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Writing 101 – Observational Skills

Writing 101

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

Alright, alright…I’m calm now.

Ladies and gentlemen, fellow readers and writers, thank you for bearing with us following last week’s breakdown…technical difficulties i.e. my rant.

Regular programing will resume shortly….

Writing 101 –Observational Skills

…And welcome back. This week, I thought it would be a great idea to look at a key writing skill that’s often overlooked: observation.

Writers are well known for their ability to live inside their own heads but, in order to create believable worlds and realistic characters, we must learn to venture into the realms of in real-life. I know that for many of us this is a daunting prospect (downright terrifying, if you ask me). Fear not, you don’t have to do it often.

All description comes from observation. Whether we draw from real life, movies, or pictures, our imagination needs input. What do we do when we need a setting? We look up places from the world around us to use as a basis. What about how a character looks? A certain muse (name withheld…ahem…Kirsten) collects celebrities in her basement to use as “inspiration”.

We don’t need to go into great detail with our descriptions. A few choice comments are all we need to build the character in the reader’s mind. Overdoing it is all too easy though and often a problem for beginners. With that in mind (and the fact that I’ve just watched SAW again), I want to play a game…


  1. Grab your notebook and take a walk.
  2. Find somewhere public – a coffee shop, busy park, bus station or airport terminal work great for this.
  3. Choose one person and give them a quick once over – take no more than one minute (if they make eye contact, try not to wink. It only makes things awkward).
  4. Write the first three things you noticed about them. Don’t just rely on sight either. Did you notice their smell? Something they said?
  5. Pick someone else and repeat until you get bored or thrown out.
  6. When you are done, bookmark the page in your notebook and go home.
  7. Use your notes to build at least two characters. What do your descriptions tell you about them? Do they give you any insight into how they live? Notice any interesting points that may need looking at further?

The great thing about this exercise is that you can do it almost anywhere. You can even adapt it to places, taking time to observe places and using notes to recreate them at later dates.

 Do you have problems with observation? Have you devised any games of your own?

9 thoughts on “Writing 101 – Observational Skills

  1. The game that I play is when I’m stuck in a line (which seems to be my lot in life) I people-watch rather than grumbling about having to wait. It makes the time pass faster.

  2. Chris, my subject at Starbucks was not fond of me sniffing him while he was in line for coffee this morning. However, he did smell heavenly, and now the protagonist of my novel-in-progress has the same scent.

    This post is a great experiment to help develop the articles of a story. Real life observation is a key resource to inspire details about a character, place, time, etc.

    (Please note, I expect you to bail me out of jail should I ever be arrested for sniffing-harassment.)

  3. I like watching people in waiting rooms. Fascinating behavior when someone is bored. My favorite, though, was sitting near a couple on what was obviously a first date. Geez, writers really are voyeurs in that sense.

    Amanda, next time just tell him he smells great and ask what he’s wearing, lol. Less awkward and you get to sniff openly. 😉

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