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March 4, 2011 / Chersti Nieveen

the overheard conversation [a look at Harry Potter, Castle, and Sally Lockhart]

One thing that can come out as so cliché is when a character overhears a conversation. BUT, disagrees one avid blog reader, IT IS SO IMPORTANT! MY PROTAGONIST HAS TO OVERHEAR THIS CONVERSATION SO THE READER KNOWS WHAT’S GOING ON!

Right?

Okay, so I do agree with that. And I’ve noticed a few times when this is done really well and doesn’t come off as cliché. Let’s look at 3 examples.

Castle

At the end of one of this season’s episode, Beckett overhears a conversation. She hears Castle breaking up with his girlfriend / ex-wife / publisher / we’re not sure what to title her. See the short clip here.

Why does this work?

[1] Castle leaves to a (somewhat) private area to have this conversation, and Beckett just happens to walk in on him. Though with the look on her face, she may or may not be following him on purpose.  [2] Beckett walks in at the right moment. She hears ONE SENTENCE before she turns around to leave.

No . . . no . . . what I’m saying is . . . it’s over.

[3] Castle doesn’t know that Beckett knows, though this information will very much go public very fast and Beckett would know anyway. So why is it important that she overheard this conversation? Ignore the fact that now the viewer knows Castle is FREE, and look at Beckett’s (fantastic) face above. Because Beckett overheard this conversation, she then reacts differently than she might have, had she not know the situation. And  And don’t we just love the outcome?

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

In many of the books, Harry is injured and wakes up in the hospital. The people around him are talking, and he hears the conversation. There are also other times when Harry overhears a conversation. This works because [1] If it is an important conversation Harry shouldn’t hear, the conversation is short and to the point. If he can hear it, then he is awake and there is a group of people all so involved in the conversation they don’t notice Harry has woken up yet. [2] Harry almost always makes himself known to be overhearing the conversation, or in other instances, one of the persons is aware that Harry is there and listening. [3] In Book 4, Harry drops his book and kneels down to get it to overhear what Karkeroff is saying to Snape. So he takes action to overhear a SHORT conversation, and is then caught for his action.

The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman

Sally Lockhart sneaks out of bed at night to explore the basement, where something is hidden, and overhears important things said between two of the villains. They have quite a long conversation that Sally overhears, and helps the reader put the clues into place. But it works because [1] she’s someplace she shouldn’t be where the villains feel safe to talk openly. [2] She’s hidden, and there’s added tension that she’ll be discovered and can’t escape.

So how do you feel about the overheard conversation? Are there other books or movies you think it works in? And does YOUR book have an overheard conversation in it?

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12 Comments

  1. Aubrey / Mar 4 2011 8:51 am

    I have never used it, but I just might have to. I think it is just something natural if done right. Don’t we all overhear things we aren’t necessarily supposed to? I don’t find them cliche when they are done well.

  2. Chersti Nieveen / Mar 4 2011 9:06 am

    That’s exactly it, Aubrey! If done right, then the overheard conversation can add to your story and feel natural. Otherwise it is forced and cliched.

    I’m looking back at my own life, and I’ve overheard quite a few important conversations in my time…

  3. Leisha Maw / Mar 4 2011 10:42 am

    That Castle example is a great one. They do such a good job with that show. 🙂

  4. Chersti Nieveen / Mar 4 2011 12:16 pm

    I know… Only I am slightly mad at the writers right now for holding out the Castle / Beckett relationship so long. *sigh* But I guess who can blame them. I promise I’ll keep watching the show once they are together! There’s a lot of conflict that goes into a relationship…

  5. Rizz / Mar 4 2011 12:52 pm

    You hit it right on the nose. Sometimes writers need to get a clue that this just doesn’t work. Give the information some other way. Serious.

  6. Josie J. / Mar 4 2011 12:55 pm

    I love Sally Lockhart. Have you seen the movies, because there good. I don’t remember her hearing a conversation in the movie. Have to go watch it agin.

  7. Queen Katniss / Mar 4 2011 12:58 pm

    It’s actually annoying when Harry overhears all these things. Just sayin. But other than that, the books were grat.

  8. Jennifer Manning / Mar 4 2011 12:59 pm

    Great post! You had some really insightful comments. I have an overheard conversation in my WIP, and I’ll have to go back and recheck it. Might have to take it out. Ugh. But Great blog!

  9. Chersti Nieveen / Mar 4 2011 1:08 pm

    Rizz – You have a good point that the author can give information in other ways. I love how J.K. Rowling gives Harry a psychic connection so the reader knows what Voldermort is up to!

    Josie – I HAVE seen the movies! I just adore Billie Piper – she was so amazing on Dr. Who and she did a great job as Sally.

    Queen Katniss – I do agree that the overheard conversation is pretty overused at points, but it never bothered me in Harry Potter as far as I can remember.

    Jennifer – Thank you so much! And good luck with your WIP.

  10. Jenilyn Tolley / Mar 4 2011 1:35 pm

    I think a lot of the conversations in HP work because Snape (or someone) catches them and is suspicious, which puts them in more danger. At least in the readers head. I think it only works if the overhearing happens naturally or in a believable way. So often it feels too forced, which might be the problem.

  11. Carol Riggs / Mar 5 2011 9:26 am

    Chersti! Nice to visit your blog (tho I detest WordPress LOL). Very interesting about overheard conversation; I think they can be a little too convenient sometimes, but if done right, they can work. Nice to meet you on Twitter, and now I know where you “live”! 🙂 Happy weekend!

  12. Chersti Nieveen / Mar 5 2011 1:23 pm

    Jeni – That is such a good point — using the overheard conversation to add tension because the person gets caught. That is also a bit more probable, too. Thanks!

    Carol – Thank you so much for the visit!

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