Sunday, November 4, 2007

Conversations Overheard

A few years ago, a waitress overheard a conversation between two Middle Eastern-looking men and reported to the police she overheard them hatching a terrorist plot. The men were arrested, questioned and eventually released. As it turned out, she had made assumptions on their appearances and perhaps let her imagination get the best of her. A similar Premise was often used for situation comdedies like Three's Company and I Love Lucy. For instance, one character overhears one side of part of a conversation and comes to a conclusion. Ricky is having an affair. Janet is pregnant. By the end of the show, the character who made the assumtpion, realizes the misunderstanding, but not before she caused confusion and alarm. The affair turns out to be a surprise party, and the suspected pregnancy is that of another, married friend.

I like to "people watch." To pass the time in the check-out line, I'll watch people in front of me, look at what's in their shopping baskets, boserve their body language, listen to conversations. I make up stories about them. I imagine what they're going to do when they leave the store and imagine where they live, how their place is furnished. Dp they have roommates or spouses? Pets. Children. I'll layer detail after detail until it's my turn at the check-out, or I'm given a dirty look for staring--whichever comes first.

Place yourself where you'd likely find groups of people and listen (discreetly, of course) to the conversations around you. Write the dialogue from memory. Don't worry about action or description at this point. Concentrate on the subject of the dialogue. Is there a conflict between the speakers? What do you think happened before and after this conversation?

Next, choose a point of view. It could be an outsider narrating his or her impressions of the actions and dialogue (like Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby). Or do it from the point of view of one of the speakers. You can add a third person who overhears the dialogue and comes to an opposite conclusion from what the speakers are discussing, as in my sitcom example. The dialogue you heard will have basic content, but it is your job to relay the subtexts--the underlying meaning--to the reader. The conversation might be pure gossip, a secret, health or family problems, current events, or merely revealing the basic differences between the characters. It's up to you where you take it, what your characters talk about, or how your narrator or point of view character interprets it. Create a scene with action, dialogue, and description. Freewrite first if it helps you warm up. In your finished piece, you can move your conversation to aplace other than where you heard it. Let your imagination go and have fun with it!

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