Real life experience and observation are fuel for creativity. People-watching is an entertaining method for collecting material for writing, but raw material has to be processed. Just seeing and commenting on strange behaviors, spotting bizarre individuals, or asking questions about why we do the things we do doesn’t quite bridge the gap between experience and fiction. How do we get from raw material from life to functional elements of fiction?
After sharing some directed people-watching techniques in the last post, I took my own advice and went out to see what I could dig up. Instead of doing my usual thing, this trip was mainly just seeing what could be seen. This post follows up by showing how the harvested observations translate to writing lessons and optional exercises.
These are the notes I made on my people-watching day:
- Whole language of wails, grunts, whines, shouts, moans of children
- Watching people miles away try to influence the behavior of people in a mall in AZ, advertising, displays, enticements, etc., certain people go in certain stores
- Flow of people in the loop, unusual to stop since places to sit are few outside of stores (few inside as well), interesting to become stationary in the flow (look busy or you’ll be “weird”)
Notice, there aren’t that many. While anyone can scribble down details as fast as the pen can write, this just means you end up watching the page more than you watch what’s going on around you. Instead I wrote down patterns I saw, trends and concepts that presented themselves.
The non verbal language one is a great example of this. Kids. Kids everywhere! What struck me about them, other than the sheer number, was their communication pattern. These little ankle-biters made noises that had a world of meanings in them. Toddlers let loose high-pitched whines that all too clearly said, “Mom, this place is so booooring” or “I want to be at the candy stoooore!” Younger ones I saw would stand at the adult’s feet and grunt for attention and to be picked up.
Alright, now to applications. I wondered why articulate speech wasn’t needed in those situations. It was all about the context. The people involved, the non-verbal additions of pointing and facial expressions, and the location made actual dialogue unnecessary.
Exercise: Create a scene in which a lot is communicated between characters, but no one speaks a word.
Few things describe society more than the advertisements that dominate every square foot of visible space in a mall. Yes, posters, billboards, and mannequins are everywhere. Music pours out of each storefront and through the general speaker system. Flashy signs announce perpetual sales of different percentage discounts. It goes deeper, though. It occurred to me, as I walked that mall, that everything I saw was geared to encourage spending. Everything’s measured for this, including the carpet colors, paint choices, light fixtures, employee dress/grooming, and even the decision of which shops get a place in the mall and which don’t.
Teams of people all over the world for all different companies have invested time, money, and expertise of highly qualified people into what I was seeing in the obscure Arizona Mills Mall.
Exercise: Write an appealing advertisement for your favorite hobby/tool. Then, write an equally appealing advertisement for something you don’t like and see if you can make it just as colorful and convincing as if you did like it. Or, if you’re more into a character application, write a description of your villain to make them sound like the hero, and write one for the hero to sound like the villain. Always fun to practice spin.
Motion is often controlled without us knowing its being controlled. It’s just… expected. Like a physical social script (link). Not trying to be all Big Brother paranoid here, but there were certain things I noticed that made the constant motion of people walking the loop layout of the mall into a compelling current of people. First element was the very shape of the building. It’s a loop! If you’re on one side, and you want to go to a store on the other side, you have to pass half the stores in the complex just to get to the place you want. This makes impulse buying a bigger deal. I also noticed few places to sit down that weren’t associated with actual stores. If you can’t sit on a massage chair that charges coinage, a merry-go-round for kiddies, a table at the food court, or a wobbly chair at a coffee shop selling over-priced java, then you’ll have to seek out one of the three total benches in the whole mall. Even more enlightening was the moment I stopped to pick up something I’d dropped on the ground. No lie, it was almost a traffic jam, and it wasn’t even busy at that hour! Road rage among mall walkers is real.
We’re moved by a lot of things as human beings. We’re moved forward in space, time, sometimes even moved forward in philosophy by life experience. Often, the only force moving us is other people assuming that motion is progress.
Exercise: Write a situation in which expected motions become interrupted, either intentionally or accidentally. These can be physical motions, mental motions, or social motions. Project what will happen when these behaviors are disrupted.
These exercises are like millions of others floating around out there. Use the ones that are interesting to you, leave the rest, just do what you feel will help you improve. Happy writing!