how to be a better storyteller

They stood on the corner of Elm and McGee, laughing over flirt-heavy secrets and the funny things of nerves or love. Or maybe both. She was dressed for a date — ballet flats, strapless dress, a smile wide enough to connect the mountains to the sea. He had on jeans but left his ball cap at home and couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her.

The Man and I sat in front of the shop window, content to be together after coffee and dessert. I watched as the giddy couple seemed to be deciding where to head next. It started to rain a little. I had my camera with me and twice raised it to my face, stopping only when The Man shot me an amused warning glance, one that said It’s really cute that you want to take their picture but that’s creepy so don’t. They are the reason why I like photographing weddings – the affection between bride and groom make every photo come alive.

Instead, I turned around to get a shot of the shop window behind me. They always have the most lovely displays. As I did, I caught a glimpse of her in the opposite window. I guess her date had the same idea I did – Let’s capture this girl tonight, bottle up her happiness to pull out later and remember. So as she posed silly for his iPhone, I smiled and clicked my shutter.

And so I got my picture, a moment of serendipity. I know it looks here like I’m just a creepy stalker, but she really did walk right into my frame. I wasn’t aiming for her, but there she was. And even if I got her story all wrong, even if those two weren’t in love but merely nervous or pretending, does it really matter? It may have been the wrong story, but it was still story. 

There is always truth to be found in every human interaction. His touch, her response, the way they moved together. All of that was true, no matter the backstory. As a writer, I’m always looking for the story people are telling – sometimes a different one than they intend.

We can learn much when we open wide our eyes, close our fast-moving lips and tuck our hair behind our ears to listen. So when he plants a tree, there is more to the digging than just a hole. When she walks fast away, there is more behind her steps than just her speed. When they embrace on the street corner at half past seven and they don’t even stop for the rain, there is always more.

And so I see the story and it can be a strength – it compels my writing, inspires my photos, opens me up to the experience of others. It probably also makes me aloof sometimes, getting lost in my own imagination, following trails of truth off the well-worn path of the story their lives are telling. When I’m not in a good place, it can make me paranoid, seeing things that aren’t really there, hearing ghosts when it’s only the wind. I realize there all kinds of things that can come out when you open yourself to the story, beauty blending with insecurity, truth shaken up in fantasy.

Still, I’ve decided it’s worth it.

Do you learn from watching people this way? Can you think of a moment when a story came to life in your head from one simple interaction? I would love to hear.


  1. says

    This is such a beautiful post. I found myself wanting to follow them, see where they end up. I could just feel their love and joy and I feel in my heart that I want to pray for a lifetime of happiness togehter for these two–they make me believe in love.

  2. says

    oh, yes. chance sightings turn into stories for me. working on a scene right now that involves a lady who smells her leather bookmark every week during bible study. and another of a lady who can never ever leave paltes, napkins, cups, trash really on the table while we talk….

  3. says

    I can so relate to what you are saying. I’m constantly looking at little things, phrases, reactions, a slight smile, and my imagination goes wild! Keep looking, keep thinking, keep the stories alive!

  4. says

    I love how you see art in the everyday things. For me, I find stories in my children – the things they say, the lessons they teach me as they explore their world. Yet sometimes I can get so caught up in the story – capturing it, illuminating it, studying it – that I live in my head and lose sight of the moment in front of me. Does that ever happen to you?

  5. says

    I love your photo of the story girl. So much lovely stuff going on there. Yes, I see stories everywhere as well. However, I don’t feel that I recount them nearly as fluidly as you do. I especially love watching moms with their children, whether the child be two and toddling, thirteen and talking back, twenty-two and walking away, thirty and handing over a grandchild, or fifty and taking care. Just like you find the camera comes alive when focused on young couples in love, I find my imagination is sparked by mamas and their “babies.”

  6. says

    yes!! I do this all the time. My husband knows he’ll lose me if we try to talk out in public :) Oh, also? I make up soundtracks to everyone walking past. Theme songs that fit their mood, their gate, their style… It is amazing the lives out there, just ready to be imagined :)

  7. says

    My mom told me that–when they were children–she and her little sister had to wait in the car while their mom grocery shopped. They passed the time by making up stories about the people they saw out of the car windows.

  8. says

    I used to do this all of the time when my job was that of a teacher in a classroom. I would start stories that I saw unfolding before me and this would provide fodder and a model for my middle school students. There are several which still serve as jumping-off-spots – like the time I saw clothing dropped along the dotted line of the interstate or the friend who was hauling around the ashes of her formerly estranged/now deceased father. It was fun to take that sort of idea and share with students that there are so many stories hidden within. In one of mine the clothes were thrown out the window by a scorned woman, in another they were dropped by a harried mother who forgot to shut the back door of her van, in yet another they were blowing out of a box in the back of a woman’s truck. Thanks for reminding me that even though I’m not in the classroom writing and noticing stories with students every day, there are still stories unfolding right in front of me that need to be written!

