We all see the world in different ways. Some of us pay more attention to the people around us, what they wear, how often they smile; while others of us notice the way the sunlight hits the trees or how you can smell Starbucks coffee from the other side of the mall.
These differences often depend on our personalities or the things we consider most important, and writers are no different. Just like other “types” of people (for lack of a better term), we see the world in a way that others don’t.What’s it like to see through the eyes of a writer? I’ll do my best to explain today.
Just recently, I attended one of my brother’s School of Rock concerts, which was held at a place called Rivals Sports Bar & Grille. If you’ve ever been in a place with the words “Sports Bar & Grille” in the name, you probably have a good idea of what I’m talking about: dim lights so that you can hardly see the menu, so loud you have to shout to be heard over all of the talking and noise. It’s not an awful place by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just… interesting.
There’s a part of me that isn’t a huge fan of these types of environments. After a while, I kinda get a “sensory overload” and have to step away. That night, however, I decided to take a closer look at what was around me. If I were a writer, how would I use this environment? How would I capture it in words?
I noticed details I hadn’t before – there was a light hanging above the “backstage” area for the performers, the kind of lamp you’d see hanging over a game table. There was a rack with pool cues on the wall behind them. There are two arcade games next to the digital jukebox, but their lights aren’t on, and it looks like they haven’t been used in a while. One of the lights in the restroom doesn’t work. Little things that most people would notice, certainly, but would brush over.
Writers see the same things that normal people do. We take in the same world that others do, we just look at it a little differently. We see the elements that make something what it is. With my example, I was thinking about what features capture the atmosphere of Rivals – the lights, the noise, the particular decorations. Of course, I could go into more detail if I wanted to, but it’s not about the trivial details you can remember – it’s about using those details to create the bigger mental picture.
Writers do the same thing with people as well. We notice that people have certain characteristics that set them apart from others. To use myself as an example, I’m almost always wearing my Lacey Sturm necklace. I also have a friend who has a tiny Iron Man figurine on her keychain. Some people have distinct ways of walking, while others have certain mannerisms or sayings that are unique to them.
So, what do we do with all of these things we notice? At the risk of my Writing License, I’ll tell you… We use them in our writing. (Surprised? No? I guess it wasn’t that big of a secret then…)
Writer’s often say, “I’ll use you in my novel!” as a joke these days, but there is some truth to that saying. These quirks and characteristics that we notice get filed away in our brains for later use. We might see someone who collects buttons on their backpack (like me) and think wonder what it’d be like to have a character who collected things like that. We might use those scene elements to create a setting for a story, or even kickstart a story. When I was at Rivals, I was thinking of what a story set in that place would be like and how my characters might interact with that type of atmosphere..
Don’t worry, though – just because we’re taking note of the things you do, that doesn’t mean you’ll find yourself in any novels anytime soon. Chances are, we’re just borrowing one piece of what we see and fitting it into our characters. Most writers (especially the most skilled ones) don’t take all of the qualities of a person and translate them to the page, like they’re copying and pasting it. They use pieces from the many things they see and put them together to create a totally unique character or setting.
Want to start seeing through the eyes of a writer? Don’t just notice things – take note of what you notice. Remember those key characteristics of places, people, objects, and think about what makes that person/place/object what it is. You’ll never see the world the same way again.