(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

"In a way, nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small, we haven’t the time—and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia O’Keeffe

“Observation and the inner truth of that observation as he perceives it, the two being tested one against the other: to him [the writer] this is what the writing of a novel is.” Eudora Welty

“The fiction writer is an observer, first, last, and always.” Flannery O’Connor

“To gaze is to think.” Salvador Dalí

“The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” Meister Eckhart

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what he saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, and thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one.” John Ruskin

“There is a difference if we see something with a pencil in our hand or without one.” Paul Valéry

“The surest—also the quickest—way to awake the sense of wonder in ourselves is to look intently, undeterred, at a single object. Suddenly, miraculously, it will reveal itself as something we have never seen before.” Cesare Pavese

“It is essential for a writer unceasingly to study men, and it is a fault in me that I find it often a very tedious business. It requires a great deal of patience.” W. Somerset Maugham

“Mark the greater from the lesser truth: namely the larger and more liberal idea of nature from the comparatively narrow and confined… that which addresses itself to the imagination from that which is solely addressed to the Eye.” J.M.W. Turner paraphrasing Sir Joshua Reynolds

“We lack trust in the present, this moment, this actual seeing, because our culture tells us to trust only the reported back, the publicly framed, the edited, the thing set in the clearly artistic or the clearly scientific angle of perspective. One of the deepest lessons we have to learn is that nature, of its nature, resists this. It waits to be seen otherwise, in its individual presentness and from our individual presentness.” John Fowles

“To be a writer and not a hack, you must clear your mind of cant and allow multitudinous messages to come to you from the souls of your fellowmen. They are the secret source of your abundant ideas. People do not know what they communicate; yet it is they whom you ‘read,’ consciously and unconsciously, and whom you interpret to themselves, in stories, poems, plays, or works of social and moral philosophy.” Jacques Barzun

“The novelist is required to open his eyes on the world around him and look. If what he sees is not highly edifying, he is still required to look. Then he is required to reproduce, with words, what he sees.” Flannery O’Connor

“I should notice everything—the phrase for it coming the moment after and fitting like a glove.” Virginia Woolf

“Your characterizations will never be better than your power of observation.” Ayn Rand

“That close scrutiny is one among many elements that make up the practice of fiction; let it serve as a clue to the value of authentic practice—and to the waste and harm in fictional malpractice.” John Gardner

“[A] writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets.” Flannery O’Connor

“By being a constant, conscious valuer of people, you gather the material from which you will draw your future characterizations.” Ayn Rand

“What conveys honesty? What conveys dishonesty? You can observe these characteristics only by their outward manifestations—by the words, actions, gestures, and subtler mannerisms of people.” Ayn Rand

“I see only what is outside and what sticks out a mile, such things as the sun that nobody has to uncover or be bright to see. When I first started to write, I was much worried over not being subtle but it don’t worry me any more.” Flannery O’Connor

“The eye sees what it has been given to see by concrete circumstances, and the imagination reproduces what, by some related gift, it is able to make live.” Flannery O’Connor

“For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing in the eye.” Flannery O’Connor

“Now learning to see is the basis for learning all the arts except music. I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at it, but because it helps in their writing. It forces them to look at things. Fiction writing is very seldom a matter of saying things; it is a matter of showing things.” Flannery O’Connor

“In fiction we stand back, weigh things as we do not have to do in life; and the effect of great fiction is to temper real experience, modify prejudice, humanize.” John Gardner

“The true writer’s scrutiny of imagined scenes both feeds on and feeds his real-life experience: almost without knowing he’s doing it, the writer becomes an alert observer.” John Gardner

“We study people carefully for two main reasons: in order to understand them and fully experience our exchange with them, or in order to feel ourselves superior. The first purpose can contribute to art and is natural to art, since the soul of art is celebration and discovery through imitation.” John Gardner

“He must present, moment by moment, concrete images drawn from careful observation of how people behave, and he must render the connections between moments, the exact gestures, facial expressions, or turns of speech that, within any give scene, move human beings from emotion to emotion, from one instant in time to the next.” John Gardner

