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Friday, January 9, 2009


(overheard at salebarn)

"Six years he's been my father-in-law, and he despises me. And I have bought pigs after pigs after pigs. I hate pigs, and he still ain't my friend. I guess I can't buy my father-in-law...my mother-in-law thinks I hung the moon...

Kept buying his pigs...I was trying to buy his love, that's what I was trying to do. I even mowed his lawn.
(Background noise, I lost the thread of things for a minute)
...super athlete, I'm everything he doesn't want in a son-in-law. I told him, 'We need to go to counseling'. He said 'Counseling, why?' I said, 'Cause there's a lot of love lost here.' He said, 'It ain't love, it's hate"

On the one hand, it's bad manners to eavesdrop. On the other, you hear some great stuff that way. And some people obviously don't care whether you hear them or not; that conversation was basically a monologue delivered by a slightly drunk guy to his friend in a very loud tone of voice. I was sitting behind them at the salebarn, where there is a lot of ambient noise, and I had NO PROBLEM hearing most of what he said.

I had a notebook in my pocket and was sort of scribbling down these notes, thinking that basically it was like hitting the jackpot. My husband looked at me and said "What are you doing?" I said "Are you hearing this?" And he hadn't noticed it at all. Apparently I eavesdrop more than the average person.

I'm not sure if I have always been that tuned in to people around me, or if it is a habit I've cultivated as a writer, to the point that now I don't even think about it. If I catch interesting bits of conversation, I try to remember them and write them down later, to use as a detail in a story, or even the basis of a whole story.

Over Christmas, I was reading a book that I've had for awhile, which is about writing dialogue. I bought it years ago and remember reading it the first time in my freshman year of college. I don't know about when the eavesdropping became a habit, but I do know that is when I started scribbling down what other people are saying. The author recommends it, as a way to both catch interesting and unusual ways people have of saying things (to give your dialogue a more interesting and realistic flavor) and just to get a feel for the patterns and flow of real-life dialogue.

Dialogue in your stories shouldn't imitate real-life dialogue exactly, because when you study how people actually talk, you find that:

#1 - People hem and haw a lot and say umm... and you know.... a lot in ways that will drag your fictional (and memior) dialogue down and lose your reader's interest.

#2 - People say a lot of cliche things, and as writers, we need to avoid cliche most of the time. We live in a media-saturated culture, in which life often imitates "art", or media, at least. High school and college-age kids are especially prone to this, with whole conversations that consist almost exclusively of quotes from movies and TV shows.

But if you weed out the cliches, people often say things in interesting and unique ways, which reveal their character, background, and personality (Sometimes, though, a characters reliance on cliche and pop culture could say a lot about their personality. The important element here is that you know they are spouting cliches, and you intend for it to show something of their personality.) The trick is learning to pick out these gems and then learn also how to create similar gems of your own for your characters.

I think it is easy for a writer to slip into TV-style dialogue where the characters are revealing information to each other that they already know, for the benefit of the reader/viewer more than the benefit of the story. Some of that is necessary in TV, because of the limitations of the medium. There are commercial breaks, everything has to happen in 22 or 45 minutes, you can't show the inner workings of character's minds without using voice-overs or dialogue.

I found a site with episode transcripts of a variety of shows, TwizTV. It can be useful to go through a transcript of a show and notice where the dialogue works and where it doesn't.

I am curious about what others think about this habit of eavesdropping and recording it: is it something you find rude, something you do yourself, something you would consider doing? It's a pretty ingrained habit for me now, and one I don't think I will be changing. Until I saw Brandon's reaction, it didn't even seem like something that might be unusual.


DJ said...

Amanda, I thought writers eavesdropping was supposed to be a well kept secret! Shhhh! You're not supposed to admit to it!
I overhear everything I can. Unfortunately, I have to lip read a lot, so I don't overhear much! It isn't one of my better skills. :-)

MadeByAmanda said...

When I was in Ecuador, I never did get good at eavesdropping on conversations in Spanish. I could only really catch more than a phrase or two if there was something big and dramatic going on, with yelling.