Exercise: Eavesdropping

Last writing exercise of the quarter. In earlier carnations of this course I’ve given it early on and it’s never gone as well as I thought it maybe should. Was ready to give up on it as a pedagogical near miss.

This time though, with some tweaking, a different timing, and some reminders of what else we’ve talked about, something new has kept happening. I get to get glad all over again seeing what they’ve done. I’ll ask one last time for their okays to post some.

Go somewhere people talk. Listen in on their conversations. Try to spend at least an hour there, scavenging for interesting bits of speech or interaction. Do your best to write them down just as you hear them. Don’t use a tape recorder — mis-hearings are as interesting as hearings.

At home, look through the material you’ve gathered. Underline the bits that excite your interest or curiosity (listen to those antennae). Write them out on a new page. You might choose only a single phrase, or a single exchange, or bits and pieces from all through your notes, depending on the material, and what in it moves you.

Working with those seed materials, and making up as little or as much as you want, create a scene half a page long. It should have a beginning, middle, and end, but it doesn’t need to be a complete short story — you can, and probably should, imagine it as a scene in a longer story.

All scene. No exposition. Objective point of view. Most of the words should be spoken by a character. Keep dialogue tags (“she said,” “he said”) to a minimum. Avoid ponderous verbs (“declared,” “stated,” “hinted,” etc.) and adverbs (“wittily,” “angrily,” etc.).

A few reminders advisements provocations —

  • Remember the iceberg. Ninety percent of the story is not in the words but in what the words suggest or imply. Tune those antennae to subtext.
  • Dialogue gets interesting when characters talk at cross-purposes (e.g., answering a question with another question, changing topic, ignoring the other person’s change of topic.) Also interesting are unusual expressions that reveal a personality, and leaps or gaps that hint at unspoken emotion. (These are all ways of creating subtext.)
  • Every phrase should contribute something new to the scene (e.g., developing character, establishing conflict, moving plot forward).
  • As writers we try to avoid clichés. But people often talk in clichés. For this exercise, avoid the clichés you hear, and stick to the curious, the strange, the interesting.
  • If you’re having trouble getting your scene to resonate, try writing it twice as long — a full page — and then make cuts to create interesting dynamics or juxtapositions.

Finally. Go somewhere unusual people have unusual conversations. Try to make it a place you’ve never been before. Try to listen in on people who are unlike you and the people you hang around with.