On Sherlocking

Writers, are you looking for a crutch to improve your characterization, a trick for easy subtext, and a way to enshroud what you’re foreshadowing? What if you could learn all of this as part of a game? Interested? Then let me ask a few more questions.

Clark Kenting

On Sherlocking: How to Use the Deduction Game to Improve Your Writing

Do you find yourself mirroring movements? Have you walked into a pedestrian’s path, pivoted in the same direction, and paused to break the connection? At the bar, do you find yourself raising your drink in unison with other patrons? In conversation, do you cross your legs at the same time as your friends? Do you scratch your cheek when someone else starts itching? At the end of the night, do you finish other people’s yawns?

Are you so in tune with your surroundings that you can see bathroom breaks coming?

Do you bless sneezes before they happen? Anticipating farts, do you switch seats before you’re caught down wind? Do you look up in time to make eye contact with people pretending not to look? Are you a social psychic?

Can you read reactions? When you watch someone lean back in their chair, do you see relaxation in your runes, or withdrawal in your crystal ball?

Can you eavesdrop from across the room? Are you a telephoto lip reader, or do you have a fluency in body language? Watch the couple across from you, can you tell if this is their first date or their anniversary? From their posture, can you tell if this is going to be an early night, or a late one?

If this foreknowledge sounds familiar, then you’re ready to play the game. It’s called Sherlocking; the game of deductions. Once honed, this skill will greatly improve your writing.


Let’s set the board. This is an open world game, not in that you can do whatever you want, but that you have to play it in public. Coffee shops are good, as are campuses, clubs, or wherever else people congregate. Stake out a position with a view. We’re going to give you something to do with all your excess intuition.

Eavesdropping is a skill worth developing, but for the sake of this exercise I recommend going at it with headphones on. We’re refining one sense at a time. The aim is not to confirm our suspicions, it’s to keep us looking.

Absorb what you observe. We’re gathering points of reference to be used later. We’re researching the human animal. Ignore the extreme examples: the tell-offs speeches, the overtly rude people. Today we’re looking for something a little more subtle. This is advanced people watching. We’re reading between the lines of faces, keeping a log of nonverbal cues, gathering tells for our readers to peruse.


Over my shoulder, I watch a middle aged man buzz around a college girl’s table without landing. His hips can’t find a position to settle in. His fingers keep trying to find his waistband. She takes off one headphone. Nods a couple of times, slips it back on. He says one last thing. She slips her headphone off, but he’s already spun around. Turtling up, she gets back to typing.

On the far side of the counter, a man sits with no accessories besides his tea; no newspaper, paperback, memo pad, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone. Laying his hands on the counter, he rests his eyes and bobs his head. For two hours, he says nothing to anyone. He never checks his watch, never looks to the door for anyone. He nurses his tea and moves on.

Take a close look at the variables. Make your covert calculations, show your work. Draw a connection between what you see and what you think you know. Solve for X. There may be more than one solution.

The guy to my right is tracking an iPhone on his computer. Compulsively refreshing his browser, he watches it move across the Mississippi through downtown Minneapolis. Nibbling his nails to nubs, he shifts in his seat. His movements can be felt along the bar. Clicking on his tabs, he checks a Facebook page. The user’s name is the same one attached to the phone in the map tab.

Recognize the patterns? Make your deductions.

A girl on the couch watches a man in a tattered jacket enter the coffee house. His beard does little to conceal the frost bite at his cheeks. Weaving through the customers at the counter, he makes a beeline for the men’s room. She moves her computer up her lap. When she has to go to the ladies room, she brings her laptop with her.

Don’t default to stereotypes, flex your imagination. There’s the obvious reason this happened, but what if there was another one? Play with your audience’s prejudice, turn it into a red herring. Gather up these visual cues and toy with their expectations.


Sometimes the cure for writer’s block is a little risk. Sherlocking adds danger to the process. It puts the spark back into the romance.

I’m recording a first date from my front row seat, documenting deep sighs, and nervous ticks. Hanging on long pauses, my fingers tread the air before they resume typing. I’m live-tweeting a missed connection as it happens, catching more out of the corner of my eye than either of the participants.

