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Learning to Write Dialogue: The Writer as Voyeur

Yesterday evening, around 7:45 pm, Nomi and I were going home on the Green Line C train, and we couldn't help but be fascinated by a conversation a young woman was having on her cell phone. She was facing the wall of the train, obviously intent on preserving some modicum of privacy, but the fact is that if you're choosing to have a conversation in a public space you have to accept that people around you will be privy to your words.

It was a rather heated conversation, too. At first I thought she was talking to her boss or a co-worker, as she was complaining about how she had already applied for her vacation days for next year, and now all her plans were going to be disrupted. The more we listened, however, the more we realized that the person on the other end of the phone was not her boss, but her boyfriend. Apparently, he had agreed to be in a friend's wedding, which was going to disrupt whatever plans the woman had already made with him.

As we were getting off the train, she was still talking to him, using phrases such as "you should treat me like a partner" and "I can't do this anymore." It sounded as if she breaking up with her boyfriend on her cell phone, while riding a moderately crowded train. And we weren't the only ones on the train intrigued by her conversation.

As Nomi and I walked home, I pondered the advice that fiction writers often get to pay close attention to people's conversations, the better to write dialogue. The fact that this woman was having this conversation on her cell phone meant that on the one hand, we weren't getting the full dialogue. On the other hand, I doubt it's a conversation we would have heard at all if it had not been for the false sense of privacy afforded to her by the cell phone.

So here's an exercise for writers: listen to someone's cell phone conversation on the train or somewhere else public. Jot down what that person says, and then fill in the dialogue you missed on the other end of the phone call.


Oh, I have a line to start you off. My mum and I were going home from the ballet last year, and a woman got on, talking quietly to her friend about the economy. As the conversation went on, it got louder and we started hearing things like, "And now I have to start WORKING. Like, to pay for my car! WHICH, by the way, my SISTER doesn't have to. She didn't TOUCH her trust fund and now she gets to keep ALLLL the ponies!"

And then they got off the train, and everyone waited for the doors to close, and a WAVE of laughter went down the train.
So, I'm walking around the LA Times Bookfest, when I overhear this guy talking into his cell. I get two good snippets of dialogue:

"What? I already told you, Burstein won't BE indicted. Not for THAT."


"Okay, okay. do it. Just remember those things can be traced."

Not sure where I can use it, though.

December 2016

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