A Writer Who Eavesdrops

… automatically has material for his or her book.

I know, I know. Eavesdropping is rude. You’ll hear things you don’t want to know and you’ll regret it. That’s why I suggest you don’t eavesdrop on friends and family.

But strangers?

They’re free game.

Public places are great for listening in. Think coffee shops, restaurants, or standing in line at the DMV. Crowds provide this illusion of conversational privacy, and people chit chat without censoring themselves as much as a result. They don’t really think about others listening in as much, in part because they’re surrounded by strangers, and what stranger cares about another stranger’s private conversation?

If you’re a writer, caring could be a good idea, because eavesdropping is a fantastic resource.

1. The patterns and rhythms of natural conversation

When you’re talking to someone, you generally pay more attention to what is being said than to how because you need to be able to respond. Your attention is divided between taking in the other person’s message and formulating your own. When you’re eavesdropping, you can focus all your energy on listening, however, so you can more easily pick up on how people talk to one another. Think about interruptions, feedback, emphasis, monologues, slang, and the like. It can be really helpful when you’re writing dialogue to think back on natural conversations like this.

2. The creative opportunities of context

You don’t know who these people are. You may be able to guess, but you don’t know their relationship, how often they see one another, or even necessarily where or how the conversation started or will end. Eavesdropping gives you only little bits and pieces—and you can build the fluff around them. It’s a wonderful creative challenge. Why are these people speaking in this way to one another? How did they arrive at this topic? How do they know each other? What’s the situation of their interaction—are they on a date, a business meeting, or just hanging out with a friend? Etc.

3. People say weird shit

… especially when they don’t think anybody’s listening, and especially when you don’t have context. Remember the last time you sat down in a restaurant. If you’re not yelling, the backs of the chairs or booths feel almost like a cone of silence. The people at the next table aren’t listening to you. Why would they be? It doesn’t occur to most people that someone might be listening in.

So take advantage of these things. Ask for a table near the kitchens and listen to the waiters gossip and the cooks shout at one another, or listen to the mother scolding her child while you’re waiting to update your driver’s license, or pay attention to that terribly awkward first date happening behind you.


Thanks for reading!
Do you eavesdrop on others? Why or why not?
If you’re a writer, what other strategies
do you use for writing good dialogue?


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6 thoughts on “A Writer Who Eavesdrops

  1. Ha! I always eavesdrop when I’m out in the world. People say some crazy things! Whether I find what they say silly, dumb, or actually well thought out, it’s always good to save it away for a potential story idea. I keep a little notebook in my purse so that I can write these things down on the go! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really believe that eavesdropping – although not socially acceptable – is very good when it comes to writing. I’m a people observer, so not only do I watch what people do (I swear I’m not a creep) but I listen to their conversations as well. I agree that not only can you find technique for whoring dialogue, but you can formulate multiple stories out of the things you hear people say! Loved this post! xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

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