Get Up Close and Observe

Recently I discovered the wonderful writer, Steven Milhauser. I was struck immediately by the depth of his writing and his ability to paint scenes that not only ground the reader in the moment but also the characters. Here’s an example from his story story, A Room in the Attic:

[Wolf] invited me to his house, one warm April day, when all the windows stood open and you could see out past the baseball field to the railroad tracks running behind it. We left together after school, I walking beside my bike as my books jumped in the dented wire basket, Wolf strolling beside me with a nylon jacket flung over one shoulder like a guy in a shirt ad and his books clutched at his hip.

They walk to the other side of town, underneath the overpass to where the houses were large and the trees thick and green. The narrator continues:

Around the bend, Wolf’s house appeared. Massive and shadowy, it seemed to stand too close to me as a I bent my neck back to look up at the row of second-floor windows with their black shutters. The house was so dark that I was surprised to notice it was painted white; the sun struck through the high trees onto the clapboards in small bright bursts of white and burned on the black roof shingles.

After I read this and other descriptions like it from Milhauser’s collection Dangerous Laughter, I wondered, “How does he do that?”

In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, Carlson tells writers to slow down and observe the action closely. When describing the process of writing a story, he says, “…I must inhabit this scene as fully as I can, listening and watching with all my powers for ways to earn [the characters], make them real.”

And recently, my writing friend Kim Davis wrote a post on her blog about the power of close observation. But how to do it?

I decided that if I were going to be able to linger inside scenes longer, I needed a way to press the pause button on my mind’s remote control. One strategy I adopted is to set a timer for 15 or 30 minutes and simply write about a particular moment. I do not allow myself to move the action forward. It’s not that easy because my instinct is to try to get at what’s happening. But scenes need to be grounded in rich details that give the reader a sense of place and character. And it’s always easier to go back and cut words when they become too much. Try it and let me know what you think. It’s remarkable what you discover about your story.

Photo: Paul Stevenson / Flickr Creative Commons

Related Post: What’s Your Observational Quotient?

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One Comment on “Get Up Close and Observe

  1. I agree..a story without scene setting is too loose, and scene setting that is not a reflection of character is not story. Hehe. It sounds confusing…

    Have fun with your exercise!

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