Most people would probably refer to it as ‘eavesdropping’ but frankly, that sounds a little rude. Overhearing might be a little bit nicer, but if we’re going for honesty, listening in to other people’s conversations is rude. As a writer, it’s one of the best places to find ideas, both for stories and characters.
Out-of-context snippets are filled with questions, largely because of the lack of context. When you don’t have any information on a conversation besides one piece, it can ignite a lot of questions. When you need something to spark idea however, the almost nonsensical things you overhear provides a lot of good sparks and probably more than a little fuel.
I make it a habit to keep a notebook with me. Usually it’s just a small one I carry in my purse so I can jot notes down (usually right alongside my shopping list). Notebooks being what they are however, they do eventually get filled, and I finally got around to transferring most of the notes in my previous one to the computer, which is what brought up today’s post. Sometimes the best way to find an idea is to listen.
Overall, I have about two hundred lines so far. Some of my favorites:
- “What’s she up to today, besides basking in her own glory?”
- “The frozen broccoli is only for emergencies.”
- “He strikes me as a decent fellow for a penguin.”
- “You do not have a good selection of funeral attire.”
- “Well I had her veil so they knew not to shoot me.”
- “My blood pressure disagrees.”
- “Tell Santa I don’t give a damn what he says.”
As an exercise: The next time you’re out in public, listen to the conversations around you. Don’t intrude on them, but take note of interesting lines. Without the context of the original conversation, what lines and snippets inspire new stories?
Dialogue is a staple of any story. Along with dialogue, dialogue tags usually go hand in hand with it. That however, brings in the question of how exactly you tag it.
You might have heard the phrase ‘said is dead’ from one school of thought on the matter. On one hand, said is a common tag. He-said, she-said quite literally. On the other hand, you might very well have heard that said scans easily and doesn’t interrupt the reader’s flow.
So which one of those is right? To use said and only use other tags minimally? Or to try and avoid the dreaded ‘said’ verb?
Answering that: which do you prefer? In this case it’s a matter of style. Both have their pros and their cons.
Said does scan easily which can be great for large blocks of dialogue where you have quick exchanges. This doesn’t interrupt the flow and can help prevent your readers from getting lost in several lines of exchange.
Said is a very basic way of saying someone spoke, which can lead you into a problem if how someone said something is important. For instance if someone said something in a snappish way, your options are:
- they said in a snappish way (6 words)
- they said snappily (3 words)
That however, leads us into
You can say something in a snappy way when you retort, snap or snarl. That’s one word compared to the above versions of six or three. In places where tone and word count matter, alternatives can be invaluable.
Alternatives aren’t always necessary, especially if the words of the dialogue themselves convey the tones being used. Secondly, they can cause unintentional alliteration when paired with certain character names (Rebecca retorts, Sam snarls, Quinn questions and so on and so forth).
Whatever you choose, it’s going to come down to your personal preference. You may find you prefer ‘said’ for some situations, and an alternative for others.