Thursday, April 7, 2011

Eavesdrop Your Way To Better Dialogue

by Laurie Boris

Ideally, dialogue in fiction is supposed to be a representation of how people actually speak. (Extracting the polite greetings and chit-chat and such, unless that chit-chat reveals story or character.) How better to learn the way people actually speak than to listen to them conversing with one another?

Before I get arrested as an accessory to violation of privacy, I'm not saying that you should put your ear up to walls (unless something particularly juicy is going on) or hang out outside of people's domiciles with a shotgun mic. I'm talking about a little public eavesdropping. Don't think you can pull it off without blushing, staring, bladder control issues, or otherwise giving yourself away? Try some of my favorite eavesdropping tips:

1. Observe the natives in their natural habitat. Writing a young adult novel and don't think your dialogue sounds authentic? Go to the mall. Hang out in the food court near a large group of kids. Don't act like a stalker. Just hang out. Don't look at them; it makes them clam up and, depending upon how you are dressed, makes them move away. Bring something to read, preferably something stuffy, non-electronic, and unrelated to anything teenage kids are interested in. You will essentially become invisible.

2. Become a fly on the wall while writing everything down. I keep a tiny notebook in my purse at all times. (It's an excellent habit to get into, since you don't know when inspiration or a juicy morsel will strike. However, if this occurs while driving, please pull over to the side of the road first.) But if I'm going someplace where I know I'll have a long wait, I'll bring my "real" journal. This is especially fruitful while I'm waiting to have my car serviced. I'll get a cup of coffee and make myself comfortable in their waiting area, which is usually crowded. I'll take up my journal and start writing...everything people in the area are saying. Why would anybody question me? I'm simply writing in my journal.

3. Learn the art of reading without reading. This is my favorite eavesdropper tool. If I bring a magazine or book on the train, and actually read it, I won't pick up on the conversation the two women are having behind me about a mutual friend's episiotomy. (Hey, you never know when you might need something like that in a scene.) If I focus on the white space between the lines, then unfocus my eyes, I can hear every word. It's kind of like those puzzles where if you look at them just right, you can see the chrysanthemum in the elephant's ear. Don't ask me; I couldn't see it either.

4. Know that most people are very casual about their public phone behavior. I love banks of pay phones, where they still exist. If you act like you're waiting to make a call (pace about, check your watch, jingle change in your pocket, and for heaven's sake, don't check your BlackBerry, as that's a dead giveaway), you can pick up a boatload of great authentic dialogue. Even more fun is guessing at the conversation on the other side of the phone. Use it as a writing exercise. The advent of cell phones has made one-sided eavesdropping even easier. The rule here is not to approach anyone having a cell phone conversation. That scares them off, and it's just plain rude. These opportunities are usually spontaneous. For instance, you're enjoying a double tall cappuccino at your favorite people-watching spot when Beyoncé starts warbling from the cell phone of the twenty-something sitting near you. She starts an animated and very loud discussion with her BFF about her last date with a married celebrity, a certifiable cretin who picked his teeth at the dinner table, said that Hitler was misunderstood, and ordered lasagna for her when he darned well knew she was lactose intolerant. You are under no obligation to move.

Any good eavesdropping tips you've used to improve your writing and add sparkle to your dialogue? What are some of your favorite pieces of authentic dialogue?

(Laurie Boris blogs regularly about writing, novels, and the language of popular culture at


  1. I highly advocate eavesdropping. Thank you for this article that will help all of us write better dialog, Laurie.


    P.S. You could have added a link to you website and blog.

  2. Thanks, Vivian! It's embedded in my name but I'll make it more prominent.

  3. Great tips...I do carry a notebook, but mostly for my own ideas and had never thought of this so will need to start using it more and put this into practice.


  4. Fun suggestions--just don't follow anyone into the bathroom. Looks too obvious. :)

  5. Sometimes I'm laughing too hard to eavesdrop with any finesse, let alone write anything down. People are so funny - particularly when they're not even trying. I think the supermarket is the best locale for listening; you hear stuff from what gives a person gas to couples having completely different conversations with each other. Hilarious!

  6. I love eavesdropping in the supermarket! Especially if there's a couple bickering about what kind of food to get. Because you know it's not about the food. I like cart snooping, too, but you have to do that very judiciously because people hate when you look into their carts.

  7. Great advice, Laurie. Writers have to keep their eyes and ears open at all times!

  8. Great tips! And I love the picture, too!

  9. I'm not a writer but I am a champion eavesdropper! LOL I don't know why I just hear things and can't help myself. Sometimes I've been known ..when I can't even jump into the convo! I will talk to anyone! LOL Great article Laurie! big hugs.
    (had to use the kids's me..MOM!)

  10. OH BOY... I loved all these tips. As an illustrator I usually have a sketchbook with me whenever I am waiting someplace, but very often people want to peek over your shoulder. When they do , I turn the page and start writing. I have a lot of really interesting notes about how people behave, what they are wearing and what they are doing. Somehow when I am making notes like these, they walk away uninterested and I am free to keep on with my own little secret plans for them in my next picture book.

    And speaking of the Supermarket... it is the best for listening!

  11. Yep...we have to be detectives as writers, among the other hats we wear!