Creative exercise title, right? But this exercise is just that simple—eavesdrop on conversations. The goal of this exercise is to hear how people actually talk, and possibly get some solid story ideas while you’re at it.
Go to a public setting with plenty of people. Great choices would be a coffee house, the bus, a restaurant, or even a museum. Basically, you want to pick a place where people are likely to talk, but it should be quiet enough that you can actually hear what they’re saying. Find a good spot in your public place and listen to a conversation. Ensure the people you’re listening in on don’t realize what you’re doing. If they realize what you’re up to, at the very least, they’ll change how they’re speaking to censor themselves; at most, they may give you a dirty look and leave in a huff. Subtlety is your friend here.
If you can write quickly, write every word they exchange. Write the conversation like a play script, with names (made up names are fine) and dialogue only. This is not an exercise in writing setting, imagery, or the like. Do NOT embellish how they speak. You’re taking dictation. If you can’t write fast enough (and they WILL speak faster than you think), record the conversation. A phone, Mp3 player, etc. with a recording capability is recommended. Don’t get out the camcorder on a tripod, okay? Remember, subtlety. Play back the conversation later and type up the dialogue at your own pace.
Note: Obviously, you should delete this recording after you’ve gotten what you need from it, and you’re responsible to not use it in any questionable way.
After trying this exercise, you’ll likely discover the horrible truth—people are often pretty poor speakers according to American grammar standards. We don’t speak in complete sentences, or even complete thoughts. No wonder when we write our perfect, poetic dialogue that it sounds trite or fake; it’s not realistic. Hopefully, the more you do exercises like this, the more natural your dialogue will become. Dialogue is one of those beautiful opportunities where you can toss proper grammar aside. Some of your characters may be very eloquent speakers, but certainly not all of them. Know how your characters would speak, not how they should speak.
This exercise may also give you some great ideas for a story. Maybe you’ll hear someone talking about an amazing vacation, a bad break up, or something as mundane as his coffee maker breaking. Maybe he inspires a brilliant image of that old, broken coffee maker, sitting on a counter in an otherwise perfect kitchen with all modern appliances. You can use those bits and pieces of images and that one gorgeous line of dialogue in your work. To be a good writer, you need to be a good observer. Stories are everywhere. You just need to pay attention.
By Madeleine Mozley
Images from FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Image credits in order of appearance: Ohmega1982, Sura Nualpradid.