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How do you write overhearing people?

Discussion in 'Fanfic Discussion' started by Sesc, May 24, 2019.

  1. Sesc

    Sesc Slytherin at Heart Moderator

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    I started to think about this because it wasn't immediately clear to me, and I was dissatisfied with what I had written. The general setup is the following: Two people are talking. A third person is listening, but not talking, for obvious reasons. Hence, you have a dialogue that is performed without the POV-character involved.

    The problem that now arises: Assume you have third person limited POV -- or, even worse, a first person POV. By having the POV-character uninvolved in the dialogue, but still needing to show the dialogue for the reader, the POV by default shifts. If you do nothing further than writing out the dialogue, especially if it's a lengthy one, you are suddenly in a third person omni POV; in terms of cameras: moving from looking at the scene throught the eyes of the original POV-character to looking down from above on the two other characters talking. And this is jarring.

    If it was a regular dialogue, or even an open scene, this issue wouldn't arise as you would simply involve the POV character. But due to the secret nature of the eavesdropping, the POV by definition can't be involved.


    The obvious answer is to reflect what is said, show the thoughts of the POV-character, his reactions, feelings etc. to what he hears. But there is a limit; you can only push this so far before it gets silly. If the dialogue that is supposed to be overheard stretches on for pages, this won't do.

    Consequently, you need to either limit the overheard dialogue, or break it up by a inserting some sort of action of the POV-character. Most likely, both.

    This is an unsatisfying conclusion, but the only one I could come up with. Comments and suggestions welcome.
     
  2. Silirt

    Silirt Auror DLP Supporter

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    To answer the question as asked, I have the thoughts of the POV character in italics, no matter who's speaking or whatever else is going on. One time I had a character tailing a pair of non-perspective characters in conversation. The character can't see them as they're talking and has to focus on moving around silently, so it's very much limited to his perspective, as the only visual window into the story is his eyes. It was not a drawn-out conversation by any means, but avoiding an overlong conversation, whether eavesdropped or not, is a good rule in general. I suppose I should put this in an author's note somewhere, but thoughts in my stories are assumed to take place instantly, so the insertion of the perspective character's thoughts, to the tune of- That explains why you were lying earlier- in response to a revelation from a talking character does not lengthen the time that passes in the scene. Having the thoughts of the POV inserted into the dialogue as it's taking place seems to remind me at least that we have access to the thoughts of that character and only that character, which is not the case with omniscient narrators.
    I'm confused as to why you find your conclusion unsatisfying. Did you wish to write a really long conversation to be overheard by the perspective?
     
  3. Sesc

    Sesc Slytherin at Heart Moderator

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    Indeed, yes. The conversation is quite long. It's (of course) a means to convey information the POV and the reader otherwise wouldn't have, and I suppose that is the underlying issue -- I just need to find a better way to work that information into the story. But leaving that aside for the moment, I wondered whether someone had come up with a better way to solve the eavesdropping issue in general.

    Regular dialogue can't be too long, I can write an entire chapter with nothing but one long conversation, and it won't get tedious. But that is because I have a lot more tools at hand to structure it, as opposed to the limited, very static nature of eavesdropping.
     
  4. wordhammer

    wordhammer Supreme Mugwump DLP Supporter

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    You could make the overheard conversation only partly understandable. That way the POV character gets periodic need to interpolate what was heard with some evaluation of meaning; it's like a short mystery puzzle. The scene involves incomplete information, so both POV character and reader must complete it. The trick is finding key pieces of the puzzle to remove that wouldn't invalidate the overheard conversation.

    A version I used, however brief:
     
  5. Garden

    Garden Minister of Magic

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    Stuff I'd put in, interspersed with overhead dialogue:

    1. moving closer to repositioning to hear more-- "Harry snuck closer, taking care that his sneakers didn't scuff and give away his position"

    2. internal dialogue on what the sneaking character thinks of what he's overhearing-- "So that's why they've been avoiding me, he thought furiously. Ron and Hermione are off buggering away while I'm stuck with nothing but Fred and George's toy wands! "

    3. hard to do well, but sometimes fragments of dialogue can work:

    "Hagrid said ---dog-- don't know where" Ron said, and Harry struggled to hear the rest. A dog? Why would Hagrid care about a non-magical, non-scary dog? He already has Fang.

    Fragments of dialogue can get annoying to type out and read sometimes, but I've seen it done well occasionally.
     
  6. Sorrows

    Sorrows Queen of the Flamingos Moderator DLP Gold Supporter

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    It depends on whether your charecter can see or just hear the conversation. Personally I think things to keep in mind are:

    What information absolutely needs to be conveyed and how can it be conveyed in as little direct speech as possible?

    How can you make it not seem like it is super convenient that the eavesdropper just so happened to hear exactly the information needed?

    How well can the eavesdropper hear the conversation, can you skip non-relevent sections by having the sound of their voices fade/be covered? Are they trapped for a long period of time and tune out of the boaring stuff untill some phrase or name jerks them back into listening?

    Once you have trimmed it to the nessasary parts, you can fill it out with a number of things
    • What noises etc, give the listener clues as to how the conversation is playing out/being reacted too (pacing/crying/tone of voice etc.)
    • How the listener reacts to the news.
    • Whether there is any tension about them getting caught eavesdropping.
    • Whether they can do anything (perhaps taking risks) to hear better or see the conversationalists.
    • Whether anything can get misconstrued.
    At the end of the day, it's a rather blunt force plot device and should be used sparingly, but it's common for a reason and has its own utility.
     
  7. Utsane

    Utsane First Year

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    I feel that the problem can be solved by calling attention to the inherent change of focus that comes along with eavesdropping. If you were, for example, to hide in a closet and eavesdrop on a conversation: where is your focus? From what I can imagine, you are only conscious of two main things: the conversation you are listening in on, and staying hidden. Calling the reader's attention to those two things would keep them in the head-space of the narrator, while still allowing the author to write a long conversation that the narrator is not a participant of.

    I would use language such as, "Harry heard him sigh, before continuing, "I'm not even sure whether or not..."." or "Harry stifled a gasp at that; he couldn't be discovered before he found out exactly when they would be meeting next." or " The thin gaps in the closet door allowed Harry to see the disgust on his face when he said, "Well, I guess we'll have to."."

    Hopefully that helps a little!
     
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2019
  8. the-phony-pony

    the-phony-pony Muggle

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    I think you hit the nail on the head when you mention trying to work the information into the story in other ways. Long dialogue isn't bad in of itself, but it has to serve a purpose. If we can increase the exposition without boring the reader, then that makes the most sense.

    I really like @wordhammer's example of having bits and pieces of the conversation filter to the narrator's perspective. If I'm listening in on a conversation, it makes the most sense that I might space out for a moment or lose the trail of speech if my attention is pulled by someone else.
     
  9. Salsa

    Salsa Seventh Year

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    Both @Garden and @wordhammer nailed it I think.

    If the main character is eavesdropping and trying to hear as much as possible (think every Assassin's Creed game ever), it should be long, drawn-out, but also with details like, as @Garden put it:

    Sneakers scuffling, avoiding twigs on the ground, maybe doing something that either makes the mission of eavesdropping fail or almost fail.

    Indeed, the observer's thoughts should be interspersed among the other bits of descriptive detail. And, of course, the view and thoughts the eavesdropper has should be biased, unless it isn't for some reason.
     
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