Monday, February 15, 2010

Receptive Listening--How to Get to Know Your "Players"

We stand with our players, the souls who populate our writing, and we think we know them pretty well as we write our books. But do we? What if we're not really listening deeply enough to know the story behind their stories?

A reader from New York sent this wonderful comment:

"I was reading about one of my favorite subjects, something called Narrative Medicine. This is where doctors learn to listen receptively to their patients and frame their illnesses like a story. That means going beyond the clinical and getting into the whole person.

"And it struck me as curious that the techniques used in attentive listening, that docs are supposed to use to uncover their patients' stories, work because [these techniques] uncover what patients usually don't tell their docs. Thus the idea.... why not apply that to fiction?

"Listen receptively to your characters to learn what they haven't told you. Receptive listening leads to the truth."

Learning to Be a Better Listener to Be a Better Writer
How do you listen better in real life?

How do you use the same skills to listen better in your writing?

In real life, a good listener puts all attention on the person speaking, looks the person in the eyes, reads body language for what's not being said, even repeats back to them what's being said so they know we're listening well.

Most importantly, a good listener lets go of what they think they already know about this person--to be delightfully surprised, to let the speaker have the freedom to change.

In writing, we use similar skills. Full attention, repeating back, looking deeply. But most importantly, getting past our own reactions or beliefs about our stories and the players in those stories.

A challenge for many of us writers. We know who these people are--maybe we grew up with them, if we're writing memoir. We can predict every eyebrow twitch.

Fiction writers get equally stubborn about "knowing" their characters. "She'd never do that!" my students exclaim, when I ask about an idea to up the stakes in their novels.

But our current view is often limited, gives the person no freedom to change, and occupies only one perspective. So this week, try opening your perspective on your players, using the simple question I wonder...

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Pick somebody in your writing you'd like to get to know better.
2. Make a list of 10 things this person would never do.
3. Pick one item on the list. Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes. Begin writing to answer this question: I wonder what would happen if this person did this? Let receptive listening begin.

Remember this is just an exercise; you don't have to include this in your story. In fact, you may not for many reasons. But it will very likely let you get a new perspective on the player who has been hiding behind what you think you already know about him or her, and you'll hopefully be surprised at what you hear.


  1. Thanks Mary - it's just what I needed. I'm working on a character that needs more of a voice and I think this exercise will help a lot!

  2. Hope it helps! Thanks for your positive response to the exercise, Lynn!

  3. This is a great exercise. I shared it with my playwriting group last night, and everyone seemed for find something to work with.

  4. Thanks, Jean, that's wonderful. Must be fun to be part of a playwriting group!