“Write as if you were a movie camera. Get exactly what is there. Getting it down precisely is all that is meant by ‘the accuracy of the writer’s eye.’” John Gardner

“Getting down what the writer really cares about—setting down what the writer himself notices, as opposed to what any fool might notice—is all that is meant by the originality of the writer’s eye.” John Gardner

“Both because the cogency of his story depends on it and because he has learned to take pride in getting his scenes exactly right, the good writer scrutinizes the imagined or remembered scene with full concentration. Though his plot seems to be rolling along beautifully and his characters seem to be behaving with authentic and surprising independence, as characters in good fiction always do, the writer is willing to stop writing for a minute or two, or even stop for a long while, to figure out precisely what some object or gesture looks like and hunt down exactly the right word to describe it.” John Gardner

“It may feel more classy to imitate James Joyce or Walter Percy than All in the Family; but every literary imitation lacks something we expect of good writing: the writer seeing with his own eyes.” John Gardner

“The noblest originality is not stylistic but visionary and intellectual; the writer’s accurate presentation of what he, himself, has seen, heard, thought, and felt.” John Gardner

“To fail to imitate people as they are, even in a fable which takes as its setting ancient Nubia or outer space, would reveal a lack of the true artist’s most noticeable characteristic: fascination with the feelings, gestures, obsessions, and phobias of the people of his own time and place. One cannot imagine a Dante, a Chaucer, a Shakespeare, or a Racine without characters drawn from scrutiny of real people.” John Gardner

“He [the artist] is one who can see in the country of the blind.” John Gardner

“The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees. This is another thing which in these times increases the tendency toward the grotesque in fiction.” Flannery O’Connor

“The writer who emphasizes spiritual values is very likely to take the darkest view of all of what he sees in this country today. For him, the fact that we are the most powerful and the wealthiest nation in the world doesn’t mean a thing in any positive sense. The sharper the light of faith, the more glaring are apt to be the distortions the writer sees in the life around him.” Flannery O’Connor

“The kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or to develop, in order to increase the meaning of his story is called anagogical vision, and that is the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation.” Flannery O’Connor

“Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you see, anything that makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.” Flannery O’Connor

“There are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you.” Flannery O’Connor”

“A view taken in the light of the absolute will include a good deal more than one taken merely in the light provided by a house-to-house survey.” Flannery O’Connor

“Observing [a client] in his or her own element is usually very telling. Behavior is always more revealing than language. If you know what to look for.” Jake Kasdan

“There is that unique moment when one confronts something new and astonishment begins. Whatever it is, it looms brightly, its edges sharp, its details ravishing, in a hard clear light; just beholding it is a form of revelation.” Diane Ackerman

“So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur. Living on the senses requires an easily triggered sense of marvel, a little extra energy, and most people are lazy about life. Life is something that happens to them while they wait for death.” Diane Ackerman

“Be someone on whom nothing is lost.” Henry James

“Knowing the place for the first time is for me a repetitive process, not some sort of single climactic event. There are always knowings for the first time, on even the simplest or most familiar return . . . if one knows how to look for them.” John Fowles

“The hardest thing in the world to do is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn.” Ernest Hemingway

“Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe.” Ernest Hemingway

“You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.” Ernest Hemingway

“When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.” Ernest Hemingway

“The writer, unlike his non-writing adult friend, has no predisposed outlook; he seldom observes deliberately. He sees what he did not intend to see; he remembers what does not seem wholly possible. Inattentive learner in the schoolroom of life, he keeps some faculty free to veer and wander. He is the roving eye.” Elizabeth Bowen

“I write to live, and I write to share. The Original Creator’s version seems random and fantastic, but there are enough consistencies, if you wait and watch for them, to give remarkable tales. You must wake up terribly to catch them, even though what you produce may be close to dream.” Barry Hannah

“Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” Mel Brooks

“What a strange life it is. Inspecting it for the purpose of setting it down on paper only illuminates its strangeness.” John Steinbeck

“My task is to chronicle those little daily lacerations upon the spirit.” Anthony Trollope

“I enjoy writing: I think I am an honest observer.” Virginia Woolf