Writers love to eavesdrop. There’s no better grist for the mill than the conversation of strangers, not intended for your ears. On a craft level, eavesdropping is a wonderful exercise in learning to write authentic dialogue. The overheard do not explain what or whom they are talking about for the benefit of Nosey in the seat behind them, and yet Nosey gets the gist of it along with the frisson of stolen pleasure. That’s what you want from dialogue! The eavesdropper has to try to make sense of what’s being said and in so doing becomes a truly engaged listener. Aren’t those exactly the kind of readers we crave?
Eavesdropping, after all, is what literature is all about. The reader is the proverbial fly on the wall, vicariously delighted or horrified at what is taking place. And so it’s not surprising that the overheard conversation is a mainstay of literature, especially for young readers. How many dastardly plans have been heard through keyholes, in the pages of a book? It’s a popular conceit that can easily backfire and strain the reader’s suspension of critical doubt. There’s the gratuitous just-happened-by nature of it all. Unless of course it’s the coincidence that starts the book. (The only coincidence we can ever really get away with).
The young protagonist who is actively attempting to overhear something he’s not meant to hear is more believable but you have to be careful that what he hears really sounds like conversation and not simply a convenient platter of plot point. The worst example of this is the conversation ostensibly already in progress that still manages, somehow, to provide all the pertinent information the character needed to hear.
When we write from a limited viewpoint, either in first or second person, there is much that must happen off-stage. For that matter, even in a novel of Dickensian omniscience, not every scene that happens can be recorded. That would have to be renamed the excruciatingly boring omniscient point of view.
But here’s something to think about. I’ve just written a scene that will definitely not be in my new middle grade novel. Moth has just confessed something dreadful to his mother in the hope that she will come clean about her own big secret. He goes off to his room, disgruntled, fuming. Dad comes home and mom knows she has to tell him what just transpired and, in so doing, has to reveal to her husband at least some of her guilty secret. I understood this scene would have to happen the moment I’d finished the scene between Moth and his mother. But even if it occurred to Moth to try to overhear what his parents might need to talk about, there would be no way on earth mom would let that happen.
The thing is, this author had to know what went down between mom and dad; just how much mom would confess; how angry or understanding dad would be; how unsettled they both would be, when next Moth saw them. I gave Dad a beer and wrote the scene like dialogue in a play, since it would never appear in print.
Little did I know that in overhearing that mom-dad scene the whole story would shift, inescapably, in a way that I had not foreseen. I had no idea what Dad was up to. Neither had mom!