Fly on the Wall

by limebirdlaura

Do you ever get the urge to be a creep?

Is your life missing a certain excitement?

Do you ever wish mall security would escort you out, but they never do?

Well put down your remote and pick up your phone, because have I got a deal for you! For 12 easy payments of 87.43 I will tell you the secret of writing awesome dialogue.

Is the camera capturing my good side? Great, I must look amazing when I tell you this.

All you need to do is discreetly kinda sorta accidentally overhear other people’s conversations! You know, be a fly on the wall. Now, if they see you overhearing them, start muttering to yourself about fairies or something and surely they will just leave you alone.

It’s even better if you have a tape recorder – and thankfully a lot of phones now days have a recording function on them. Just record some conversations and later when you’re alone in your room without people staring at you wondering why you are muttering about fairies, you can pour over your recorded conversations. Now, ideally if people are out in public talking, they shouldn’t be talking about overly personal or private things – but if they do then that’s on them, not you. But hey, you just might end up with some free entertainment if they do!

Also, people talk in different ways depending on who they are speaking to. I work at a call center taking escalated phone calls (you know, the ultra grouchy people), and to them I put on my sugary sweet voice using a professional tone and professional words.

I certainly don’t talk that way to my husband, though. In fact, I did a voice over for him recently for a film project of his, and almost died when he played it back and IΒ  heard myself. I thought I can’t really sound like that, can I? Then I realized, the voice over voice I used was the same voice I use when speaking to my customers. And just like I don’t talk to my husband in the same way I talk to customers, I don’t talk to my dad the same way I talk to my husband. I’m sure everyone does this. You can be crass with your girlfriends, but not to your grandma.

I have done this a time or two by placing my phone on my table in a restaurant and letting it record for a while. I’m not going to lie, I felt like a major creep! But I think it can be beneficial to hear how people talk. I’m a people watcher so I pretty much do this while I’m out all the time, just without the recorder.

Listening to the way other people talk is a great way to get ideas on making dialogue sound more organic. In screenplays especially, the dialogue needs to be fluid so you don’t have a character yammering on for 5 minutes while everyone else is standing around drooling.

And here is just an example of some different ways dialogue can be. For instance, you might have a scene with two girlfriends trying to decide what to do for the night:

What do you want to do tonight?

I don’t know, what do you want to do tonight?

That might sound fine for the type of characters you have. But your characters might be a little more informal and fancy free and sound better like this:

Whatcha wanna do tonight?

Dunno, you?

Of course it all depends on the script, the situation and the characters

Has anyone ever tried this to help dialogue sound more organic? Did it help any?


29 Comments to “Fly on the Wall”

  1. Ohh Laura, you always make me giggle and I’ve definitely done this before. I haven’t taken it up to uber stalker level and recorded them, but I have sat there and listened to the way people talk. I’d love to know if people have done this! πŸ™‚

    Great post Laura! Really useful idea!

    • Hehe I’m glad to make you giggle πŸ˜€

      Once we had to do this for a class and then come back and act out the “scene” we had eavesdropped on.. oh it was really creepy!

  2. I do the same thing. I have been told I write great dialogue. Since, I have autism I have been spying on people my entire life, so to speak. Not just listening to their dialogue, but also watching how they remove their coat, their posture, mannerisms, etc. Part of my therapy was writing these things down and talking about them during a session. I’m always surprised this is a technique that other writers do not think of. Fiction is based on reality.

    Thanks for sharing the technique and not charging me. Sometimes the simple answer is right in front of us, but we need someone to point it out to us.

    • I do the same, I’m always watching people to see how they are moving or acting. My friend and I can sit there just watching people forever until we realize that we have been staring at someone for like 30 min and force ourselves to stop πŸ˜€

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Laura, you’re so right that this talent of “listening in” is pretty much invaluable for writers, especially if you write plays or screenplays. In books, it’s easier to get away with slightly more formal speech: readers are reading, after all, not hearing. But hearing someone speak in a play or a film, we can tell a lot from their character just by their voice. Makes me a bit envious of screenwriters and playwrights, it does! πŸ˜€

    Nice post!

