Productive Eavesdropping and the Writer

When I was in my first year of University, I took a creative writing class. At the end of each class, we were given writing prompts and had to come up with short pieces based around them. One of those prompts asked us to listen into conversations and pick a striking line, making it the central part of our piece. Basically, we eavesdropped, heard someone say something strange/interesting/funny, and then had to write a piece where a character would say the same thing.

I don’t really make a habit of eavesdropping on people, and when I do, I sometimes don’t hear anything interesting. Plus, during my entire creative writing class, it was decided that I was just going to write weirdly morbid stuff, leaving the last assignment to be about puppies and rainbows to see if anything interpreted something sinister from it (this never happened, as the last assignment we had didn’t really give me that option). My “line of dialogue” piece ended up happening because I was sitting on the bus with a friend, and she had just purchased a mannequin head. She called up another one of our friends and told her, “I got you a severed head!”

The resultant story revolved around a guy who was roommates with a vampire. Said vampire decided to eat the mailman and stick his “leftovers” in the beer cooler.

I’ve recently begun to pay more attention to conversations, because you can be surprised at how many good lines or ideas can come from walking in a discussion at an awkward moment, or just hearing your friend say something hilarious. I have a great love of dialogue. Tell me to write dialogue and I could easily write you nothing but dialogue for a thousand pages. So, finding choice conversation pieces is great for me, because there’s so much that can evolve from a single line.

If you don’t know the context of a conversation, you must wonder how it got to such a strange line. Was the lead in completely normal, and the line itself a metaphor? Was someone quoting a scene from a television show? Is your world really just weird enough that someone saying “he might as well have brought me a severed head” is completely normal?

The real world is full of strange and interesting people with strange and interesting conversational topics. If you struggle with dialogue, one of the best ways to learn is to listen to how people talk. You can get a lot of sense of a person’s character by how they talk. One of the greatest writing tragedies I’ve ever seen involves characters who should have distinct personalities, but who all talk the same.

Even if characters all come from the same place and have the same accent and use the same slang, they should have distinct voices.

So, am I encouraging you to eavesdrop on people? Sort of.

Just like artists should learn to draw from real life, writers need to observe real life as well. Even if your story is about elves who ride mechanized dragons in a steampunk-fantasy adventure, they still need to seem like real people.

So, listen to the world around you. You may find the inspiration for that new short story. Or maybe that perfect discussion point for your main character and her love interest. Or you might learn that not everyone swears like a sailor with a stubbed toe.

Just try not to make it too obvious and get caught.

Categories: musings, On Writing | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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