Many books of writing advice suggest that authors visit public places – Starbucks, a park, outdoor cafes, etc., and write down people’s conversations. The purpose of this activity is to familiarize writers with the indirect nature of speech. People don’t talk in a straight line, and conversations don’t proceed back-and-forth like a tennis match.
Famously, Harlan Ellison once overheard a friend at a party talking about her son, Jeffy. He heard her say, “Jeffy is five – he’s always five.” Of course, she really said, “Jeffy is fine – he’s always fine.” This one misheard conversation became the powerful story, “Jeffty is Five.” In the story, Jeffty really was always five. Imagine being Jeffty’s best friend, who grows up while Jeffty stays five. That’s the story and viewpoint character. Also, the story places us in time by explaining that when the boys were really five, a Clark Bar cost a nickel and was thick and chocolatey and delicious. Well, some deterioration had come by the mid 1970’s when the story was written and one friend had grown up and Jeffty had stayed five: Clark Bars cost a quarter, were much smaller and tasted nasty. Now? Gosh, it’s a rare time when a candy bar costs as little as 50 cents; mockolate is ubiquitous.
Oh – oh – back to the prompt. OK, this prompt is about mis-hearing something, and imagining or filling in the blanks in conversations you can’t quite hear.
You might have seen the movie Date Night with Tina Fey and Steve Carell. A hilarious scene early in the movie takes place at an old-fashioned, red-leather-booth steak restaurant that’s supposed to be on Long Island (the real restaurant is the Buggy Whip, not far from where I live in Playa del Rey). Tina and Steve amuse themselves by looking at couples dining around them and putting ridiculous imagined words in their mouths.
So, to come up with great conversations that might even turn into stories, do the typical writer thing and go somewhere people are gathering. Try the beach, lakefront, a pier, a restaurant, cafe, Starbucks (or your local privately-owned coffee hangout), or the bus or train.
This exercise requires you to watch body language – and I’ll give a secret writing tip. Writers who can describe body language economically can immediately make the work come alive for the reader. This takes time and effort, and use of words that perhaps we do not often use. You can describe what someone looks like in a way that describes both the person being viewed, and the viewpoint character, like,
“I was standing behind this female mountain and she was blocking my view of Hot Starbucks Guy. I’d kill myself before I’d let myself get a neck hump that would make a camel jealous.”
What is that person like?
So, you see two middle-aged men deep in conversation at, say, a pizza lunch place. What is it they are talking about? Let’s say one is more animated, and the other less-so. One eats nervously, stuffing pizza in as quickly as possible, while the other talks rapidly, picking bits of olive off his slice.
“I told you Raimundo would return — but you didn’t listen. You never listen.”
“He’s not back.”
“Get your head out of the sand! He’s got the talisman.”
“Don’t you care about anything?” The pudgy man seized the pizza from the thin, bald one’s hand and hurled it across the table. He leaned over, loosening his collar, teeth bared in a feral grimace. “He’ll get you first,” he snarled.
“You ruined my pizza,” said the thin man.
Or – “My dog is telekinetic.”
“I charged my new heart the other day and it’s already dead.”
This type of thing – get the picture?