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(This is a repost of one my most popular blog posts, which I summarized 6 Tips at the bottom.)
One thing that can come out as so cliché is when a character overhears a conversation. BUT, disagrees one avid write, IT IS SO IMPORTANT! MY PROTAGONIST HAS TO OVERHEAR THIS CONVERSATION SO THE READER KNOWS WHAT’S GOING ON!
Okay, so I agree there is a time and place. I’ve even noticed a few times when this is done really well and doesn’t come off as cliché. Let’s look at 3 examples.
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?
 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.  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.
 The conversation changes the character’s actions/reaction : 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 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
 Short and to the point: 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.  The speaker realizes someone is listening in: 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.  They MAKE it happen: 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  she’s someplace she shouldn’t be where the villains feel safe to talk openly.  She’s hidden, and there’s added tension that she’ll be discovered and can’t escape.
Here’s the Recap: 6 Tips to give credibility to the overheard conversation
Why do we need it? To give information to the reader and the characters.
 Genuine coincidence or make it happen: Either someone happens to come upon the conversation, the person is where they shouldn’t be in the first place, or the character does something to make sure they overhear the conversation.
 Short and to the point: If you are braving an overheard conversation, then most of the time it should be short and to the point. Exceptions: unless your character is amazing. In one spectacular novel, the character is a thief who is trained in the art of stealth. He spies on people and makes sure he is in the proper place at the right time to hear what he needs. This means he knows about the secret area in a room that just happens to be where two people are holding their conversation, and he’s there in advance.
 Timing: The person walks in at the right moment. And it’s just a moment, so they only hear a few sentences.
 Have the speaker realize someone is eavesdropping. This always buys credibility if the protagonist happens to be caught, though again it has to be done believably.
 Have the character miss parts of the conversation. The character’s positioning might make it so they don’t hear certain things, or only hear enough that they have to guess at the correct meaning of the conversation. And it’s even better if that guess is wrong!
 Make sure you add the tension. Overhearing any conversation can add tension. Whether it’s a fight between a couple in a restaurant, or your two best friends gossiping about you. The trick to any of these situations is that YOU DON’T WANT TO BE DISCOVERED. Either because you want to hear more, or you will be in trouble (or danger) if you’re discovered. Make that count!
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?
3 thoughts on “How to write a believable overheard conversation for the eavesdropping character”
Ok, so this comment has nothing to do with the post really (mostly ’cause I’m not a writer) but it is tangentially related. What did you think of the whole Sally Lockhart trilogy (it was a trilogy, right? it’s been a while since I read them)? And did you see the BBC movie? What did you think?
Also, have you heard of/read “The Paper Princess” by M.C. Beaton and Marion Chesney? It’s a discounted Kindle book on amazon and it looks interesting but I’ve never heard of it and thought maybe you might have some thoughts….
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