It’s not polite to eavesdrop. But how many gold nuggets of dialogue have you overheard in your life? I always feel at a loss when I don’t have a notebook and pen in my purse to jot down ideas and strangers’ intriguing utterances.
Recently, in a restaurant in Seattle, I heard a man say to a woman, “Well, that’s my shipwreck story. Do you know my belly dancer?” And, once, at the Bargello in Florence, I was so charmed by a conversation between a British woman and her tween granddaughter about Donatello’s David, I found myself lurking by the statue pretending to take in all its details until they’d wandered away, then dashed off to a discreet corner to jot down as much as I could remember:
“What do you think?” the elder asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, how does it make you feel?”
“I can’t explain it.”
“If he were to talk to you, what would he say?”
“Would it help if I told you what I think?”
“Well,” the grandmother continued, “I think he’s very sexy.” The girl snickered. “And look at how his hand is on his hip. Isn’t it effeminate? I think he’s quite satisfied with himself. And who’s he standing on? What is that?”
“A body. No. A head.”
“What’s in his hand?”
“And what did David use his slingshot for?”
“Right. And look at how he’s standing. I think it says ‘don’t fuck with me.’”
It seemed that young woman was about to undergo some major change in perception thanks to her super-cool grandma. Was it creepy of me to write down that whole exchange? Maybe. But you gotta keep your ears open.
Keeping your ears open sharpens your ability to write dialogue, an essential craft tool. If your characters tend to sound the same, then this kind of listening exercise is especially important. Where does speech crackle with energy? What desires and conflicts bubble just beneath the surface? How does an utterance, however fleeting or repeated, change the course of a relationship?
1. Take my recent overheard, “Well, that’s my shipwreck story. Do you know my belly dancer?” Write the shipwreck story, as it would be told aloud, then write the woman’s response. Alternatively, open a story with that line of dialogue. Give yourself a healthy 15 minutes, or a healthy two paragraphs, whichever feels better. Obviously, if you’re on a roll, keep writing beyond that.
2. Go to a public place, such as a café or park. Do not gawk or otherwise lollygag. Just sip your coffee and write. Transcribe on the sly. Record gestures, verbal ticks. Above all, don’t get caught. Pool your favorite snippets of overheard dialogue with your writing group. Put them on slips of paper and drop them into a fancy velvet bag or your favorite magician’s top hat. If you’re feeling really fancy, make sure everyone writes on a different colored piece of paper so you can avoid selecting your own overheards. Select three slips of paper. Working quickly, write a scene or story incorporating all three snippets of dialogue. Give yourself 20 minutes of hot, hot writing. Then read it to each other because you know you want to hear what everyone else did.
3. The following is adapted from Colette Sartor’s exercise in Naming the World and other Exercises for the Creative Writer: Do the eavesdropping-and-not-getting-caught exercise in prompt #2 for a week, transcribing verbatim whenever you can. When you have ample material to choose from, select a conversation. Is there an underlying conflict? Describe it. Make it up. Make it juicier than it sounded in real life. What does each person want? Rewrite the scene with your newly defined conflict. Consider how setting affects the characters’ behavior. Now rewrite the scene again in a new setting. Let the conversation go in strange and unexpected directions.
Go all out in your writing, folks. Write beyond what you think you need—it is a common tendency to cut off dialogue too early—and when you know what the story is really about, cut as needed. Report any and all results in the comments. I’m rooting for you.