Eavesdrop Your Way To Better Dialogue

Ideally, dialogue in fiction is supposed to be a representation of how people actually speak. (Extracting the polite greetings and chitchat and such, unless that chitchat reveals story or character.) So how better to learn the way people actually speak than 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 and you stand to make a few bucks selling the story to the tabloids) or hang out outside 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 YA 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, non-electronic, and unrelated to anything teenage kids are interested in. Like the complete works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. You will essentially become invisible.

2. Become a fly on the wall while writing everything down. I keep a little notebook in my purse, in my car, pretty much in every room in my house. Never know when those plot bunnies will strike. But if I’m going somewhere that promises a long wait, I’ll bring my “real” journal. This is especially fruitful while I’m waiting to have my oil changed. I’ll get a cup of coffee and make myself comfortable in their waiting area, which is usually crowded. I’ll open my journal and scribble down everything I hear. Why would anybody question innocent little 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 train and actually read it, I won’t pick up on the conversation the two women behind me are having 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 and 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?

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Note: This post was originally published in a slightly different form here.

Laurie Boris is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of the five-star novel, THE JOKE’S ON ME. Her second novel, DRAWING BREATH, is due out in May. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and her website: http://laurieboris.com

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

16 thoughts on “Eavesdrop Your Way To Better Dialogue”

  1. Great article! I have the perfect disguise. I take my knitting to Starbucks. You can't believe the wonderful story-making tales I've heard that way. It's my own personal Philosopher's Cafe!

  2. I'll confess it. I (gulp) once worked in retail management. I managed video stores for a number of years. (Remember those?) If anyone wanted to pick up honest dialogue that was the place. A family wandering the aisles on a Friday night, Dad's eyes nervously going back and forth from his wife to the entryway of the "adult" room and weighing his chances… "Uh… honey? I was thinking that maybe after the kids are asleep maybe we could…" "Watch the new Reese Witherspoon Rom/com?" would be the inevitable reply. The dad, worn to a frazzle by the work week, would then find the kids because he knew he'd actually have a prayer of asserting himself. After a spirited 10 minute discussion the family would come to the counter to rent "Strawberry Shortcake and the GoBots Meet the Care Bears For a Picnic" for the elevendy-third time and the exhausted dad would leave, defeated, and on to his destiny as the poster child for Nietchze.

    Family dynamics are among the most difficult to capture in prose. I don't know what the modern equivelant of the video store might be, but wherever families gather and have to reach a consensus is the ideal place to "accidentally" find a scene for your next opus.

  3. Great post! thx. And here I thought it was just me who did that rofl. I have no car so I catch the bus OFTEN! Bus stops (especially the two college stops) are great for picking up good dialogue. Not to mention on the bus itself… it is amazing what peeps will talk about….

  4. This is great Laurie. All super ideas. I like my local bar. They all know I am a two drink drinker then switch to water and stay a while. Since I've published my book and they know about it, not one has asked me if I am eavesdropping on their conversations. Kind of surprising, because now I am listening very closely – bwhahahahaha!!!!

  5. You say dumb things on public transport at your peril in Melbourne; we have a free magazine for commuters called mX, and in it is a very popular section called "Overheard", where readers send in the funniest or most stupid conversation they've overheard that week. I swear some people TRY to get into "Overheard".

    My favourite overheard train conversation (and yes, I used the "pretend to be reading" trick) was a woman arguing with her boyfriend on her cell phone for an entire 40 minute journey (she was the other woman, apparently, which wasn't sitting too well with her), then as she stood up to leave at the end, said "Anyway, I can't talk now – I'm on a train."

    1. What a brilliant magazine feature idea! I love the concept and I bet it's extremely popular.

  6. Great post as usual. Here's a handy link (almost TOO much info) but if you're writing regional dialects, there are gobs of YouTube links where you can hear folks from a particular area speak. Some are pretty darn funny.

    http://aschmann.net/AmEng/#LargeMap

    I found it handy when writing a story set in Memphis, TN.

    1. Thanks, K. This is a great site for dialects. Some of the discussions are a little esoteric, but the video clips are great for illustrating specific pronunciations.

  7. Great post!

    I've heard some amazing conversations. The one I will always remember from about 20 years ago in NJ is this man sitting at the next table at a wonderful restaurant. I could see his reflection in the window. He sat there for an hour telling the woman he was dining with why he was breaking up with her, everything that was wrong with her. He was MEAN! The worst part was she sat there and took it.

    I said to my husband, "I want to throw a drink on him, I'm watching him in the reflection of the window, and he's gross." My husband answered, "If you can see him then he can see you."

    I thought better of it.

    1. Lois, she sat there and took it because she was trained not to value herself. These abusive SOB's choose women they can do this to. They have radar for victims. And the more they abuse them the lower their self-esteem plummets. It's one reason so many who are abused never leave (which is so hard for others to understand). They've been trained to believe they deserve what they are getting. (It's what I grew up in)Very sad.

  8. Hi Laurie,

    I always tend to find the best information to eavesdrop on takes place in women's clothes shops, where shop assistants are gossiping about which boy they took home from a housewarming party. As I write erotica, these conversations often amuse me 😉

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