    • Definitely so, some of the most memorable movie characters have specific actions, the way they walk or speak or things like that – like Captain Jack Sparrow for instance.

  4. I just nominated you for two awards: Versatile Blogger and Beautiful Blogger! You don’t have to post them, I just wanted to share. is the link to the post.

  5. I’ve never gone so far as to record people, but I will keep an ear open when I’m in public. Honestly, given how LOUDLY some folks speak, I can’t help but do it sometimes! The entire restaurant can hear them, for heaven’s sake. And we can’t forget those people on their mobile phones who tell the entire street the very personal details of the lab results from their doctors! Ewww.

    I think most good writers, especially those who write good dialogue, have this innate ability to tune into the world around them. We just have to remember to do it without getting ourselves flattened by an angry research subject. πŸ™‚

    • I probably wouldn’t have thought to record anyone myself, but once it was required in an acting class of all things. We had to record a convo and then come back to class and act it out. And you are so right, sometimes people do not understand the meaning of inside voice. Especially in the bathroom! Folks on the phone in the toilet… it’s hard not to hear what they are saying.

  6. I love writing dialogue. It is one of my favorite parts of writing a story. I have listened into conversations, just like I observe people in any kind of setting. There are times when I have used something I overheard on the street or in a restaurant in a story. Obviously writers have to tweak it so that it fits the story seamlessly. The other helpful piece to this is that I’m not up on a lot of current lingo. So, listening to groups of people talking without filters makes for some educational eavesdropping πŸ™‚

    • That’s what I love about Stephen King’s writing, that he uses colloquialisms and things like that in his dialogue, I think it makes it more fun to read. I’ve become fascinated by dialects lately too and found YouTube to be handy in listening to different ways of speaking from around the country and world.

      • YouTube, what a great idea. I love Stephen King too, his dialogue sounds so genuine, so natural. Great article, thanks! I hadn’t tried it yet, I never seem to sit near enough to anyone else to hear anything.

      • I first stumbled on that because I’m from south-eastern Kentucky USA and apparently we talk funny here! LOL I had so many saying that my husband has never heard of and I found a clip on youtube of people saying the things I say, so I could prove to him I wasn’t making it up πŸ™‚

  7. Listening to conversations does help. As someone who used to adjudicate unemployment insurance for a state agency, I investigated cases through phone interviews, typing out pertinent statements in real time. One gets very adept at filtering words.

    You are right, so many ways to write dialogue, and the key no matter style is for it to move the story forward.

  8. Ooh, I like the idea, but I don’t think I would dare do it – knowing me, I would end up accidentally playing the recording back, loudly, right in front of the people I had just recorded. Don’t ask me how, I just know I would! But yes, watching and listening to people is very important for writers.

    • HAHA That really does sound like something I’d do too. This wasn’t related to screenwriting but once I was in a sound editing class and we had to go record ambiance with our sound equipment, which wasn’t a boom mic thank goodness but it was a big microphone and recorder. Anyway, I’m walking through the restaurant Olive Garden with a big mic and I wasn’t getting much but chatter and the music the play so I thought what the heck I’ll go record the bathroom, at least there you get toilet flushing and sinks and stuff. I got a lot of strange looks!

  9. You meanie head! The post I’ve had written, and not posted, for here was about people watching!

    Your idea is much creep- I mean better, than mine though. πŸ˜‰

    Just kidding. Recording or listening intently while pretending not to are on the same creep-level.

    • oh noo i’m sorry :-O Well post yours too! People watching can never get old, to me at least πŸ˜€ haha.
      I actually got this idea from a couple of different professors, one in an acting class and one in screenwriting. So it’s their fault, they did it! hehe

  10. When I read your examples I thought of all the lovely different ways people speak in Harry Potter. For that matter, they all write differently too. In grad school I was helping a foreign friend with her English and I had her read Harry Potter. She thought Hagrid was funny, but hated reading it because it was nearly incomprehensible for her.

    Now look, you went and got my memory going. That’s no good… πŸ™‚

  11. Heh, now I don’t feel so bad about ear wigging in our local Neros and typing the conversation I was hearing in my laptop.
    It was about religion and the three men were so passionate… I couldn’t help myself.
    Would have been easier to record it though. :-p

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