A long time ago, I was lucky enough to take one playwrighting course and two play production courses from Edward Albee when he taught at University of Houston. He counseled us to shamelessly eavesdrop on people as they go about their business. He even assigned it as homework for when we went on break.
Here was my response to Mr. Albee’s assignment. I was taking my kids to Florida to swim with dolphins. While we were waiting at the airport, there was a man and woman seated nearby. The man had lost his vocal chords somehow and had to speak with one of those devices that gave him a buzzy electronic voice. What was interesting, was that the woman (who could speak just fine) was very taciturn and the man with the device was so chatty he couldn’t seem to shut up.
Mr. Albee liked that story. I need to use it somewhere. It can add color and texture to a story but also can say something about the relationship of two characters. Is he afraid, talking to cover his anxiety? Is she angry? Bored?
With Mr. Albee’s august permission, I have been on the look-out for public displays of story material ever since.
I had jury duty recently. It was your usual boring sit around and wait scenario until one of the jurors made friends with the bailiff and began one of those conversations you generally only hear in Texas—guns.
The reason this conversation was interesting was twofold. First, more and more men entered into it while others sat on the sidelines nodding their heads knowingly. The second reason was an interchange about staying safe during a gunfight at night. It never occurred to me that having a laser sight at night makes you a highly visible target.
OK, that’s going in a story somewhere. I just have to figure out how to set up a shootout. These guys went on to talk about all the ways to give your position away in the dark—Some guns have lighted areas, reflective fabric on clothing, even digital watch faces. These are all ways to trip up a bad guy or get your good guy in trouble. You can heighten tension for characters in a desperate situation.
This last example happened years ago when I was having some construction work done in my house. The boss carpenter had brought in an electrician to do some wiring. The guy was really good. He worked fast and made it look like magic. He was also a cheerful drunk.
One day the cheerful electrician comes in and casually says, “I won’t be coming to work tomorrow on account of I have to go to jail.” Evidently he had failed to make a court appearance a while back and the bail bondsman had just gotten around to complaining about it. I think they were drinking buddies. Boss carpenter was used to this. All he said was, “I guess you better finish up today”
Mr. Albee was right. People provide you with color and texture, humor and drama just by walking around living their lives. They give you ideas for stories and ways to make stories more interesting. All that is required is to pay attention to what is happening all around you.