I was writing a new story about two characters regaining their faith in love, but was a stuck about how to move the plot forward to where their differing religious upbringings cause them to question their assumptions about what "having faith" means. After a few hours, I gave up and went to lunch.
Since it was Saint Patrick’s Day, I went with my assistant to the local Irish pub. My prayer to be unstuck was answered in the form of an overheard conversation at the next table, between a young couple, clearly infatuated with each other, who were drinking Guinness and sharing an order of fish and chips.
The movie star handsome young man had reddish hair, a green sweatshirt that read, "Cast me -- I'm Irish." The young woman was a pretty redhead, also dressed in green.
The young man took a swig of beer and said:
" I'm up for the part of the son in this new play. The father is from Dublin and was raised Catholic. He has a patron saint that he talks to when he gets in trouble."
The girl nodded and said,” Cool. And what is the purpose of having a patron saint?"
The young man was surprised. "Seriously?"
The young woman frowned, "Seriously. I don't know from saints."
The young man, now adopting a heavy Irish brogue explained: " It's like having a lawyer who can talk to God on your behalf."
The young woman took a bite of fish and said: "So the play is about a man asking his patron saint to intervene with God?"
The young man nodded and fed her a French fry. " I would be the second lead."
"And you're okay with that? Being the second lead?"
The young man laughed, "The way I was raised, you're always the second lead."
"Who's the first lead?"
The young woman was silent for a long moment, and then picked up her beer glass, and said, " To the first lead, then."
They clinked and drank -- and I rejoiced! I had the key to the scene I'd been stuck on. Later, at my computer, I nailed the scene by loosely recreating the dialogue I'd overheard at lunch into the imaginary world of my story. This allowed me to advance the plot by having my main character overhear and respond to a similar conversation to the one on which I had eavesdropped.
One example of a film that uses this technique effectively is The Godfather. At the wedding in the beginning of the movie, Kay Adams attends a wedding with boyfriend Michael Corleone. As they eat, she overhears the family assassin, Luca Brasi, rehearsing aloud the speech he is planning to make to Don Corleone, Michael's father. She asks Michael who is the scary man talking to himself is. Michael then tells her the story of how his father strong-armed a producer by making him "an offer he couldn't refuse." Michael then comments that the values in his tale pertain to his family, but not to him. This scene not only has advanced the plot, but also set up the conflict of values between Kay and Michael that runs throughout the movie.
From this example, you can see how powerful this technique can be. Completing this exercise may also yield surprisingly profound and dramatically efficient results.
Here's The Overheard Conversation Exercise:
Set a timer for 15 minutes.
Think of something you overheard recently and use it as the basis for a new scene in your current project.
Write a scene between your characters, trying to use as much of the actual dialogue as you can remember.
Good luck and happy writing! Remember, Don't get it right, get it written.