Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Eavesdrop Your Way To Better Dialogue In 4 Easy Steps

Ideally, dialogue in fiction is supposed to be a representation of how people actually speak. (Extracting the polite greetings and chit-chat and such, unless that chit-chat reveals story or character.) So how better to learn the way people actually speak than to listen to them conversing with one another?

Before I get arrested as an accessory to violation of privacy, I'm not saying that you should put your ear up to walls (unless something particularly juicy is going on) or hang out outside of people's domiciles with a shotgun mic. I'm talking about a little public eavesdropping. Don't think you can pull it off without blushing, staring, urinary incontinence, or otherwise giving yourself away? Try some of my favorite Harriet the Spy eavesdropping tips:

1. Observe the natives in their natural habitat. Writing a teen novel and don't think your dialogue sounds authentic? Go to the mall. Hang out in the food court near a large group of kids. Don't act like a stalker. Just...hang out. Don't look at them; it makes them clam up and, depending upon how you are dressed, makes them move away. Bring something to read, preferably something stuffy and non-electronic and unrelated to anything teenage kids are interested in. You will essentially become invisible.

2. Become a fly on the wall while writing everything down. I keep a tiny notebook in my purse at all times. (It's an excellent habit to get into, since you don't know when inspiration will strike. However, if this occurs while driving, please pull over to the side of the road first.) But if I'm going somewhere where I know I'll have a long wait, I'll bring my "real" journal. This is especially fruitful while I'm waiting to have my car serviced. I'll get a cup of coffee and make myself comfortable in their waiting area, which is usually crowded. I'll take up my journal and start writing...everything people in the lobby are saying. Why would anybody question me? I'm simply writing in my journal.

3. Learn the art of reading without reading. This is my favorite Harriet the Spy eavesdropper tool. If I bring a magazine or book on the subway, and actually read it, I won't pick up on the conversation the two women are having behind me about a mutual friend's episiotomy. (Hey, you never know when you might need something like that in a scene.) If I focus on the white space between the lines, then unfocus my eyes, I can hear every word. It's kind of like those $#&@$ puzzles where if you look at them just right, you can see the chrysanthemum in the elephant's ear. Don't ask me; I couldn't see it either.

4. Know that most people are very casual about their public phone behavior. I love banks of pay phones, where they still exist. If you act like you're waiting to make a call (pace about, stare at your watch, jingle change in your pocket, and for heaven's sake, don't check your BlackBerry, as that's a dead giveaway), you can pick up a boatload of great authentic dialogue. Even more fun is guessing at the conversation on the other side of the phone. Use it as a writing exercise. The advent of cell phones has made one-sided eavesdropping even easier. The rule here is not to approach anyone having a cell phone conversation. That scares them off, and it's just plain rude. These opportunities are usually spontaneous. For instance, you're enjoying a double tall cappuccino at your favorite people-watching spot when Beyoncé starts warbling from the cell phone of the twenty-something sitting near you. She starts an animated and very loud discussion with her BFF about her last date with a married celebrity, a certifiable cretin who picked his teeth at the dinner table, said that Hitler was misunderstood, and ordered lasagna for her when he damn well knew that she was lactose intolerant. You are under no obligation to move.

Any good Harriet the Spy tips you've used to improve your writing? What are some of your favorite pieces of authentic dialogue?


  1. Too bad it's so hard to steer the shopping cart in the supermarket while writing. If you open your ears you'd be surprised at the stuff other people say to each other while shopping for food.

    "No, Harold, you cannot eat that! Remember your gout!"

    Even better was Harold's reply,"Jesus Christ, I wish to God you'd shut the hell up for five minutes."

    Also, an awful lot of people talk to themselves. I'll hear a voice behind me and assume someone is talking into a cell phone until I really listen to what they're saying. Then I realize their asking and answering themselves out loud. I heard this the other day from a woman in the snack aisle,"Do I need this? Not really. Am I gonna eat it? I really shouldn't. Oh but it's my favorite." That last part was whined, BTW.

    I love it!

  2. Love it, Jen! I do that in the supermarket sometimes...talk to myself. If someone turns around, I pretend I'm talking to them. It usually involves getting those stupid plastic bags on the rolls to open. But I've gotten some great dialogue ideas in the supermarket. Also I love checking out what people buy.

  3. I just realized I typed "their" when I meant "they're". Gee, I really hate that.

  4. Love this post! Eavesdropping is a great way to inspire dialog. Subway is great for some tawdry listening. I admit on the street sometimes I sidle up when I hear an intriguing snippet such as this:
    “I think reindeer are out.”
    “Yeah, probably.”
    “Of course we could always use the elephant, you know with that long distance runner guy and all.”
    “Maybe we should just use Louie the Bison, you know?”
    “At least we have the scraps.”
    I wrote a post about some eavesdropping I did that I think might make you laugh. http://wp.me/p1544R-4L