Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Write Better Dialogue by Brushing Up on Your Eavesdropping Skills

by Edie Melson @EdieMelson

I read somewhere once that good dialogue is a conversation with the boring parts taken out. I completely agree. Just record and transcribe a normal conversation and you’ll see that it isn’t all that interesting to read without a lot of judicious editing.

But even armed with that knowledge, how do we as writers, determine what’s boring and what’s not? That’s a skill that takes practice.

I believe good dialogue is more like music than anything else. We start with the rules, learning the craft and the technique. But to become masters we must develop an ear, a sense if you will, of what translates well to the page and what does not.

Today I’m addressing how to develop an ear for dialogue. The foundation for that lies in eavesdropping. Although we rarely reproduce something we hear word-for-word. There is a natural cadence to dialogue that comes only by listening. We must learn to edit dialogue down to its essence without loosing that rhythm.

Tools of the Trade
Professional eavesdroppers need tools to be effective. It does us no good to hear a great conversation if we can’t remember it. So I encourage you to always have some way to record those overheard gems. You can, and should, use several things:
  • Pen and Paper.
  • Digital Recorder.
  • Smart Phone Apps (note taking apps, recording apps, even capturing images). 

Be sure to take time to practice with these tools. Keep several with you because your circumstances will often dictate the one best suited for the occasion. For example, it’s hard (and potentially deadly) to use paper and pen when you’re driving.

Places to Practice the Craft of Professional Eavesdropping
There are a lot of places to practice the craft of professional eavesdropping. Pretty much any place two people can hold a conversation will do. But my time is limited, so I try to search out the places that have the best conversations when I’m on a dialogue hunt.
  • Coffee shops: people tend to bare their souls to one another over coffee. This makes for a great environment for juicy tidbits.
  • Places where preschoolers and parents gather: Are any of you old enough to remember the television show hosted by Art Linkletter, Kids Say the Darndest Things? Whether you do or not, it’s true. And conversations between kids and adults are ripe with quotable bits.
  • The radio: I know, I’m really showing my age in this post. But talk radio, or even radio programs with multiple hosts are good.

Things to Listen For
  • A colloquialism—that turn of phrase that immediately sets the reader in a specific geographic region or time-frame.
  • The differences between men and women—how they talk, that is. Men use different words from women. Words like precious, lovely, and polka dot tend to only be found coming from the mouths of women. There are exceptions, but you get the idea.
  • The length of time each person spends talking before the other person interrupts. This is fascinating to me. I had no idea we were such a rude society. We finish each other’s sentences, interject opinions and cut one another off with amazing regularity. And we rarely lecture.

Things to Watch For
Good dialogue isn’t just words in quotation marks. It’s also the descriptive bits that give us context to what is happening. This includes facial expressions, hand movements, body language, etc.
  • Listen to the words and watch the faces. “You’re kidding.” Can be expressed with shock, awe, mortification, anger, any number of emotions. Decipher what exactly it is that tells you the emotion of the person delivering the exclamation. Then make a note of it.
  • Look at the position of the speakers in relation to each other. Do they lean in? Lean out? Does one of them seem annoyed, how can you tell. These are the small things that make great books.
I could have gone twice as long with this post because I’m fascinated by this subject. But now I’d like to hear from you. Have you eavesdropped on any interesting conversations lately? What insight have you gleaned that you can transfer to your writing?

Don’t forget to join the conversation




  1. Love this. I'm a constant evesdropper and now my husband is too. We were recently at a Panera and got to listen in on a couple. It was facinating because the girl was clearly trying to break up with him before she left for the summer (without actually coming out and saying "I'm breaking up with the round-about way girls speak) and the guy was trying really hard to list every reason they should stay together. She stared out the window the whole time letting her tea and soup get cold and he never touched his food either. Stuff like that helps me remember that when writing emotional scenes most humans don't come out and say what they're actually thinking. I read too many manuscripts where the writer has the people plainly saying what they want. Most people just don't do that. Especially not when stressed.

    1. Jess, what a great example! Thanks so much for sharing, Blessings, E

  2. I began my writing career as a playwright. My scripts are for use in the church, sermon starters up to full length musicals. I learned to write dialogue by listening to my actors change the way they said some of the lines. I liked what they said better than how I'd originally written it. After that, I wrote dialogue as people would actually talk. Writing scripts is a great way to learn to write realistic dialogue.

    1. Ane, I love that idea. I've not written many scripts (only small sketches) but it's a great tool, even if we're just watching actors on stage. Thanks so much for dropping by, Blessings, E

  3. I love to eavesdrop! Overheard in an ICU waiting room once: He was crazy as a road lizard. In a grocery aisle: woman: Flitter, they're out of my bread. passerby (man) flitters are on aisle 3.

    1. Pat, I LOVE these! Thanks so much for sharing, Blessings, E

    2. Pat, you just made me guffaw. :) Too fun!

  4. I need to eavesdrop more. I did get the chance last night though. As I waited in a separate room from where my boys were having their karate class, three guys sat and talked. One was definitely more "wise" at least in the way he presented himself. How he said things, tonally. The other two were a little younger. They talked cars, video games, and how hot it was. The other young man used movies to make certain points in conversations. "You remember in '300' when they did _____?"...

    At the end one guy mentioned how cool it would be if he could take the legs off of the 6' round table they were sitting at and use it as a frisbee. The other guy said, "The least it will do is kill you."

    It was definitely a guys conversation. :) And yes, that frisbee part is going in a book. Somewhere. :)

    1. Jeanne, what fun! Thanks so much for sharing in the fun, Blessings,E

    2. I love eavesdropping. One of my favorites was the time I was at an airport. (That's also a great place to eavesdrop. I'm amazed at how many people cry on their phone and say, "It's just not working out." Seriously.) This particular day, a school-marmish lady was walking to a seat as a 10-year-old-ish boy ran circles around her. She pulls out her earbuds and says to him, "I have headphones, and I'll use them!" I almost fell over laughing.

  5. Somewhat like Jeremiah, take the precious from the worthless... ;) I love to eavesdrop, and I ask too many 'stupid' questions, so I've been told. LOL