How Eavesdropping Can Make You a Better Writer

ListeningWe were taught as young children that spying or eavesdropping is rude and we should never do it. Well, I’m going to tell you different. Eavesdropping is actually a great way to practice your dialogue writing.

Dialogue is an important component to our fiction writing and often times we find ourselves creating a scene in language that is more connected to the written word rather than honest, easy dialogue. Words like “plethora” or “indubitably” or “happenstance” find their way in to our character’s mouth when you know they’d never say things like that.

Author Ali Luke tells a story of how when he is looking for a new book to read, he quickly flips through to see if there is a good amount of dialogue. If not, he puts the book back and looks for another one. He says:

As a writer, dialogue lets you:

  • Show rather than tell – when characters act and speak, they become real to us
  • Build tension and drama, furthering the plot
  • Reveal character in what’s said (or what isn’t said)
  • Create white space on the page – attractive to busy readers

But many writers list “dialogue” as one of the key things they struggle with.

So if dialogue is a struggle for you, spend a few sessions at your favorite local hangouts; Starbucks, McDonald’s, family restaurants or the local beach where families gather for a picnic. Pull out your pad and pen and start writing down their conversation.

Make sure you are stealth in your eavesdropping; I wouldn’t want you to find yourself in an awkward situation. But focus on a table, couple or family and begin to write down what they are saying. You don’t need to look at them to hear them, just write. Don’t judge on the topic, it doesn’t even matter if their conversation is related to your fiction genre. By eavesdropping you will learn a few things:

  • The cadence of the give and take between two people
  • What it looks like when two people talk over each other
  • How you write the conversation where one person dominates
  • How an argument escalates, or forgiveness comes in slow, short bursts

Practice makes perfect and one way you’ll know if you are improving your technique is to read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Does it flow?

Ali Luke offers 10 Easy Ways to improve dialogue

Brian Klems of Writer’s Digest offer 7 Tools of Dialogue

Literautas offers Ten Keys to Writing Effective Dialogue, and the article starts with this great reality check:

If we listened to a real conversation and tried to put it in words, we would soon realize that the resulting dialogue fails on a narrative level. Real conversations are full of interruptions, unfinished sentences and inconsistencies. The key to writing effective dialogue is to keep the authenticity of a real conversation, but not at the expense of fluency and clarity

As we write, we want may want to spell everything out in one great monologue, but that isn’t how real conversation takes place.

It is time for a coffee break, don’t you think? Grab your tablet or notebook and head to the nearest coffee bar and start eavesdropping. You might not just hear real dialogue, you may also get a few juicy ideas for your next story!

Bottom Line: Dialogue is the backbone of your story – make sure that it is true to your characters and captures the reader’s attention.