Is eavesdropping wrong if you’re doing it for research? I don’t think so. Writing dialog is tough. Listening to your friends—really listening, to word choices and personality-revealing idiosyncrasies—will only take you so far. You have to listen to strangers, too.
Listening has led me to the idea that there are common ‘trapdoors’ in conversations that can be helpful when writing dialog. These ‘trapdoors’ might be challenging in real life but they are useful for writers.
Typical ‘trap doors’ include:
We have to talk.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.
You said something last night (last week, last month) that upset me.
The above are ‘trapdoors’ because one speaker has an agenda and the other speaker is likely unprepared for what will follow. All of them can be benign traps, but they are more likely to be disturbing or distressing.
We have to talk about our relationship.
We have to talk about your drinking.
We have to talk about you being late all the time.
I overheard a couple of 20-somethings the other day. The young man said to the young woman, “I don’t want you to be judge me, but…” This is a particularly nefarious (manipulative, exploitive, or frustrating) trapdoor because once you hear—don’t be judgmental, you are primed to be judgmental and straining to avoid it.
There are other trapdoors that are fun. I’m fond of a conversation opener that one of my friends uses often:
Do you want to hear something hilarious?
Of course I do and I’m primed for a funny story.
Now, if my friend weren’t particularly funny, insightful and observant, her stories wouldn’t live up to the opening hype and her opening line could wind up a classic disappointing trapdoor. I can easily imagine a character inviting expectations and dashing them every time. They would be the kind of character grinding every conversation to a halt. Fortunately my friend is very funny and works at a hotel full with an ever-changing cast of characters. When she promises hilarious, it is hilarious
Listen to the people around you and I think you’ll notice conversation openers that are trapdoors!