  9. Debbie says

    LOVE your blog! I write stories in my head about what I see…you make me want to actually write it down. I really appreciate the line “When I’m not in a good place, it can make me paranoid, seeing things that aren’t really there, seeing ghosts when it’s only the wind.” I have noticed it more recently that where I am has such a powerful influence on the story I ‘see’!

    Absolutely LOVED yesterday’s blog also!

  10. says

    I so enjoyed this post, Emily. I see stories everywhere! I’d much rather sit in a mall and people-watch than shop, to know that every person has their story and wondering what that might be. I’m writing a short story right now based on an interaction I happened to notice the other day. I drive past our local veterinary clinic a couple of times a day and one morning, I watched as a young woman very gently assisted her dog, an older golden retriever, out of the car so she could lead him into the vet’s office. The interaction between them was so sweet, even if I only watched it for a couple moments. The scene just struck me, touched my heart, and the beginnings of a short story immediately formed in my mind. I LOVE to write, even when it’s only for myself. You’re a wonderful writer and you always inspire me whenever I visit. Where would the world be without storytellers? :)

  11. Grace says

    Hi. You know this happens to me but only when I dream. My dreams have always been so vivid. I can remember names, clothes people wore, scent, and sometimes I’ve woken up crying. My husband has woken me up a few times because I was shaking or crying. Just recently I dreamt Matthew McConaughey. The weird part was that I hadn’t even thought of this gorgeous man in a while or seen any of his movies to have dreamt him. In my dream we were very close friends but lost touch through the years. Last I heard was he had gotten married and since has been separated from his wife for some time and about to proceed with their divorce. It was on a warm breezy evening at the beach … a fundraiser of some sort. I had arrived with a few friends but knew several other attendees so I was walking around by myself taking in the beautiful scenery and breathing in the salty sea air when I saw Matthew at a distance mingling. I had no idead he would be here. Minutes passed when we all of a sudden crossed paths and I remember both of us just standing there starring at each other oblivious of the world around us ……. and this is where my dream ends because I woke up. NO! I wanted to know what was coming next. Super cool right? I think so because I think Matthew is the sexiest celebrity out there. What happens next can have endless possibilities … that’s the fun part of writing.

    Well that’s it. What do you think?

  12. says

    I do this all the time! My favorite place to people watch and engage in storytelling is the airport. My husband and I used to take turns choosing a person and coming up with a story about them, where they’re going, what they do for a living, why they dress the way they do. Then we had kids and now all airport trips are focused on the nearest food/toilet/resting spot.


    I don’t have to imagine too much when it comes to my kids. The crazy unfolds right in plain sight for all travelers to see.

  13. says

    I love watching my 13 year old daughter with her friends. Brings back great memories for me of pre-high school before life seemed to get pretty complicated. Something that made me smile and begin to conjure up a story in my mind a few months ago was watching an elderly couple say grace before a meal together while holding hands at a Mexican restaurant. It was such a sweet moment.

  14. says

    I can’t think of a specific moment right now, but I am forever doing that Emily. In restaurants I am so busy writing the stories of the people around me I forget to make conversation with my poor husband! I’m sure my stories bear no resemblance to the truth, but I like them nevertheless.

  15. says

    Just thank you. You write and I feel as if I’m not quite as crazy and not quite as alone. So thank you.

    Your description of the insecurities, and imagination taking a bad turn… I never put it together quite this way. But when I read this I thought, ‘YES!” It helps me realize that I don’t have to go there, it’s all part of the choices I have all the time, and I can choose to believe the love stories instead.

  16. says

    Recently I found a boarding pass on a plane…he became my protagonist. I also love to eavesdrop in coffee shops and play it into whatever story I am working on.

  17. says

    Oh my word.

    I totally know the face. My love makes that face at me when I pick up my camera in public places. He wasn’t with me the other day when I was walking around my neighborhood and I wanted to take pics of the kids playing cause they inspired me but since I don’t have children myself, I thought their parents might think I was a big creeper…but I got a great story out of the experience nonetheless…I still need to check my pics to see if I got their play in the background….what can I say…I couldn’t get rid of the stalker in my head! 😉

  18. says

    Interesting that you were seated in a coffee spot when this happened. I find that when I dine out, I am captivated by all that’s going on around me, making up stories in my head about snippets of conversation, body language, the angle of the light on a face, the interchange between a harried mama and an over stimulated toddler. Something about sitting still in a gathering place brings out a bit of the voyeur in me, I guess. Glad to read that there are others out there who do the same things. (And I loved the photo – loved it.)

