Thursday, November 8, 2018

How Eavesdropping Can Improve Your Writing

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?


Improve Your #Writing By Becoming a ProfessionalEavesdropper - @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)


  1. I once blogged about being in the ladies changing room and listening to a conversation in the stall next door between and mother and a daughter. Their shared stories of the week, their comment on the outfits they were trying on, created such a longing in my heart for that which I no longer had - those same experiences I shared with my mom in a changing room. While she had been gone for more than 20 years, the conversation brought me back to a time of sweet I intimacy shared and sweet time I will treasure forever. Yes, overhearing conversations can stimulate emotions and memories. That day these two ladies who I never actually saw gave me a gift that day.

    1. What a great story! Thank you for sharing! Blessings, E

    2. I can totally relate. I miss those times w Mom though she passed in 2010. Your description and longing touched me to tears.

  2. While waiting in a doctor's office, I had brought a pad and pen to use the quiet waiting time to write a first draft of a poem. I was scribbling and juggling some words when I realized that something strange was going on between the receptionist and a customer who was there for her first visit and had left her glasses at home. She couldn't complete the medical history papers without help. So, the receptionist was asking questions and completing the form for her. I began writing their conversation (as much as I could capture). It was authentic southern, intimately candid, and hilarious. I went straight home, wrote it up, and it is now part of a nonfiction anthology of stories - for which I was paid. I could have captured even more and done a more thorough job if only I'd hit the record button on my iPhone. Never again. Great post, Edie! I now find great conversations for characters in restaurants (especially at breakfast), community theater audiences, family gatherings, funerals, weddings, library events, and art exhibits.
    Jay Wright
    Anderson, SC

    1. That is so cool! I’m so glad you shared it with us! Is it in your newest book? I think you have a book signing soon 😊 Blessings, E

  3. Hi Edie,

    I loved your post! I’ve been eavesdropping for years, and since I’m usually by myself, this is much easier. I never thought to record or transcribe it! Now I have tons of new material! Thanks Edie!


    1. Laurie, I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from eavesdropping LOL! Blessings, E

  4. What? We have permission to eavesdrop? I love it! Actually it helps to be a quiet person in the first place, because people don't expect you to say much. I have heard some juicy tidbits at gatherings, just by sitting in the corner, smiling and listening. Now I have permission to record it all. What could be better? --Roberta Sarver

  5. Great article. I often ask older writers wanting to write for the middle grade or teen audience to hang out at the food court and eavesdrop to get their dialog correct. All too often I have to say, "a teen wouldn't really talk that way."