Incidentally, I’ve also pick up some fabulous ideas for poems and stories as well by watching people! You’d be surprised by how much you can learn about writing dialogue as well as human nature in by quietly observing how they interact with each other in public. Perhaps this should be the topic of a future post? What do you think?
From What Is the Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation?
A few years ago, I mentioned wanting to blog about eavesdropping as a tool for improving your writing. Today I’m finally digging into this topic in the form of telling a few true stories!
One of my college professors sent us out to eavesdrop as part of a creative writing assignment. We were instructed to write down the conversation and then analyze the flow of it in order to make the dialogue in our stories more realistic in the future.
I shared no hints about the identities of the people I eavesdropped on in my assignment in order to protect their privacy. It was only about listening to the way people really speak in casual conversations.
For some reason, there weren’t a lot of talkative students at my college when I ventured out to work on this assignment. It took a few tries to overhear anything useful, and the conversation I eventually found myself listening to involved a date a fellow student had recently been on and how it had unfolded.
If only I could have heard his date’s version of their time together! He seemed to take the entire experience very lightly, almost like a joke. I still wonder if she reacted to it the same way.
What I remember the most about that experience was how fascinating it was to only have pieces of the story. I could certainly extrapolate all sorts of things about how he spent his free time and where they might have met, but the nature of human conversations means that all sorts of questions will go unanswered if you drop into the middle of a story.
Listening to the way people really speak was also incredibly informative. The conversation I overheard was filled with friendly interruptions and all sorts of detours into other, mostly-related topics.
After turning in my paper, I quietly decided to continue eavesdropping over the years.
A few years after that I was taking a bus trip and happened to sit next to two young girls who seemed to be pretty unfamiliar with rural life.
One of them spotted a house in the distance. She hadn’t realized that people lived “out in the middle of nowhere” (read: not in a city or town) and wondered how they managed to keep food in the house without any stores around!
Her friend was just as puzzled as she was. There was no resolution to be had for them that day in how “those poor folks” managed to stay fed.
I gently bit my lip to avoid publicly reacting in a way that might cause her any embarrassment at all. Like I said, they were quite young and may never have thought about these things before.
Several years ago, my spouse and I decided to grab lunch at a local outdoor burger joint that serves amazing french fries. Our fry order was ready before our burgers were finished, so I carefully carried them over to a nearby table and sat down to wait for my spouse the rest of the food.
A preschooler suddenly zoomed over and sat in the chair next to me, a perfect stranger. His mortified mother called him back over again.
He refused to budge. There were enough french fries there for more than one person, so of course the nice lady would share with him! (Actually, I would have been happy to share a bite or two if I’d known his parents and had their permission).
She called him over again, telling him it was rude to interrupt someone else’s date. I chuckled as he admitted defeat and slunk back over to her without a single fry for his efforts.
Had she already ordered fries for him? Did he grow up in a family where all of the grown ups shared their food with him? I have so many unanswered questions there, but it made for a pretty funny moment.
None of these anecdotes have made it into one of my stories (yet?), but they have taught me about the ways people think and how many different ways the same tale can be told depending on whose perspective you look at.
Humans are delightfully unpredictable creatures.
Your interpretations won’t always match mine and vice versa. I’m sure that all of these folks would remember details of those days that I’ve forgotten or that I interpreted in different ways.
The beautiful thing about listening is just how much it can reveal.
10 Responses to Why Writers Should Eavesdrop Regularly
I miss listening to the conversations of strangers!!!
Yes, I’ve been known to eavesdrop. It’s not usually for story sources, but more for the way people speak. I’ve read too many books with forced, unnatural dialog. A few weeks ago, I pushed myself to the end of a book with an entire case of characters always speaking in full sentences! Who are these people????
When cafes and restaurants reopen, I will sit and “spy” with great pleasure and the try to capture the cadence, vocabulary and grammar of real speakers.
I hope you have a wonderful time doing that.
And, yeah, nobody speaks in full sentences all the time in real life. 🙂
A number of my best lines some funny, some sad, have come from conversations during meals at college and in the teachers lounge. Makes me sad to be retired. I’d have used this in my social psychology class.
I hope you find a good replacement for it soon.
This really is a good writing tip, thanks!
You’re just full of good posts this week. I’m actually bookmarking this one, because I’ll want to reread it again later. I’ve idly done this exercise in the past, but rarely get to the point of actually writing things down, then or later, instead of just paying attention in the moment. You’ve officially inspired me to follow through next time.
Aww, thanks. What a nice compliment. I hope you have a good time eavesdropping.
I overheard lots of amazing conversations in my days commuting to work on the bus. Some had me in stitches, and others I’d have preferred not to hear. Not that I was deliberately listening in – it’s difficult to ignore when someone is talking loudly on their phone. I agree though, eavesdropping is a good way to understand dialogue.
Yes, it’s definitely hard to avoid hearing loud phone conversations. Have you ever written anything about the things you’ve overheard?