Eavesdroppers License

Eavesdropper's License

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As you’ve undoubtedly read in all those writing articles you've clipped out (you know, the ones filed under Helpful Hints at the back of the file cabinet), dialogue can make or break your story.

A conversation between two lovers who sound mechanical means the magazine hits the coffee table with the mail order catalogs. An argument between cop and criminal that borders on civility can land a story in the recycle bin.

Face it. If two of your characters are out of character, your story will be about as interesting as the poetry of Milton. Oops, apologies to Milton fans, but the point is that if your characters don't converse in a natural, modern way, then they might as well be bantering about Hades with the Prince of Darkness.

Coming up with good, interesting dialogue may be the hardest part of writing. For many writers, it's much more challenging than dreaming up great storylines, plots, and action. If you're like me and many other writers I know, anytime there's a lull in a conversation, your mind wanders to a great story idea. This is awkward when you rejoin the conversation and know only half of what's going on.

Dialogue is tough—and not because you don't know how to talk. It's because language changes. What's groovy one day is way cool the next. What's plastic on Monday becomes bogus on Friday.

Some people believe that the way to overcome their dialogue deficiency is to turn on the tube. Well, the kids on 90210 don't sound anything like the kids in Boston. And as a Texan let me say you must be plumb loco to believe the joiks on NYPD Blue sound like us h’yer.

And it’s no better to dig your dialogue out of the books you read. Sure, those writers may be conscientious listeners, but think about the writing process:

Write book in one year; submit for two years; get published one year later. Total: four years, minimum. Keep listening.

One reason dialogue's tough on writers is that we're such devoted workaholics that we sequester ourselves away with our typewriters, computers, or note pads and write, write, write. While this is a great work ethic, it means that unless you're a King, Oates, or Michener, you don't get invited to a lot of social functions—parties, to us blue-collar types.

It's in our social contacts that we pick up the best dialogue. If you go to a really hip, moving party, you'll probably walk away with one devil of a hangover—and enough dialogue for several books. Of course, because beer interferes with memory, after a really good party you may only remember enough for a short story. Perhaps this means you should go to a party every week. Hmmm , the benefits of writing are improving.

What this leads up to is that if you really want to improve your dialogue, you have to go out and hear someone speaking. Whether you're at a party, a cafe, a basketball game, or a biker bar, the way to know how your characters should talk is to go listen to how real people—not those in books—talk.

The best way to learn how people talk is to eavesdrop.

Oh, I know, Miss Manners would flog you if she discovered you doing this. But hey, Miss Manners doesn't put words in people's mouths. Well, I hope not.

Anyway, the best way to learn about people is to listen to them, and to listen to them when they don't know it. Think of yourself as an animal biologist. Then, when some big gorilla asks why you're messing with him, try to see whatever follows as simple primate behavior.


The tendency of people to sue or react violently makes it imperative to warn writers not to eavesdrop with the intention of ruining someone's day or getting the goods on Uncle Hank and that cute blonde. Eavesdrop at your own risk-and only to enhance your writing.

The thing is, listening in is legal. It's important that writers are up to date in the nuances of the language, so we have to listen. Professing to be a writer gives you a license to eavesdrop. Well, at least it gives you a justification.

So the next time that gorilla is about to turn your face into oatmeal because you were paying too much attention to his discussion, just whip out a copy of the license below, wave it in front of him, and say you were just doing your job.

While he looks the license over, run like crazy out of there (and back to your typewriter—or computer).

eavedropper's license

You can find more of Jay's work by visiting his link below or by scrolling down to his Readers Gazette details below :-
Visit Jay Williams at Thurber Brigade

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Geralt's contour at Pixabay

Geralt's silhouette at Pixabay

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As you’ve undoubtedly read in all those writing articles you\'ve clipped out (you know, the ones filed under Helpful Hints at the back of the file cabinet), dialogue can make or break your story. A conversation between...

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