Does Observation Matter?

Imagination alone isn’t always enough to help you write. 

Writers can fill their stories with as much ‘made up stuff’ as they like, but there is no substitute for astute observation – the kind of things that add fine brush strokes and layers to your narrative.
Observation is one of those things you can choose to include in your writing, or not.  It’s entirely up to the writer.  But writing without some observation is like a painting without colour.  It’s about noticing the smaller details, the backgrounds, the minutiae.  The kinds of things that help build a picture, a scene or a landscape in the reader’s mind.

Artists, for instance, don’t paint with their hands – figuratively speaking, they paint with their eyes.  That’s because, on a deeper level, their observation and study of their subject is what is translated to the canvas.  The same is true of writers.  What a writer observes and studies is translated into the written word and then built into the narrative.
Observation plays an important part in writing.  It’s a tool that writers use to embellish their descriptions to great effect.  It means the writer has paid attention to certain details, rather than glossed over a scene without putting in any effort to support it.

You could, for instance, write about a night time scene with a full moon over a landscape.  Most writers would probably opt for the obligatory clouds floating across the face of the moon scenario, or maybe mention the pretty twinkling stars cliché, or you might mention how bright the moon is, which also seems to be a staple favourite.
But have you ever looked at the moon in close detail?  Ever noticed its colours?  (It’s not just bright and grey).  Ever noticed the way it shimmers (yes, even at night, due to atmospheric conditions)?  Ever noticed the wonderful colours when clouds sometimes obscure the moon – the rusts, the blue hues or the pale tints caused by the moon’s light passing through them and thus making the clouds translucent?  Ever noticed the different ways the moon casts it glare?  Or that sometimes the moon seems small in the sky, and other times much larger?  And the moon has different phases of course.

That’s the difference between paying attention to detail instead of relying on cliché to fill your narrative. 
Even the seemingly tiny, unimportant observations can make the difference to your reader.  Don’t underestimate how well the reader subconsciously absorbs what you write, because the finer details help them to build an entire picture of the scene.

Observation also adds a hint of reality to the writing, and readers love that kind of touch, that familiarity.  It means that if you’ve experienced something first hand or seen something for yourself – not just people, places or events and so on - then that slice of reality, and the ability to describe it, adds much more to the narrative. 
Another important aspect of observation is that it is closely connected to the ‘show, don’t tell maxim’.  Take flowers, for example.  They aren’t just pretty colours.  Look closer and you’ll see that petals have texture, shape, definition, folds, lines, veins etc.  Clouds become more than just clouds when you stop to observe them.  Colours become more vibrant the moment you start noticing them.  People become fascinating the moment you study them and so on. 

Everything is observable and, therefore, there is always something that you can add to your narrative.
If you want your descriptions to be vivid and authentic, then go that little bit further and show the reader, don’t just tell them there’s a yellow flower in a field or a cloud in the sky.  Let your observations come to life, let them touch that flower and see those clouds.

You should also utilise the senses to enliven the narrative.  So many writers overlook the senses; they forget to describe scenes adequately; they forget to hint about scents, colours, textures, tastes and sounds.  This last one – sound – is by far the most neglected in narrative.  There is always sound around us, so why do writers forget that it’s there? 
An observant writer is a clever one.  Why?  Because it’s the one thing that marks flat, boring ‘telling’ description from vibrant, rich narrative that shows the reader.

Everything we see and hear and experience forms a bank of memories and recollections to use when writing.  So, next time there is a thunderstorm, stop and listen to the sounds.  Watch how the rain forms on windows or surfaces; see how the wind plays with the trees and so on, look at the shades of the sky.  Observe and pay attention.
Does observation matter in fiction writing?  Yes, absolutely.

Next week:  How to polish your prose.


  1. This was a very interesting article. It will help me tremendously in writing my response to a discussion question in my college composition class. Don't worry, I'll give you credit....

    Tammy Prater

    1. Thanks, Tammy. Hope your composition class goes very well.


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