There are few things more ridiculous than other people. We can be inspiring, idiotic, brilliant, confusing, hurtful, artful, silly, or express any of a million other traits to be proud of or humiliated by. This an endless source of material for writing, but many writers are content behind their desks or seeking silence to create. As an exercise in inspiration, or to infuse life into the lifestyle of “writer”, consider putting the social world to work via people-watching. This can be opportunistic, or purposeful, but observing people as they interact refreshes the brain, reconnects storytelling to its roots, and hones skills of detailed observation.

4 People-Watching Games for Writers

Life gets busy. That’s a fact when balancing writing with a full and healthy life. Relationships are nurtured, chores are done, and errands are carried out. It might seem like people-watching would be a waste of valuable writing time, since personal hours are a precious resource.

Reflective glasses, busy work to make it look like you’re not just staring at strangers, even sound amplifying tools are all excellent equipment for the dedicated people-watcher.

For some people, sitting down in an active, public location to just watch the crowds and pick out interesting things is an activity unto itself. It’s a zen-like effort, sympathizing and empathizing with other human beings while maintaining a safe distance. For others, it’s a bonding experience performed with a partner as they make a game out of what they look for, or map patterns they see. Some people have nothing but time, and people watching is like bird watching. It’s a high skill, one with premium locations, advantageous vantage points, and specialized techniques suited to each type of observation.

Sorry, but this isn’t about that. Maybe later. This is about enriching that daily grind with writing skill development, as well as a healthy dose of creativity in unlikely moments.

So, busy people, take advantage of skills of observation to let the interesting stand out! Just cultivating some observational awareness will open the door for fun and inspiring experiences to wake up your writing. Here are 4 games and exercises to try:

1. Sense Scanning – Pick a sense, any sense! In a crowded place, or anywhere you happen to be where you don’t always pay attention, pick one of your five senses and find all of the different things impacting that sense at that moment.

Some places where people gather are a sensory overload. Sense-scanning in these places can offer very unique description to the attentive observer.

Say you’re at the bank and pick the sense of smell. Try to describe to yourself the smell of the air-conditioning, the scent of coins by the counting machine, the obnoxious level of perfume coming from that perky teller, and/or the rank blend of odors coming from the rug that hasn’t been cleaned in who knows how long.

No matter where you are, or the sense you pick, this observation style exercises your powers of description. Write down what comes to you, or just practice being aware of that particular sense at that time.

2. Sound Bites – This is one type of people-watching that’s often shared as a writing prompt. Most people suggest doing this in a restaurant. (Hence the pun in the name “bites” instead of “bytes”… yeah, sometimes I think I’m funny. Sorry.) This is the typical choice because it’s a place where people tend to actually converse. This isn’t always the case anymore, but wherever you hear conversations, play Sound Bites.

Just listen to people who are having a conversation. Take a sentence or two out of context and write it down. It could be a full sentence or just a phrase, maybe you even pull just a word you didn’t expect to hear at that place and time. The traditional next step would be writing a story/scene using this snippet cut out of life.

You can always shake it up, though. A personal favorite twist on this came is to take several snippets from a number of conversations going on around and see what to do with all of those.

Another twist would be to do a kind of safari, picking out the strangest phrases/words/topics you can in a set amount of time. Malls are great for this. Could make a fun game between friends! Spread out for a few minutes, meet back, and vote on the most unique find.

3. Word Pictures – Painters have all the fun when it comes to the sense of sight! But most will point out, painting isn’t about capturing what something looks like exactly. No, that’s just practice. Painting from life is about capturing the emotion in the image. Well, do the same thing with words!

Look around for something or someone that stands out to you. If you’re working on description skills from life, go ahead and try and translate that into words. Just take that person, how they look, and capture them in a paragraph. If you’d like more dimension to it, add in how that image makes you feel.

Hey! Look at that! This is where I saw them! Well, at one of the stops like this one. This setting is interesting on its own, though, so if there’s a location you find appealing, do a word picture of that too!

One of the most interesting word pictures I ever attempted came from a bus stop in Arizona. I wrote a group of three girls I saw checking the arrival times on a kiosk. It was May, roasting hot, and here were these teens in their cut-off jean shorts and bikini tops with skin like caramel and melanoma warning cards. Just describing these girls was one thing, but with that picture I tried to infuse the description with a disgust for their worldly thinness that seemed to defy average body weight. They looked normal from the front or behind, but from the side it seemed like they had gone through a pressing roller on their middles to achieve body profile less than a quarter their width from the front.

Just take nutty people you see and go for it! Share your descriptive thoughts for your own skill development.

4. What If Game – Playing imagination games can encourage creatives of all levels, so it helps to channel this game by specifying the genre you are either currently working on, or planning to use later. The general goal is to somehow project an imaginary element into a normal scene and working out what might happen.

You may imagine something for a mother pushing her baby in a stroller. On the conservative end, what if the baby suddenly started crying very loud and very hard with no apparent way to soothe it? This being a public place (ideal for people watching), who would come over? How would the mother react? How would she be feeling as she becomes a spectacle? What might the bystanders be thinking as this crying continues with no success at quieting the child? At what point would people begin to see this as a serious issue? If this continued for a ridiculous amount of time, when would the mother try to leave? Would someone call for medical help? Would security in the area be alerted, and what might the protocol be (if any) for a wildly crying baby who won’t stop?

This is a conservative choice, appropriate for a realistic drama piece. But I’ve found this to be very effective in developing detail for urban fantasy, or science fiction. More than once, I’ve imagined what might realistically happen if a dragon suddenly appeared in the pavilion at my local mall. The choice is up to you.


Some writers are quick to identify themselves as shy, or not in love with crowded places or strangers. I’m among them. Even though there are many who love to be out and soaking in the stimulating effects of society, these games may help those who aren’t as outgoing to at least turn an uncomfortable crowded place into creative fuel. Please share any other techniques you have for finding inspiration from daily life!



 People Watching with Purpose | Cheryl Reif

Begin People Watching | Wiki How

Observe People | Wiki How

10 People-Watching Methods | Living Apex



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