Wednesday, September 3, 2014

You Should Be Eavesdropping

Have you ever been in a park, or a mall somewhere and picked up pieces of a conversation from a few feet away? While its rude to listen in on other people's conversations, one of the techniques I learned in my writing classes was the concept of shadowing. As a blind writer, shadowing isn't done the same way for me it is for other people. The concept of shadowing is to pick someone with an interesting appearance and follow them for a while. Find out where they go, what they're wearing, who they talk to, what they talk about and notice details to expand them into a character. Most of this is done with your eyes. I shadow with my ears.
Therefor, I eavesdrop on a lot of other people's conversations. It helps me build dialogue, distinguish tics, or dialects in speech that flesh out characters and give me ideas for stories. It's a great tool and can be fun.
However, as i read for my Author Review blogs, I've discovered the idea of ease dropping is present in good stories. If I sit down in the food court at the Mall, I'm not going to hear the teenage girls talking beside me go into lengthy details about their back story. Their conversation will not sound like this:
"I hate Emily Pugh.Ever since she dumped Bobby, you know the kicker on the football team who wants to join the marines and drives the camouflage jeep. Ever since they fought over her Mom not letting Emily date Bobby because he's too violent and her Mom comes from an abusive ex-husband. Ever since then..."
"Oh, girl Did you know she already hooked up with Kenny Clark, he wears the black trench coat and smokes out behind the bleachers with Rob Eden, the guy who should have graduated last year, Evan Mitchell-the freshman with the snake tattoo on his left hand and Brad Heath-the dude with the Australian accent? Even though Brad never lived anywhere except White Plains when he was like two years old."
It's more likely you'll hear something like this:
"Seriously, I totally hate her."
"She's such a skank. I saw her making out with Kenny two days after she broke up with Bobby."
"Uugh, he's gross, I'd never go at it with a smoker."
"Better a smoker, than a creeper."
The back story from the first conversation may help you imagine what is going on in the second exchange, but natural dialogue doesn't provide many details. One of the best parts of being a fiction writer is getting to formulate scenes, dialogue, and story lines that go where you, the writer, want them to go. The problem is, it can't sound like the author is talking to the reader. It has to sound as if the reader is eavesdropping on the story:
The tobacco odor wrinkled Kayla's nose. Her air vents let the cloud of grey drift past the bleachers, throughout her car,  and then into her upholstery.
"Is that Kenny Clark?" she asked Becca. The red head tucked one curl behind her ear as she shifted in the seat beside Kayla.  Who?"
"The blond over there with the smokers?"
"I...think so. I didn't know he hung with those guys."
"Emily's  gonna' freak."
When Becca's brow only wrinkled, Kayla sighed. "Didn't I tell you. Bobby and Emily broke up last week."
Becca shrugged. "I knew they would. I heard he joined up."
"Did you also hear, Emily was making out with Kenny at Josh's party this weekend?"
Now you, the reader are in the backseat of the car, forming idea's and emotions about what's happening. It's an empowering experience for your reader to feel they are privy to a story. They can safely make judgements, observations, develop crushes, or hatred for the characters all on their own and not feel the author informing or lecturing them.
There are exceptions to the eavesdropping analogy though, A writer who tells the story from a narrative point of view can talk to the reader. Often in middle grade novels, the author will entertain the reader by making observations, jokes, or planting a promise of something exciting to come. Kids actually enjoy this type of 'voice'.
I've read narrative points of view that have been done well and accomplish this for adults. The "Odd Thomas" series by Dean Koontz is a good example.
For me, personally, though...I want to eavesdrop. When I start hearing information dumps, or lectures from my fiction, I'm done.
Go back through your manuscripts or short stories and ask yourself some questions:
-Who needs this information? is it the reader or a character in the story? If it's your reader; tell the story, working the information into dialogue, scene or setting but not lectures or back story.
-If you overheard the dialogue, would you feel the characters are talking to each other, or to you?
-If your character needs a description can you narrow it down to two features and trust your reader to fill in the rest?
-If you are tagging your dialogue, is it because the words don't convey the emotion? How can you make the emotion clear in your words?
The next time you read a good book, pay attention to whether or not you enjoy author in a narrative voice. Or if you'd rather eavesdrop?

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