The boy hovers over his seat before committing to standing. He’s in a sweater, dress shirt, and jeans. His date has a cocktail dress on. Opting for the hand shake instead of the hug, she smiles with her cheeks, but not her crow’s feet. Setting her phone on the table, her fingers walk toward it during lulls in conversation, a game of red light green light played with just one hand.

I know where this Match.com meet up is going before the couple can pronounce each other’s names. Neither of them have caught me rubber necking.

Close Up

There’s a line between reality and the game. Not everyone is roleplaying, they’re actions can’t always be explained. There might be a science to deduction, but for our purposes we’re treating it like an art form.

You’ll find your powers limited when you go out looking for affection, even more so if you’re trying to catch someone cheating. This isn’t about calling out liars, taking tells to task, or hurling accusations at lovers. If polygraphs are a junk science, you’re not about to break any cases with your ability to read faces. Your formula for recognizing patterns isn’t as strong as sodium thiopental.

You’ll never know exactly what anyone is thinking, so just chronicle the things they’re doing.

This is a game, if you add stakes, you’re playing it wrong. It’s about collecting mannerisms to be used later. If you can reverse engineer these deductions, then you know how to build subtext into your scenarios.

Let people give you character description that goes beyond clothing, traits to help your readers with their imaginary casting. They’ll give you actions to replace “said” before dialogue. They’ll give you expressions that contrast their words. Good characters aren’t what they say, they’re what they do. Great characters betray banter with bad behavior. Jumping from scene to scene, you can juxtapose their cool exterior around company with their burnt interior when they’re alone. Plant your setups in their awkward moments. Their expression can be the last notes for your chapters to go out on.

If you want your words to feel authentic plagiarize from real life. This doesn’t mean copying and pasting your journal into your work in progress, finding and replacing your name with that of your protagonist. It means replicating these little things, the observations that infer meaning.

The truth is only fun when it’s subjective. Good writing invites readers to sit in the jury box. It gives them all the evidence, but doesn’t draw their attention to the right exhibit until just before it becomes relevant. It deceives them by making appeals to their emotions, lining up a collection of red-herrings. Exposition is a bad witness, their testimony is hearsay, robbing the reader of their epiphany. Planting payoffs, good writing gives the reader several opportunities to have their own “Ah-ha!” moment.

By the time the author makes their closing remarks, the reader should feel validated for what they knew all along.

10 thoughts on “On Sherlocking”

  1. If someone asks me “What is it that makes Drew’s posts/work/etc. so special?” *drum rolls* There is just one possible answer:
    “He is inspiring, entertaining, unique, and getting to the heart of things like no other.”

  2. I love sherlocking! It’s a fantastic pastime of mine since I spend so much time in coffee shops watching people. You really do start to pick up on things that a lot of other people who normally miss and, even if you’re writing fiction, your characters and scenarios are so much more believable when you have such facts to base them in.

    Great article, thank you!

  3. Oh you sneaky Sherlock you! I am so guilty of people watching but this is a whole new ball game and one (next time I get the chance to sit in the pub on my own) I’m definitely going to play! I absolutely love the idea of putting headphones on to simply concentrate on body language. When I ride on trains I always have headphones in and yes, not been able to hear the conversation draws out much more from my observations. (I make myself sound like a spy, but watching other humans is truly fascinating.)
    But with my people watching, I am guilty of forming an entire story around people (couples in particular) rather than simply observing their mannerisms. If with a companion who is also predisposed to this we’ll make the story up together. If with a large group I can find myself drifting off looking over my companions’ shoulders, more interested in what’s going on over the other side of the room.
    However Sherlocking sounds invaluable for character building, so I will make it my mission to create more opportunities to play this game more in the future Bring on the fun and better writing!

    Thanks for sharing yet another entertaining and inventive post Drew. 🙂

    1. Thank you, again for such an epic response. I’m really happy to inspire others to play the game. I made sure to add the disclaimer that is just a game, we don’t have super powers of observation, we’re just having a spot of fun.

      I play this game everyday. Sometimes people are so demanding of your attention, they leave you no choice but to start watching. Using this technique and my finely tuned eavesdropping skills, I have a wealth of characterization to draw from.

  4. This is a great article and watching those unspoken communications, the subconscious cues we give out each and every moment, is fascinating. I tend to focus quite a lot on those things in my writing, which I have no doubt is because I do the same in person. I can’t help but notice those little shifts, the tone of voice, the small change in weight distribution.

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