks another good tip Pat. I’m also working on the markers. I’m finding this is much easier at the revision phase because I’m looking for natural markers that might have slipped in during the drafting. I find it much harder when I’m starting with a fresh character and try to conjure up tags.

      It is a work in progress – but I’m looking forward to learning how to master it. Glad to meet another who has to work at it!

  10. Taking notes here!! I’m better at dialogue than description–probably because I’ve talked to myself since birth, and live in my own head more often than in the real world. But I do “see” people, so I know what you mean. Will try to be more observant though from now on πŸ™‚ Great post!

    1. Thanks Kate – hope something was helpful! It’s funny what you start to see once you put your mind to it. A shame my first go wasn’t totally successful, but once you start looking you see all sorts of things. I’ve started to keep a record of ‘kiwisms’ – local (New Zealand) language patterns – which has been quite fun. I just need to figure out a way to relate it into my fantasy world!

  11. Hey Raewyn,

    I was just wondering if you have ever studied screenplays? The best thing I ever did to hone my dialogue writing skills was partake in a couple of online screenwriting workshops. You don’t have to do actual workshops. There’s an endless supply of scripts online to study. I use Drew’s script O’ rama whenever I need a refresher πŸ™‚

    1. Good idea! (I’m so glad I posted on this – I have so many useful tips to try). The dialogue would have to be strong. I’ll check out Drew’s script O’rama. Thanks.

  12. A lot of people think dialogue is just about speech, but I’ve noticed all those things you mentioned often contribute more to a conversation than what someone actually says. Description is hugely important, and it sounds like you’re one of the rare people who gets it right! Keep up the faith!

    Also, a little studious eavesdropping does wonders for understanding dialogue patterns. Just sayin’.

    1. Yes think I will be keeping my ears open for a while (if you know what I mean)… And thanks for the encouragement. I don’t think my dialogue is doomed to stink forever, and the learning process should be quite fun! I just need to think language patterns, vocab and not just ooooo I wonder what’s going on there…

    1. Thanks EM – it’s one of the things I love about hanging out with other writers – they just get it. I’m just learning to focus this power in a useful way that will improve my dialogue!

  13. Isn’t it funny what we remember and what we don’t? A law enforcement individual I know told me once that police look for witnesses of both genders because men are more likely to remember details like height, build, and vehicle type, while women are more likely to remember facial features and clothing.

    One of my teachers had us do an observation exercise. Someone went out of the room, the teacher assigned some small behavior to everyone (crossed legs, folded hands, a particular expression, etc.) then the student came in and tried to identify it. I had a tendency to notice details, so when it was my turn, I identified all sorts of things everyone really was doing. The problem was, the thing they wanted *me* to identify wasn’t a behavior. Oh no. In my case, they knew I’d see the little things, so they did something big. They had a friend of mine hide. I was very embarrassed when they brought her out again.

  14. Wonderful post. You certainly are a keen observer. Whenever I feel like my dialogue isn’t flowing I watch an episode of Buffy or Veronica Mars where the dialogue really flows with witty comebacks and snappy retorts. Somehow when I hear it, it clicks. Like music in a way. Thanks for joining us!
    P.s. On blogs you can’t actually make the buttons appear; it’s something to do with JavaScript. I’ve talked to Mr. Linky about it and there doesn’t seem to be a fix ;-(

  15. Thanks Kristina – that’s the thing about great dialogue, you can recognise it from a mile off. I’ll get there… But I agree about Buffy and Veronica Mars – a good excuse to go back there. And I hear they’re making a Veronica Mars movie!

    I feel a bit better about not making the buttons appear too. Thanks for letting me know!

  16. I think half the battle with writing is being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and then playing to those strengths and working extra hard on what doesn’t come quite so easily. I’ve had good comments in the past about my dialogue and I do wonder if that’s been helped along by having a background in drama – rehearsing plays you do really find out what works and sounds natural and what doesn’t. It might be a bit excessive to join a drama group or take a drama class or two but it’s a suggestion!

    Loved this post, Raewyn.

    1. Thanks Kate – you are always so encouraging. I have to say I’ve got so many great tips out of the comments on this post that if my dialogue doesn’t improve – I’m not sure there is much else to be done!

      Hope you’re have a great week!

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