In my previous two pieces on this subject, I suggested that 1) story ideas could sprout from just about anywhere (including a mental image, or an observed moment), and then 2) pointed to news stories as being a rich source. This time I’ll go into a little more detail about observation.
It could be circumstantial: you’re on a long train journey, and once you’ve completed your Sudoku and had a little nap, you have nothing better to do than watch and listen to the people around you. In a comment under my first piece, writer Donald Baker noted of one of his stories: “The Last First Friday was prompted by part of a conversation I overheard.” He took a snippet of chat and extrapolated it into a story – which may or may not have been similar to the one his subjects were living. If nothing else, this kind of observation can inform your writing of dialogue; how do people actually speak? (i.e. not necessarily how you imagine they might speak – especially important for dialects and young people’s slang). Of course, you should take notes if possible; don’t trust your memory (if it’s anything like mine …).
Or the observation could be planned and intensive. On a screenwriting course I did, the first project was related to ‘Arena’. The rationale behind the brief was that no story takes place in a vacuum (unless it’s ‘Gravity’ …) – you need an ‘arena’ to provide context for the characters to move in, and we were being forced to seek out that context. Meanwhile, we were also expected to distil a story from our observations.
We were formally required to spend five days observing a location of our choice; it could be a restricted space or something more open. I chose the grand Avenida da Liberdade, the backbone of Lisbon. It was an eye-opening exercise: I’d always loved the avenue for its bustle, but close inspection threw up so much more significant detail.
I took photographs and jotted down a lot of what I observed in a notebook, including impressions, colours, sounds, and of course people – their physical appearance, their function/reason for being on the Avenida, how they interacted, including physically (the way couples hold onto each other, for example – the permutations are many), what they said.
I suggested to my tutor that this observation of people was a kind of voyeurism. But on reflection I figured that the people would be anonymous characters in whatever I produced, and I wasn’t doing it for titillation, therefore it was more like ‘legitimised’ voyeurism – at least that’s what I wanted to convince myself.
After a couple of days of jotting down details, my eye and mind began searching for stories per se. My story surfaced through leaves. The Avenida is lined with splendid plane trees, and although it was only July, they were already shedding leaves. These would skip and twirl around your feet in the summer breeze, producing a lovely, light, rustling sound. Late one afternoon, I noticed a ventilation grille serving Lisbon’s underground transport system, the Metro; trapped on it were a dozen or so dry leaves.
I’d already found a specific location for my story – a humble café on the Avenida where locals would converge from various points to have a coffee or a cool beer and chew the fat. What if some of these people were like the leaves that scurried happily along the avenue before ending up trapped? They would be trapped not by a Metro grille, though, but by circumstance.
I had my characters in mind, all observed during those days: a comical old woman who spent her whole day in the café; a jovial, popular, middle-aged man who entered the café, greeted everyone, grabbed a quick coffee and left; a couple of tourists who entered the café, the woman noticeably pregnant; and a worried-looking young office worker who I’d seen hurrying purposefully down the Avenida’s beautiful, ornamental pavement. They would all have problems that would make them prisoners of circumstance, but new circumstances would free them: Liberdade.
That first project was the one I most enjoyed on the course. The observation of the Avenida had not only provided me with the inspiration for a 30-minute script, but I also had a notebook full of observed details that I’m still drawing on, six years later.
(to be continued)
Erik Porter says
Phil, I love the idea about sitting in a location and taking random pictures of people, structures and objects. Even if a setting is a very familiar these pictures may show you something you have never noticed before. I’ve experienced this when looking at pictures after vacationing somewhere I have visited for years and am always surprised when I see something new. This idea goes double for human interactions. Although you never know the reasons why, it’s always interesting to observe how much or how little couples physically interact in public. Imagining a backstory that fits with these public displays has helped me more realistically describe how couples relate to each other in my stories.
Phil Town says
I hadn’t thought about old photos, Erik. Great idea!
And speaking of which – this is a great story.
Really like your article Phil. It is always helpful to be reminded of the power of observation; training our senses to be aware of the minute details that can enrich the story we are striving to tell.
Phil Town says
I suppose all of our stories are informed by observation, at least subliminal. But as you say – making a point of actively observing and ‘opening up’ our senses can bring sometimes unexpected details into focus.
(You’ve disappeared from the LinkedIn group!)