Listening: A Writer’s Tool

people talking art of observationWriters are well aware of the value of observation for giving us the details we need to make our settings come alive, for rounding out our characters by giving them habits or for providing details in our descriptions that help identify them. Today I’d like to take a closer look at a specific form of observation – listening – as apart from merely observing. As writers we can use less obvious aspects of listening to deepen our understanding of our characters and their relationships to each other.

Experts tell us that only 20% (others say 10%) of verbal communication comes from the actual words used. Let’s examine the remaining 80% of face-to-face communication. One obvious benefit of doing this is for writing dialogue. As we listen to, or even participate in conversations, we can observe cues to meaning not contained in the words. The easiest aspects to spot are volume, tone, and pitch, which give us the first clues as to the state of mind of the speaker. 

Volume, tone, and pitch can indicate excitement, anger or a need to be heard over other noise. But there are more subtle cues we can take from them. Is the person using higher volume hard of hearing, making an attempt to silence another or achieve dominance, or is he/she just socially unaware?? We can only determine which by listening more carefully. When and how does the voice rise and fall, what facial expression accompanies it, what body language accompanies it? Fear or excitement often results in higher pitch. Deeper tones combined with greater volume can suggest anger. Especially when accompanied by a lack of variation, deeper tones can demonstrate a desire to control. We’ve all heard the “Do as I say, or else,” kind of statements. They come out as a monotone growl, which makes them more menacing.

Low volume can indicate shyness, submission, politeness – but also fear, anxiety, or depression. Which one can only be determined by assessing the more subtle cues. What is the position of the head, the shoulders, the distance from the other speaker, the movement of the eyes? Lower, soft tones may indicate desire, secrecy, or suspicion.

These details are all valuable in creating dialogue that resonates with readers, and enriches their experience. It helps them hear exactly what you want them to.

But what can we learn from listening when not participating directly in the dialogue? What can we learn from listening when we cannot hear, or even do not understand the words? What about the parts of listening done with our eyes instead of our ears? Yes, you read right. There are so many minute details we can observe when we watch others in conversation with each other: changes in facial expression, tics, hand movements, the rise and fall of eyebrows, minute nods or shakes of the head – all motions the speaker is unaware of. Occasionally we will catch just one word. Why is it louder than the rest? What else can we see that hints at the mood of the speaker, the relationship between speaker and listener? What effects do the changes in the speaker have on the listener?

What if we can hear, but the language is foreign? Are there cultural clues that hamper or help us determine what’s going on? Eavesdropping can teach us so much. Etiquette be darned!

And, what if we cannot see the participants? The blind may not be able to use the visual cues in listening but the rest of us can.

Come to think of it, that might be a great exercise for writers. Listen in the dark, or with our eyes closed, and learn to recognize the clues the sighted take for granted. Eavesdrop on the patrons at the table behind you in a restaurant, or anywhere else for that matter, where you can’t see who’s talking. What about telephone conversations, even when you can only hear one end? What clues can you glean that inform you about that conversation?

The traits I have listed here only scratch the surface. By practicing the skill of listening from the viewpoint of a writer, the descriptors will become infinite. Every nuance becomes grist for the pen, or in my case, the keyboard. By paying attention to these subtle details, both our dialogue and our descriptions will be richer and give our audience a fuller picture. Listen actively – with both your ears and your eyes. Don’t only be a people watcher, be a people listener.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

21 thoughts on “Listening: A Writer’s Tool”

  1. Great post, Yvonne. So much of what we classify as ‘intuition’ or ‘hunch’ is probably just a heightened ability to pick up on these tiny clues.

  2. You’re so right, Yvonne. Those little clues in the voice can tell so much, and we would be wise to use them in our writing. It’s the nuances that really tell the story. Beside tone and volume, there are the physical clues: tight-mouthed, clenched jaws, head up or down, eyes direct or drifting off. I think you make an excellent point for people-watching; even without hearing the conversation, it’s often easy to guess what’s being said.

  3. I have always struggled with inserting those subtle body language hints that add so much to dialogue, because everybody always says you’re never, Never, NEVER supposed to use adjectives. There are a limited number of ways to say that someone nodded, but a huge number of ways to nod, all requiring some kind of descriptor.
    You’ve given us some good ways to look at dialogue from a different perspective. I’ll have to work on that 🙂

    1. I thought it was “never use adverbs.” I think an occasional adverb is fine. I say be brave, go ahead an break any rule that has “never” in it. Live on the edge. Rebelliously.

      1. I’ve seen both, Candace, but more for adverbs. I think each part of speech has its uses when used wisely. Rules are made for breaking – if you know how. Heh.

  4. Excellent post, Yvonne. I spend a lot of time eavesdropping. It helps me tune my ear for dialogue. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. 😉

  5. Great post, Yvonne, but I think you left our one important thing we should listen to: silence. It has so many qualities and conveys so many meanings, but it can be difficult to interpret. It can also have very obvious meanings that should not be ignored.

  6. Great points, Yvonne. I have always been a watcher of people and I do listen to conversations. I need to remember to deliberately note facial expressions and body language. I think I do notice, but don’t always translate it into something I can use in writing.

    1. Thanks, Greta. I’m sure you do notice. But these things happen on auto-pilot so we don’t think about them consciously. As writers we do have to bring those nuances out and put words to them.

  7. These are all great qualities to listen and watch for. I think the story is so much richer when we include these details. Great post.

  8. Nice post. No question observation is our best tool. I see many of us struggle with use of adjectives in dialogue as we’ve been told to avoid their use. A critical sprinkling may be best path.

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