  19. says

    Hey Emily! These photos are completely colorful. But, what I really appreciate is your writing. I find that my blog really struggles to have writing come through so I appreciate how your prose never gets lost…at least when I read. And I am thinkin’ others agree with me. Thank you for sharing such a fun and sort-of personal story!

    In addition, the CGS girls bible study I am leading: : we are TOTALLY loving GFtGG and plan to continue with following your discussion format/outline and hopefully read Graceful when it arrives :). So, thank you, Emily, thank you.

  20. says

    What a stunning, photograph Emily. I adore it. I love the story behind it, I love that you where able to capture it.

    As a storyteller, a writer I am always observing, seeing the story, wondering. Recently I have been consulting on a project rather different from my normal work, it is a place, full of stories, but without story. A space were story is riducled, but also shared. As I glance around, I wonder about the stories, of the people in the building. Why are they doing this job, what encourages them, who encourages them, what do they do when they go home, who are the people behind the facades, why are they wearing what they are wearing, what makes them tick, what are they afraid of, why do they play power games – the story, their story is what interests me.

    I heard an interesting definition of courage today – ‘Courage is telling your story from your heart.’

    Thank you again Emily, for sharing your story with us, for sharing this other story, and for making me smile.

  21. says

    I met a mature gentleman today who stopped me to ask for directions. In parting, he commented that the area where we stood (now office bldgs & parking lots) used to be hay fields. He said he “used to pluck hay and sell it for $0.02 a bale.” He then leaned closer and said with a twinkle, “That was a few years ago.” Imagine all the story that’s happened to him in those “few years” and then to the land during that same time. So many stories…

  22. says

    I just love, love that picture (and this story). Just look at her joy! For a second I thought it was my cousin, it looks so much like her. I found my brain spinning, “Wait, where does Erin live? North Carolina?????” But then I remembered, no, New England…so it’s not her. {I guess that’s my own little story about this picture, yes?}

  23. says

    How beautiful! The words and photos. Watching how people interact with each other, whether I know them or not, is what inspires all my characters. Thank you for this lovely post!

  24. says

    my mind works like this all the time. all the time.

    last night it was that magical hour as the sun set. i was driving caroline home from her tumbling class. she was playing on my iphone & we were waiting ( by we, i mean she) for them to play justin beibs new song on the radio.
    just as we topped the hill before turnign in to our neighborhood, the sun was casting a gorgeous glow on the 100+ year old farmhouse through the bradford pears….it took my breath away.
    i thought…gee…do those homeowners walk around & realize the gloriousness of their home? the grandeur of the simple?
    i was driving & i dind’t have my camera…but my mind took the images… & my heart stopped to think a little more about that simplicity….

    LOVE that shot you captured. good gracious

  25. says

    When I read your posts, I think I must have a sister I don’t know about named Emily. :) My husband and I are going to England and Scotland for our 22nd anniversary in a few weeks and I am most excited about all the photos I will take, the new faces and landscape I will see and the stories I will find in viewing all of it. My husband does that to me too when we are together in public. I have to take them when he isn’t looking. Luckily, he is patient about my having the camera with me at all times. Really loved this one Emily, but then there are stacks of loved ones by Emily in my world.

  26. Jenny Miller says

    What a wonderful moment you captured! I don’t think it’s creepy at all. Every story is made up of moments, which is what you captured. A moment in story. Such a lovely post. I’m so glad to have visited from (In)Courage. Love your blog (from a fellow North Carolinian).

  27. Kelli says

    YES! This is why I’ve always loved airports. Stories literally everywhere. I can sit for hours making them up from observing interactions, clothing, luggage…Great question!

  28. says

    As I crossed the 50 mark in my journey this year I have caught myself delighting as well in seeing a young couple who are lost in each other..there is something about their joy, delight, hope that speaks to my heart..a story yes, but more… I guess I would call it resonance, resonance deep within, like the heart beat we know so well, have heard so long, and are no longer even aware of its beat. The stories you tell and encourage others to tell..could they be the echoes that resonate and move us because they resound with the deeper music of God? Could we, hope against hope, become the resounding of God’s heart as it beats and resonates through us in this world?

    The shy delight in their eyes, their joy in each other in that moment speak to us because in it we hear the echo of the heart of God pointing us to a deeper love story… the Father saying this is my beloved in whom I am well pleased, the Son saying “for I am come to do His will”…and then wonder beyond wonder…”as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.”

    Thank you for sharing your sight with us, capturing in words and calling others to see and share and find the freedom and courage to live unique art, the “poema” that is in God’s mind when He calls us all by name.

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