The Importance of Eavesdropping

Characters, like real people, should all speak with different voices and speech patterns. The best way to discover these is to listen.

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A year ago I rejected a piece of advice a writer gave me. He had read the full first draft of my novel and wanted to help me improve my dialogue by making it more realistic and less predictable. I already knew I struggled with dialogue and could hear how robotic and boring my characters’ speech was, but it was a problem I would deal with in a later draft—a skill I hoped would naturally come to me in time, because I refused to do what the writer had suggested.

The advice was that I needed to get myself into busy public places and listen to real people having real conversations, but the thought of that alone made me anxious. I knew I didn’t have it in me to become one of those baffling people in coffee shops who are content to sit alone in a crowded corner, laptop out, usually with their shoes off and surrounded by half-a-dozen empty coffee cups.

I never used to be the introvert I am today; when I was in my teenage years I greatly enjoyed watching and listening to people while travelling by train or bus, thinking about the sort of person they might be and dreaming up stories for them. I remember mentioning this to my mother. She laughed and told me she used to do the same thing a long time ago, before she started growing anxious in busy situations and became disinterested in the lives of other people.

Well, I guess it runs in the family, because I stopped being interested in people too, mainly because I heard some things that made me strongly dislike some individuals. One memory in particular was while on a crowded train to university, when I heard a guy in his early twenties boasting to a friend about first-hand animal cruelty. I felt utterly helpless, because I didn’t have the courage to say to the guy what I was thinking in my head, and I couldn’t legally or morally perform on him any of the torturous activities I was acting out in my imagination—all I could do was sit there and hope my stop came quickly. I soon passed my driving test and stopped getting public transport, and also stopped going to busy places. I hid myself away and became very judgemental of people. I didn’t want to overhear what they had to say, because I’d already decided it wouldn’t interest or benefit me, and when I was unavoidably in situations where I had to endure the public I would turn my back and close off my ears. I definitely lost faith in the existence of what I believed to be ‘good’ people, and very narrow-mindedly wrote off every single person who I didn’t already know.

So there was absolutely no chance I was going to put myself in the uncomfortable position of having to listen to people in order to improve my dialogue, and so for a year I naively ignored this advice and continued to allow my characters to speak as little as possible.

Then three months ago my daughter started nursery at a primary school and I’ve had to walk her in during the terrifyingly hectic morning school rush. I’ve had to be in a busy public situation, haven’t been able to avoid observing how real people move when they speak, how they present themselves, or how the style of their conversations differs depending on who they are talking to.

I’ve observed the change in a woman who used to wear tracksuits and no make-up, but since the appearance of another child’s attractive father now puts in a far greater effort in her appearance. She also somehow always manages to position herself near him as we wait for the nursery doors to open at the end of the session, her speech boastful and quite daring, telling of stories about herself with her open stance aimed directly towards him.

I’ve overheard two nans chat together—well, more accurately, moan together—each and every morning. They complain about the unfairness of their children’s jobs, whether or not some unlucky person they know does or doesn’t have cancer, the cold weather, anything negative they can possible discuss. But it’s not just what they are saying or the overwhelming negativity of their subjects, but it’s the way they deliver it. Their quick, closed sentences, which seem so unnatural to write and yet for these women, this speech comes very naturally.

It’s all of these little details of human conversation that are the key to making character dialogue realistic, and unfortunately it’s taken me a year to realise the endless fiction writing benefits of observing, and eavesdropping upon, members of the general public. It’s had such a positive impact that I’m even considering catching a few buses; not to get to any particular destination, but just to listen to people and use their words, accents, word pacing, body language, and countless other things, as inspiration for my characters.

Not all writers will be as useless as I am at writing convincingly realistic fictional conversations, but all writers certainly have a weakness somewhere, and if yours does happen to be dialogue, brushing up on your eavesdropping skills will definitely be of benefit. So close your laptops, put on your shoes and adventure out for a while into the real world.

And listen.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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