Editing a client manuscript, I encountered a scene built around eavesdropping. The scenario was familiar. Bedraggled woman caught between two men. On the threshold of a palatial bedroom, she listens to a hush-hush conversation full of details about her love life.
You’ve seen the movie. You’ve read the book. It’s timeless. Eavesdropping works on so many levels.
Except in this manuscript, well… it didn’t quite work. As I wrote out my comments to the author, I got to thinking about what makes an eavesdropping scene work.
Spying On Someone Is Dangerous:
Think of drama as a game of cat and mouse. Someone possesses access to knowledge. Another character needs that knowledge in order to complete their journey.
Sure, this is an oversimplification but it works.
Listening in on someone’s private conversations can be a very dangerous game. The cat is capable of crushing the mouse if it is unfortunate enough to be discovered.
Eavesdropping is about your main character getting secret information. The risk factor must be twofold. What if they’re caught by the person their listening to?
What if they’re exposed to the world?
What do people say in private? The truth. Proximity to the truth is what makes getting access to that private place valuable.
Why does the truth come out in private? For one thing there is much less risk involved. The person is choosing to confide in someone they trust, away from the person who presents some danger to them.
Behind closed doors, people say what they mean. That closed door is symbolic of security. It is safety. When your protagonist breaches that safety, they need to gain sacred knowledge, unless…
Eavesdropping Is Imperfect:
…they get the opposite. Misdirection. In genres like mystery or comedy, misdirection is invaluable.
The closed door may be symbolic of security, but it becomes its own agent of deception. Closed doors dampen sound. They muffle voices. People talking closely become hard to separate. Your character has as much chance of misunderstanding the truth as they do of getting to the heart of the matter.
An eavesdropping scene can be tough to write because, as the writer you know what’s going on behind the scenes. If you can pull it off though, the upside is tremendous. What is said behind closed doors might be misunderstood and that might put your character down the wrong road.
Eavesdropping Contains Competing Points Of View:
There is little more tedious in fiction than dolled up exposition. So often I see manuscripts filled with scenes where one character is delivering exposition to another character for no good reason other than it is time for the audience or reader to know.
Conflict is the heart of drama. Without it, the scene fails.
If two characters are sharing information behind closed doors there needs to be competing points of view between them. Otherwise, it’s exposition. Your character really should be listening in on a conflict taking place between two other characters. It raises the stakes for the characters involved and, as emotions begin to spiral on the inside of the door, it enhances the danger on the outside of the door.
Dialog is a critical tool for telling your story. Think of dialog as a series of send and receive messages. Scenes are pretty boring if they are built on clear send/receive send/receive exchanges, so this is why writers are obligated to create complications, like a closed door and an overactive imagination.
When you are building complications for your dialog scenes, whatever they may be, be sure you’re taking them as far as they need to. Furthermore, try and think about why a certain device is compelling. What complications does eavesdropping present? Why does it work?
If your character is going to sneak and spy, consider why that might be interesting to your readers. Better yet, devise a way to turn the reader’s expectations on your character.
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