Friday, April 06, 2007

The Art of Eavesdropping

Undergrowth with Two Figures,
Vincent van Goth,
oil on canvas, 1890.
Cincinnati Art Museum.


A beloved contrivance by writers.

The crucial conversation, the secret council, nefarious designs, schemes, conspiracies, the plans, overheard by the hero.

While he conveniently lurks in a closet, under a table, behind a couch, a door, an arras, or crouched in the shadow of a rock, in the undergrowth, below a window, by a wall near a gate.

I say the hero, because the heroine usually catches only a sentence or two which sends her into deeper trouble, while the hero manages to catch the crucial bits.

Must be her ever-pounding heart that interferes with her hearing. Noisy, loud things, hearts, especially in females.

Only one writer I've read in recent memory, L.E. Modesitt, makes use of overheard coversation to enlarge his main character, rather than facilitate the plot.
Further, the event often occurs naturally - sans lurk - when his character is passing through a crowd, or at an inn, in a courtyard, at a market.

A technique of particular value when the narration progresses in first person.
Since his main character is always of a modest persuasion, the reader may absorb how others think of the hero without concluding he is a conceited ass, and without the approbation provided by direct conversation with another character.


Sonya said...

Wow -- I just realized that I use a variation of this device in my current stuff (some of my characters can read minds... the ultimate eavesdropping! :-)

I'll have to go back and see how many times they actually rely on this to make things happen. I don't think it's too often.

Thank you for the food for thought, Bernita!

Bernita said...

Sonya, I didn't mean to suggest that the standard approach - in body or in mind - was a tired cliche, just wished to point out a useful variation.

Sonya said...

Oh, no! I didn't think that. It's just that I realized the device I'm using might be construed as one of those too-convenient plot devices!

Your examples are excellent ones. Sorry about muddling up my comment! :-) I need more coffee...

Bernita said...

Oh, good.
But in your case, ie. mind reading, it follows logically, does it not?
Any question of the ethics of intrusion aside, as well as the virtues of the intelligence gained, you would not have to always physically manipulate your characters into the proper position?

Jaye Wells said...

I hadn't thought of using the eavesdropping to reveal character. Makes sense. I have used it in the past for plot purposes. As you said, it's a useful technique in first person.

Anissa said...

That's definitely an interesting thought, Bernita. I like the idea of it occurring naturally too. Definitely something to think about. Great tip!

Bernita said...

Listeners sometimes might hear good about themselves, Jaye.
I'm ignoring the overheard instances where the heroine misunderstands a comment and goes off in a sulk, splits with the hero, etc. - the Great Wrench Device.

Thank you, Anissa. I thought it was an interesting variant.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Now that's a device I've never actually thought of, and I never read first person books...don't ask me why, but...

I wonder what would happen if I made a list of devices and used each one at least once to write a manuscript?

Oh, and keep Needful Things, *snort* unless you're really trying to publish it, then I think the master might complain...

Bernita said...

It would also work in third, Bonnie, and I don't mean a voice from the mob yelling "Burn the witch!" or some such.
You might end up with a best seller.
I doubt if he would either notice or bother. Don't think titles are copyright in any event.

raine said...

Yes, yes, yes.

Yes, the hero's eavesdropping is usually very deliberate (to further the cause of some important agenda, no doubt), while the heroine usually stumbles into it on stiletto heels, never quite getting the full gist of it, yes.

Yes. :-)

Bernita said...

Definitely a gender gap there, Raine!

spyscribbler said...

And here I thought you were going to talk about writers eavesdropping. I love eavesdropping; you can really learn a lot about humans and dialogue!

I'm not crazy about the standard approach, but ... what you suggest is wise!

Bernita said...

Just a deviation I happened to notice, Natasha. Modesitt does some interesting things.

Ballpoint Wren said...

It's not my ever-pounding heart that prevents me from eavesdropping on a complete conversation. Typically, it's my need to visit the rest room.

In the old days, eavesdropping was considered rude, so I guess we ladies never developed the chops for it, at least, not in heroine circles, anyway.

Bernita said...

Bonnie, it is simply amazing what one can overhear in a rest room!

Ballpoint Wren said...

LOL! How true, Bernita, how true!

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