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You know when you were little and your parents told you it was rude to listen in on other people’s conversations? The good thing about being a writer is that, in the name of art of course, we get to ignore this. As we learned from Julia’s post last week, Eudora Welty was famous for eavesdropping, and if it was good enough for Eudora Welty…

Parent:  So if Eudora Welty jumped off a cliff, would you do the same?

Child: Absolutely!

If you’re not eavesdropping, you need to start. (Interesting sidenote:  according to Merriam-Webster, the word eavesdropping derives from eavesdropper, literally, one standing under the drip from the eaves. This post is not advocating loitering outside people’s windows, by the way. That sounds less like eavesdropping and more like stalking.)

With everyone yammering away on their cellphones anytime, anywhere, eavesdropping has become breathtakingly easy. I recently overheard a man at the grocery store telling someone, “Your problem is that you keep falling in love with pretty girls.” It’s hard to tell if he was advocating seeking out unattractive women or rather advising his friend to look beyond physical appearances when choosing a girlfriend. But it did make me think of Russell Banks’ short story “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story.”

Benefits of eavesdropping

– It can help you write dialogue

Writing dialogue is hard. So hard in fact that we need to hear real dialogue, lots of it, to figure out how not to write it.  Real dialogue would be painful to read.  It’s full of em, soum, yeah, you know, like, whatever, argh, er. In other words, real dialogue does not make for good reading. But we have to listen to enough of it to fully understand how subtext and tone and word choice affect fictional dialogue. The next time you’re eavesdropping, see if you can figure out whether the people talking to each other are good friends, new acquaintances, family members, lovers, etc.

A few years ago a group of us were at an art show and one friend went up to a woman who was dressed eerily similar to me and whispered to her, “The food’s downstairs.” There’s nothing odd about what he saidthe food was downstairs. But I think it was his conspiratorial tone, the way he said the words that made this stranger give him an alarmed look before bolting away. I often find myself thinking (and laughing) about this when I’m writing because it’s a good reminder that it’s not just what our characters sayit’s how they say it, it’s understanding the space between the spoken and the unspoken. Once you can hear what that sounds likeand it’s sometimes easier to hear this in a stranger’s conversation because we aren’t as invested in the conversation itself and can therefore tune in differentlyit will be much easier to write dialogue that resonates.

Here’s another example. Last summer my husband and I were out to dinner and there was a very loud group of people at the table next to ours.  They were the kind of people who want you to notice How! Much! Fun! They! Are! Having! In other words, exactly the kind of table you want to be near when you are having a quiet dinner out without kids. They were celebrating someone’s birthday and everyone was standing up to toast the birthday girl. One of the toasts was “35 and still alive!” Those words lingered with me, and once I was back home, I wrote a scene in a story I’d been struggling with where one character toasts another with the words “35 and still alive.” Overhearing this toast helped me figure out something about the fictional couple in my story.

– It can help you discover new character traits

Sometimes I need a reminder that everyone processes information differently. Or at least, processes it differently from me. It can be easy to fall into a rut and have your characters react and behave like you or your friends or your family. Sure, maybe you’ve changed their hair color or their job or even given them a funny birthmark or stutter, but they are still behaving and saying things that are familiar to you.

Here’s an example:  I would never want to attend the wedding of an ex-boyfriend. In a list of desirable activities, it falls somewhere between sleeping in my cat’s litter box and cleaning vomit out of my own hair. But a few months ago I heard a story about a woman who wanted to attend an ex-boyfriend’s wedding, but she didn’t have a date and so she hired one. I kept thinking about this woman, such as why did she want to attend the wedding anyway? Why did she hire a date as opposed to asking a friend? How did she go about hiring a date? What did her friends and family think about her plan—or did she not tell them? What happened once she got to the wedding? And when I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, once she stopped being a friend of a friend in real life and instead became a fictional character in my mind, I sat down and wrote a story about a woman who wanted to attend an ex-boyfriend’s wedding, but didn’t have a date so she hired one.

Recently my mom overheard a woman in a store (on a cellphone, of course) having a conversation that went something like this:  “I know he’s my ex-brother-in-law, but he and my sister have been divorced for a year. Why should she care if I go out with him?”

Honestly, I think that story could write itself.