The Art of People Watching

People watchingAs a writer, people often tell me something and then immediately ask, “Are you going to put that in one of your books?”

The answer is always no. It doesn’t matter what antidote was relayed, what supposed fact was spouted, or what tidbit of unsubstantiated gossip was deposited. I’m not putting your story in my book. I may take note of how the person paused and chuckled before delivering the punch line of a joke, or how she glanced side to side and lowered her voice as she spread her gossip, or how the tip of his nose turned pink long before he came to the sad part of his story. That might end up in a book.

Gesture, tone, response—these are the things I look for, but not just in my interactions with people. [bctt tweet=”One of a writer’s best tools is the misunderstood art of people watching.”] I say misunderstood because often when I’m sitting alone, someone thinks I’m lonely and comes to talk to me. When I’m people watching, I’m working.

Here are some of my favorite places to people watch:


Songwriter John Mayer nailed this one in his song Wheel: “Airports see it all the time where someone’s last goodbye blends in with someone’s sigh cause someone’s coming home.” Airports are a parade of human experience. It’s in the pastor praying over departing missionaries, the businesswoman stomping toward her gate and the rhythm of her suitcase wheels rolling on the tile behind her, the soldier’s welcome home kiss with his wife, who holds their newborn.


Not quite as dramatic in emotional depth, but bubbling with frustration, chaos, and teen angst, a shopping mall is a like a catalogue of human features. The faces range from the overwhelmed mommy who brought the double stroller but neither of her toddlers will stay in it, to the Botoxed suburbanite dashing from Macy’s to Banana Republic, to the senior citizens in tapered-leg jeans and arch-supporting sneakers powerwalking around and around until their step counters beep two miles.


A tour of several different types of churches is necessary for the full scope of church people watching. Every church has its own culture and feel, but I’ve noticed some commonalities in the sanctuary pre-service. Watch the pastor’s wife, flustered as she wrangles her four children into the second pew from the front, suddenly straighten her posture and broadened her smile when the congregants start to arrive. Watch the early birds who sit in their routine seats, sigh with contentment, and absorb the peace. Watch the middle-aged man who slips into the room halfway through the service, perches on the edge of the back pew, and drops his face into his hands.

These are the things from real life that end up in my books, and not the circumstances, but the emotion conveyed through the slightest gesture. If you’re a writer, go people watching for inspiration. If you’re a reader, check out The Land Uncharted and see if you enjoy how my hobby of people watching enlivens my writing.

This post written by Keely Keith originally appeared on Krysten Lindsay’s Blog, December 2014.

1 Comment

  1. Toni Shiloh

    Great tips on people watching!

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