My late father-in-law loved people. He celebrated their successes, and he was curious about their lives. It was one of the reasons I loved him. He was the best person to sit in a café with, eavesdropping on conversations. It did get out of hand once, in St Andrews in Scotland. We were in a small café, sheltering from the rain. The tables were quite close together and at our next table, a mother and a young woman were drinking tea. The older woman was attempting to ask the younger woman – her daughter, we guessed – about the young man who’d been in her dorm room that morning.
My father-in-law, John, and I stopped our own conversation and leaned a tiny bit closer to the next table. This was a great conversation. The balance between the mother’s worry – and curiosity – and the daughter’s desire for privacy was excruciating.
Now, I don’t mean to boast here – but I am a seasoned eavesdropper. Subtle. Invisible. I am a ninja eavesdropper. My father-in-law, not so much. As the conversation became more intense and more awkward, John edged so close to the other table he pretty much had his elbows in their cake dish. Eventually, dropping all subtlety, he faced them, turning his head to each of them in turn as they spoke, as though he were watching a tennis match.
We left before he started offering advice.
Listening to snatches of dialogue, snippets of other people’s words or conversations, can be a delicious thrill. Delicious because it invites us to fill in the blanks, to imagine the moment or scene or life that happened just out of shot – just before this conversation, or a year earlier. What tensions led to this conversation? What has been unspoken? And it invites us to wonder about what might happen next.
And wondering is a keystone in writing.
Your task today is to eavesdrop. Listen to a snatch of a conversation. Ninja style.
Listen to people walking past on the street. In the corner shop. On the phone. Listen to the neighbours in the back garden. Find a few of lines of dialogue and scribble it down. Listen to the words in your head – does the person speaking seem like they have a particular way of speaking? If you can hear two people (as opposed to listening to someone on the phone), do they sound different? What gives the speech its particular quality? Is there anything that you might exaggerate, if you were to write a character from this line of dialogue?
And then, if you feel inspired, write the conversation that preceded the moment you dropped in on. Or, if you’d rather, write the conversation that takes place afterwards. Exaggerate the manners of speaking – the rhythms, the habits of speech, the repeated phrases. Let it lead you into invention.
Make it a habit, this listening with open curiosity. Not merely today, but always. Listen to the way people speak – the things they say and the things that are beneath the surface. Listen to the pauses, listen to the hesitations. And listen to the non-sequiturs – those moments when the conversation appears to veer off (it literally means it does not follow and those moments happen in conversation all the time.) But stay on your side of the table.
Your prompt for today…
She’s standing in a doorway…