Question regarding POV Character eavesdropping


Writing the good fight!
Jun 9, 2012
United States
Hello All!

Quick question for anyone: I am working to limit the number of POV characters as I progress through my story (will require some editing of earlier work but I'll get on that during the second draft).
One of my main characters is listening in on a conversation between the villain and a secondary character, and I am wondering how often this eavesdropping can occur before it begins to appear "gimmicky". There has been some of this listening in already in the story and I have a concern that it will become repetitive. I am certain that I can find a different approach to the earlier scenes...well, half certain anyway, but I would welcome your input.

I am wondering how often this eavesdropping can occur before it begins to appear "gimmicky". There has been some of this listening in already in the story and I have a concern that it will become repetitive.

It sounds as though you've already identified a potential problem through trying to restrict your number of POV characters. So why not try and see what happens if you make one of the characters who is always being overheard into a POV character - and see what happens?
I think it may well depend on your eavesdropper's character and job. If he's a congenitally nosy person who listens in to every possible conversation, then although it might get tedious after a while it will at least seem realistic; if he's an honourable, would-never-stoop-to-listening-at-doors, person, then twice is going to be too much. The same with jobs. If he's a spy or a slave/servant, listening in to conversations comes with the territory, so won't seem odd, because he'll either be actively seeking out eavesdropping opportunities, or he'll be seen by the others to be simply part of the furniture and they'll talk freely regardless of his being there. I'm reading Mary Renault's The Persian Boy at the moment, and the main character spends half his time listening in to things he shouldn't be hearing, but it never feels forced or boring because it's both in his nature and he's a body servant so he's always around.

I do see two problems, though, apart from being gimmicky. One, it will seem false if he's coincidentally always in the right place at the right time to overhear things -- too much serendipity looks manipulative on your part. Two, eavesdropping is a passive experience, so too much will make your POV character appear passive. Both issues can be overcome -- eg by making sure the situations arising organically, and by making the character proactive -- but they're something to watch out for.

On re-reading your post, I'm not sure if the eavesdropping in the previous chapters has been carried out by this same main character, or whether it was someone different before. If it is different people, that wouldn't worry me, as long as the situations arise naturally within the plot.
Thank you both! I think that I will have a bit (a lot) of reworking to do later on, and I'm grateful for your help. This thing just keeps growing!
One question: Why do you need the scene?
You've probably already thought of this and dismissed it, but information can be given out through a letter being read, or someone passing on information about an event or conversation they heard, that kind of thing. It doesn't always have to be done through eavesdropping. But I agree with what's been suggested so far.
My initial thoughts on this were posted by TJ. If your world-logic supports all this eavesdropping then you're fine - arguably.


No matter how credible the circumstances leading to the eavesdropping are, you are essentially doing the same thing again. And possibly again and again.

Is it the best you can make it? How about thinking in terms of how interesting it exciting can you make this for your character? What are all the different ways someone can come across information? I'd strongly suggest rethinking it. Certainly more than once. After all there are plenty of films and stories whose whole premise is predicated on only one incidence. So if it happens a couple times people might find it a lazy solution.

I suppose it might do to ask if the eavesdropper has a vital role in the story beyond acquiring information the reader needs to know.
There are several ways you can disseminate that information if all that you need is for the reader to know it. ie: change the POV.

However, if the character eavesdropping is the one who needs that information or is close to someone needing that information then the only way it might track at all were to be if it was by design that he was spying; which adds a level of risk and some tension. It would be best to evident that they were there for that reason.

If they are the main character who needs this information or connected to the main character and they are always in the right place at the right time then I'd be suspicious that they might be connected with the antagonist or colluding with them; though if not then it would just amount to a poor device.

So if it's just for the reader you should try various POV to get that information.

If it's for the main character or protagonist then you may have to find a more creative way to do it unless they can legitimately assign someone to spy. Too many coincidences would raise a huge flag. (There are no coincidences.)

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