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Dialogue and Eavesdropping

EavesdroppingI admit it. I’m a terrible eavesdropper. At airports, coffee shops, restaurants; in line at the grocery store, at a restroom, at a concert; you’ll find me with one ear tuned in closely to nearby conversations. Why? Because in a few words, people tell so much about who they are and what they love, value, and fear. And as a writer, I’m always interested in characters’ motives and how they express themselves in words, so eavesdropping is a valuable exercise developing a better “ear” for dialogue.

Of course, many of us are coached from childhood to “mind our own business” and to avoid being rude by eavesdropping. As writers, however, I think we need to toss out such training. Granted, I try to limit my eavesdropping to situations where I don’t know the speakers, because otherwise I may glean information that could be considered gossip. That’s not my purpose.

Here’s a snippet I wrote down recently after one such eavesdropping episode:

I put my feet up on the luggage, waiting for my flight to depart from Gate F15. I tried to read a novel, but in the row of seats across from me, a man talked loudly into his hands-free cell phone.

“Work it, John! Listen, it’s only a problem waiting to be turned into an opportunity.”

He crossed his long leg in perfectly pressed pinstripe trousers. His glossy wingtip shoes boasted a recent buffing. “I’m just saying,” he continued, “once you deal with her concerns, you’ll own the relationship. It will be yours from now on…”

I glanced over. Bald, but handsome. Appealing tan face; carved jaw, but his eyes—his eyes held no laugh lines, absolutely no hint of expression.

He talked on. “What’cha have to do, John, is toss her a bone.”

Admittedly, I went beyond recording the dialogue to weaving in some description, but it’s the dialogue that truly hints at this man’s character. When he said, “toss her a bone,” it was at that point that I rose from my seat to walk around. I couldn’t take his arrogant attitude one moment longer.

One of the biggest challenges in writing dialogue is to make it sound believable. Beginning writers tend to write dialogue using full sentences, as if every character was reading from a script—usually a poorly written script. A beginning writer might write:

“Hello, Mr. Barney! Do you want to take time from mowing your yard to join us at the baseball diamond for a game today at 1:30?”

On rewriting this dialogue to make it sound more natural, more realistic, it might read:

“Hey, Mr. B! Leave it! We’re hitting the diamond at 1:30!”

Rarely do we speak in full and complete sentences. And unless the situation calls for formal speech, most people speak in incomplete sentences and use an occasional “um” or “uh” or “y’know.” So next time you’re in a crowd of strangers, pay attention to how people speak. It will help sharpen your skills in writing dialogue—and sometimes it’s, um, pretty darn entertaining, too.