You know how it goes: time inches by during a slow day at work, but once your mind wanders during an important meeting, time flashes forward. It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts, especially when your brain pulses with new story ideas when you’re away from your desk.
Those moments of free-flowing inspiration are the ones artists live for, but you can’t stay trapped inside your own head forever. At some point, you have to take in your surroundings. Especially the characters (er, people) around you.
Effective communicators are also adamant listeners, even in everyday conversation. To be a better writer, practice your listening skills. Here’s why it matters.
Improve Your Dialogue
Would you really ask, “Would you like to build a snowman with me?” Of course you wouldn’t; in real life, the everyday person just doesn’t speak that way. Tina Fey observed high school classrooms to refine the dialogue in “Mean Girls” to fit the demographic. Sometimes hearing a conversation makes all the difference.
Even if you’re not paying close attention to someone’s personal business, listen to the way they hold their conversations. Do sentences flow smoothly from one person to the next when exchanging stories out loud? What does a one-sided conversation on the phone sound like? Open your ears and take note of the way real people speak. It will help you craft dialogue that is noticeably realistic.
Step Outside Yourself
You leave the house worried. Worried about this bill, that check, what to make for dinner, what you’re going to get done (or what you’re going to watch on Netflix) this weekend. You’re so wrapped up in your own life, you’re unknowingly limiting your own perspective on what lies beyond it.
The events of your life are no mystery; many things that happen outside your life are left to be discovered. Challenge yourself to spend ten minutes out of your day listening to a stranger’s conversation. It might sound a little creepy on the surface, but you have a good reason to pay attention. There are stories out there begging to be written; you might find them in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Let Your Imagination Fill the Gaps
Think about a one-sided conversation; someone behind you in line at the grocery store is talking on the phone to someone you can’t hear or see. So you only get half the story, and even the pieces you do gather are vague and completely out of context.
This is the perfect opportunity to let your imagination go as far as you’ll allow it. Admit it, you write about people you know all the time—sort of. Whether you mean to or not, small pieces of your life, as well as things you see and hear, find their way into your stories. This is part of the reason you have to expand upon your usual writing techniques. The smallest conversation, in passing, could spark your latest idea.
The art of listening is a different kind of field research. No, you’re not stalking people (and don’t get any ideas, either). Staying in tune with the real world actually makes it easier to slide back into your thoughts when the time is right.
When you get home and sit down to write, those conversations you heard earlier might come flooding back. The mind has a way of exaggerating what we hear, not always in the worst way. You’ll have half your story written before you’ve even blinked.