How to Use People Watching to Improve Your Writing

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How to Use People Watching to Improve Your Writing

By Sarah Brodhead

There’s no shortage of articles that recommend people watching to supplement your writing routine. Just going out and watching is a good start, but you can take the practice much farther to improve your writing. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your people-watching experience.

Choose the Right Location

For people watching, you might think about going to the park or a coffee shop, or wherever your usual haunts may be. These are good starting places, and the more people there are, the better. Basic observations can be made at these locations; you can learn to describe people’s actions in ways that transfer to many other situations.

Chances are though, that your character won’t be spending all their time at the local library, no matter how convenient it would be for you to gather research there on unassuming patrons. When you get down to it, the same person will act differently at a hardware store where they know where every nut and screw lives than they will at the wedding of their “hated” cousin. If your character is a florist, it may be time to go buy some flowers.

Take Notes

As much as you might like to think you’ll remember everything you need just from watching, there are a lot of details your brain will simply throw out. If the cliché about how many words a picture is worth has any truth to it, the number of words you could use to describe a live three-dimensional scene going on around you is infinite. 

I prefer to take a notebook and scribble down notes. For those wanting to be more discrete, type your notes out on a computer or phone. Most people will be less curious about someone staring at their phone than they will about someone writing with pen and paper.

Ask Questions

I have outlined a few questions here on what you can ask yourself to get the most out of your experiences. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are some of the main areas of interest when making observations.

  1. How do people look and dress? How do they move?

    You will want to observe in detail all the traits of anyone who is of interest, or anyone you might want to base a character after. Try to put into words what makes them unique from other people.
  2. How do people interact with each other?

    Look at the large groups, the small groups, the families, and the people in the corner pretending the world doesn’t exist. Note how the dynamics change. For example, does a child leave their family unit to go ask a cashier a question? Does the person in the corner stand up when the rest of their group is done shopping? Relationships are dynamic, even in a microcosm.
  3. What is the environment like?

    Describe everything. The weather, the plants and animals, the playground equipment, the old car that’s been sitting in the parking lot for who knows how long, and the new hotel across the street keeping the run-down restaurant next door alive. Describe what the grass feels like, what the blooming dogwood smells like, describe the sound of children throwing a fit one yard over. If you’re at a restaurant, describe what the food tastes like. Describe the mood of the bar after the home team just lost their soccer game. What does the place feel like?
  4. How do people interact with the environment?Ask yourself if people are respectful of the things around them. Does the mood affect how hard people slam doors when they leave or enter? Do people use the environment in a way that benefits themselves or others? Are they simply just present?
  5. How do people’s habits change in this location depending on the time?The people in the bus plaza at six in the morning are probably going to look and act a lot differently than people during the afternoon rush of people going home. If you can observe the same location at different times of the day, different times of the year, or on special occasions, compare notes and see how people’s behaviors change.
  6. How do people act differently here than any other location?Another comparison you can make with your notes is to see how people act differently in different locations. What is the difference between how people act in the waiting room of your dentist’s office versus how they might at a parade?

Editorialize

This is where you start processing your raw observations into something useful for you and your story. While it doesn’t need to be done on the scene, sometimes it is helpful to have people in motion for reference.

Take the time to think about the feelings and emotions of the place you are in. Think about what you feel and take some time to imagine what the other people are thinking and feeling. What about the strictly observable is leading you to these conclusions?

Come up with reasons for why each person is there, how do they know each other? Did they just meet? What are their dinner plans? What do they do for a living? There’s no limit to the stories that you can come up with, and the angles you can take. 

Describe it in Scene

Now that you have people with outer actions and inner thoughts, try describing what is going on (or what you imagine about these people) in scene. You can add tone words to produce a mood and highlight certain actions, images, and thoughts to create a theme. Give people names or nicknames.

This sort of writing is useful not only in fiction and poetry but in creative non-fiction too. Creative non-fiction can take many forms, and one of those is the experience of the writer. If you make things up entirely what you end up with is probably going to be fiction. But if you state what is happening around you and what you honestly think other people are thinking, that’s creative non-fiction. Poems can fall on either end or somewhere in between. You can use your people-watching notes to accomplish any of these three types of writing from the same experience.

The more scenes that you write, the better your scenes will become over time. Writing these observations into a scene is a good way to practice without the pressure of fitting them into a larger context or work.

Don’t Just Observe

By now you’ll have a pretty good idea about who is present and what is happening. But your character won’t just observe what’s going on around them, they will be part of the scene too. Now it’s your turn to interact with the environment and the people near you.

One of the reasons I take a notebook and write out my notes by hand, is that it looks conspicuous. People will come right up to me and ask me what I’m doing. You can strike up a conversation or simply make eye contact with the people around you. If you are at a park, do something like get up and walk around in a circle around the outer edge. Who is watching you? How does your presence change the way that other people behave?

If you are writing a narrative of any kind, as an exercise, try to think and act and react to others in the way that your main point-of-view character would. How does this feel different than your normal interactions? How do people react to you in a way that strangers may not usually react?

Practice

Writing well is rarely a gift. It’s usually very hard but very rewarding work. Even if you never use any of the observations you make while watching others, you are practicing the type of work you will need to make a character into a real person that the audience will want to get to know.

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