Shh, I’m trying to hear!

Plinky, a site that supplies writing prompts, had this prompt today:

Do you eavesdrop on people in public places?


Yes, I do eavesdrop on people in public places. Most of the time people don’t say anything very interesting or memorable, but those few times they do make it worth it. I know it’s generally considered wrong to eavesdrop, so when I do I try to keep it a secret by pretending I’m totally focused on something else like eating a meal or having a conversation with someone. But I will continue to eavesdrop when I have an opportunity because I’ve found the practice helps me in writing fiction.

Writers are often encouraged to listen on others’ conversations in order to improve their dialogue writing skills. And it works. To write believable dialogue a writer needs to be familiar with how people actually talk and the sorts of things they say and the ways in which they say them. But reproducing actual speech doesn’t make dialogue. The writer then has to filter and interpret what is said — in other words, when writing down a conversation as dialogue, a writer writes down the good bits and leaves all the boring bits out.

A writer does the same thing with other aspects of writing like plotting. We all wake up in the morning and go through some sort of morning routine, but such minutiae is usually boring to read about. So writers just write down the interesting bits of their characters lives and leave out all the boring bits. Now that may be a bit simplistic description of both plot and dialogue, but that’s essentially what happens. Dialogue is the talking that moves the story forward. It is not the “ums” and “uhs” and other filler words people say. Nor, usually, is it conversations like the one I overheard tonight in a restaurant between mother and daughter where the mother asked the daughter if she wanted apple pie or banana pudding for dessert. It was a very normal thing to hear in a restaurant, and I didn’t give it another thought, but it would be abnormal to read it in a novel. And if I did, I’d expect it to be in the book for a reason — it would have to matter to the plot whether the daughter chose the apple pie or the banana pudding.

And that’s the real difference between dialogue and talking. In real life people can and do talk about whatever they want, and, our lives being what they are, what we mostly talk about is everyday, mundane things. But in books, every word is there for a purpose. So the only “talking” that’s written down, the only dialogue, is the words and conversations that move the story forward. And eavesdropping can help you learn the flow of speech, can help you learn how you might make characters react to one another as you observe real people reacting to one another, can teach you how people give and receive information from each other and how they seek to obtain information from others or prevent others from finding out information they know. Just, be discreet when you’re eavesdropping, and when you turn conversations into dialogue, remember to leave out the boring bits.

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