Thursday, April 5, 2012


Authentic dialogue often doesn't mimic what's on TV or in the movies. In real life, when a couple is calling it quits, the guy wouldn't say, "We'll always have the wall behind the bleachers."

Many writers and I agree that an effective way to grasp authentic dialogue is to eavesdrop on real conversations. Friends and family, you're safe- I don't listen in on conversations of people I actually know. I eavesdrop on strangers. When I'm out in public and catch tidbits of conversation around me, I listen.  

I don't need to go out of my way to seek out random conversation. Random conversation often comes to me.

It came to me when I was sitting near a couple at a restaurant and the woman was telling the man why she wanted to break up: You don't ever @!#$ take me seriously. You have failed to- let me finish- you have failed to- see, there you go interrupting me again.

It came to me sitting in a school study hall, where a boy explained to his friend why he couldn't get a date: It's not like I can't get with someone, but there's no selection at this place.

And it came to me on a plane as two college-aged girls sitting behind me gossiped about another girl: And she came up to me and said she liked my dress- the one I got from Neiman Marcus- and it was totally weird the way she said it, like she was hitting on me. 

Sometimes the people I eavesdrop on are pleasant, and sometimes, as you can see, they are not. I don't write down any conversations I eavesdrop to. I just absorb pieces of the dialogue and trust my memory to help me rehash the dynamics of certain kinds of dialogue when I need to use them in my writing. 

Do you eavesdrop? When was the last time you've ever eavesdropped, intentionally or unintentionally, and what did you take away from the conversation?


Kate said...

I'm a terrible eavesdrop, I have a habit of mishearing people. I embarrassed my friend once and it has now become a thing of lore, but I am often surprised by other peoples conversations. This is what happened…

On a cold snowy night, two friends and I went to a Chinese takeaway to get some tea for our girls night in. The takeaway is very popular and always busy and we joined the queue, that ran along the wall, when we got there. One friend was in front of me (lets call her A) and the other friend was stood next to her (lets call her S). They were chatting and I was sort of listening from behind as I leaned against the wall. A work colleague (lets call her W) was already their with a friend (lets call him F) and they had the following conversation…

W: Hi A, Hi S, this is my friend F.
A: Hi
S: Hi
W: He is visiting from Malta.
S (speaking to F): I bet you wish you were in Malta (in reference to the weather)
F: just smiled
S: I know I would

I had the following reaction….I laughed, very loud and very hysterically, I was shocked and appalled and amazed by my friends audacity and slowly slid down the wall in fits of hysterics.

Both friends looked at me completely confused, and S looked really annoyed with me and blushed. Fortunately, W & F’s order was ready and they left.

My friends gathered around me and attempted to stop me from laughing with the question…What the hell?!

So this is the conversation I heard…

W: Hi A, Hi S, this is my friend F.
A: Hi
S: Hi
W: He is visiting from Malta.
S (speaking to F): I bet you wish you were Hotter
F: just smiled
S: I know I do!

I took her meaning of the word Hotter to be: more attractive as in ‘that guys really Hot!’

Kate said...

Oops! Sorry about the length of that comment.

Tara Tyler said...

all the time!
we're writers, it's for posterity!
and i wonder what others hear me say...nothing important =)

Alison Miller said...

I love this! And as a teacher, I eavesdrop all the time. Sometimes it's a little TMI, but most of the time it's most informative.

Anna Smith said...

Great E word. I don't normally eavesdrop, but will have to give it a try, seems like a useful thing to do! :)

Universal Gibberish

Mina Burrows said...

I love writing those types of scenes, especially when you're writing 1st person - they're essential. Fantastic post!

Clarissa Draper said...

Oh, I do eavesdrop a lot. And the conversations are so fascinating. Love the breakup scene.

Shelley Sly said...

I listen to strangers all the time! I often hear incomplete conversations, so I like to fill in the rest of the dialogue in my head.

Heather M. Gardner said...

I love listening in on others! It's research not eavesdropping!

Stephsco said...

Such a good idea to use this as a writing tool!

Once my husband and I overheard a table of middle school aged girls at a restaurant, where one girl said "He just doesn't respect me." It cracked us up because she sounded so mature when she was probably referencing a Halo-playing nose-picking 12 year old. He was probably clueless. But the precociousness of that girl was pretty funny.

Stopping by for the A to Z challenge. I just may follow your blog, too!

Cynthia said...

Kate- That's a funny story! And go ahead and make your comments as long as you wish!

Tara- I wonder what others hear me say too. I like eavesdropping, but I'm not so enthusiastic about someone eavesdropping on me.

Alison- You must get a lot of insight on the way kids talk.

Anna- Learning about what others talk about is useful to me as a writer, and maybe you'd find it useful too.

Mina- I like writing scenes with authentic dialogue too.

Clarissa- Yeah, I was pretty quiet during the meal as I listened to that couple let it out.

Shelley- I often listen in on the middle of a conversation too.

Heather- I agree! We are writers who are merely doing our research, our homework, when we eavesdrop.

Stephsco- That is pretty amusing. Thanks for sharing!

Lynn Proctor said...

have been doing it for years---and lots of it is not really eavesdropping--just being around my daughter's friends-who forget i am there

Rachel Morgan said...

I think the last conversation I overheard was more like a shouting match. Two people in the house next door were SERIOUSLY yelling at each other. Can't remember what about, but I think one was demanding that the other leave...

When I'm writing dialogue I always imagine it being spoken out loud, and I think (I hope!) it comes out quite naturally.

Sounds like you've heard some interesting conversations!

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

"In real life, when a couple is calling it quits, the guy wouldn't say, "We'll always have the wall behind the bleachers.""

It would be awesome if he did, though!

I hear plenty of great stuff on the commuter train.

Cynthia said...

Lynn- I'm sure you get to hear lots of juicy stuff.

Rachel- I guess the neighbors weren't too concerned about being eavesdropped on!

Jennifer- I used to ride public transportation and would hear a lot of passengers' conversations.

Sarah Pearson said...

Oh yes, I 'research' other people's conversations all the time :-)

Michelle Jones said...

I'm not a natural-born eavesdropper, but my husband is. It makes trying to have a conversation with him on a date pretty difficult. I think he just likes drama.
That's a fantastic idea for writing.
here's my a to z blog

Post a Comment