Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Using Cues From Everyday Life to Improve Your Writing

I've been struggling lately with a sweet scene in a Young Adult Contemporary I'm writing. It's the female MC's first time to connect with a boy and begin to fall in love. I'd rewritten the scene a total of five times, yet with every stroke of the keyboard, I still knew the emotional intensity of the scene was off.

After getting very frustrated, I decided to let the scene sit for a while until I could get my bearings. I'd put it totally out of my head until I was at a swim meet last week. I was busy watching swimmers get ready for the next event when a young couple climbed the bleachers and plopped down a row in front of me.

Their conversation came in spurts with several pauses of uncomfortable silence until they found something to talk about again. They side-eyed each other every few minutes trying to catch the other one staring. After several deep breaths (and a few failed attempts) the boy slid his hand over and clenched the girl's fingers. Her cheeks went red, and when she got the courage to meet his gaze, the look in her eyes was unmistakable: it was pure joy.

It was like the writing gods looked down at me in that moment and said "here you go" an example for you to replicate in living color. Without looking too much like a creeper, I continued to watch them committing all the little details of their interaction to memory.

Once I was home later that day, I went to my computer and tried to remember everything about that sweet moment. When the scene was finally written, I felt like I had finally captured the true essence of that connection. It was that small snapshot from everyday life that helped to inspire a scene that I'd been struggling with for so long.

Now when I'm out and about I pay more attention to the little nuances of humanity. How the mother gazes at her two boys with pure contentment as they play tag in the park. Or how the cute older couple at the grocery store bickers over whether or not the cantaloupe is ripe. And when they ultimately agree on the right one, how he tilts his head and gives her a little wink of approval.

There are a lot of ways we can improve our writing. We can read craft books and use great tools like The Emotion Thesaurus to help spur on our novels. Yet if I was forced to pick one thing that helps inspire me now, it would be taking cues from everyday life. Those scenes, in my opinion, are what help make our writing real and connect us to readers.

Have you witnessed a scene from everyday life that has inspired your writing? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments!


Michelle McLean said...

From Ann Simko via email:

What a lovely story! Mine is not nearly as sweet but it did come from- for me- an everyday event- I'm a nurse who worked in a level one ICU for many years. I have seen a lot of heart ache from families but I wanted to write about the pain Doctors and nurses feel. I wanted to have a young resident in the ER dealing wit the death of a young trauma victim for the first time. I went back and thought of something I witnessed when I too was a young nurse. We had a twenty-year old man come to the unit - a victim of a motorcycle accident- he was very unstable and by all rights should have been unconscious. The resident in charge of him was getting him prepped to place a central line and put a breathing tube down him when the guy opened his eyes. He looked right at the resident and asked him if he was going to die, The resident was flustered and visibly shaken by not only the question but the fact that the man was with it enough to speak coherently. It was pretty clear the man wasn't going to make it, but the resident took the time to look at him and smile- "Yes," he said. "I promise." The guy looked nodded and said, "Tell my dad I'm sorry about the bike." Twenty minutes later after a very messy code he died. The resident was upset, not so much by his death but by the promise he couldn't keep. He asked his upper level, "How do you do it? How do you have your inside that boy one minute and walk away from him the next?" What his upper level told him is something I will never forget. He said. "You take what they give you and you learn from that, so maybe the next time, they don't die. but you don't take their deaths personally because if you do, it will eat you alive." That is the raw emotion I wanted to show.

Amy Trueblood said...


I got the chills when I read this. Thank you for sharing!

Arlee Bird said...

No better place to learn but in the school of life. I've written more than a few scenes based on things I actually witnessed in real life. It's a great model to use.

Tossing It Out