A new friend of mine complimented a favorite scriptwriter as "having an ear for natural dialogue."
"How would you develop one of those?" I asked him, over hanger steak at the Brewing Company.
"Eavesdrop," he said. "Listen to people."
I remembered being in St. Louis a year ago. Taking a break from an academic conference, I sat alone in an eatery atop a hotel near the famous arch. Alone: just me and my film-making notebook. Now, I don't know where you come down on the issue of eavesdropping, but I figure if people don't want me to hear them, they won't speak intelligibly in my earshot.
The 50-year-old businessman at the next table clearly wanted me to hear him. He wanted lots of people to hear him. For surely, the more people who heard him, the more people he would impress. And the more impressive he was, the better an impression he might leave on his dining partner, a woman easily 15 years his junior. From all indications, it was their first date. And unless I very much miss my guess, it was their last one as well. For I don't suppose she spoke ten sentences in the hour it took the restaurant to revolve. Her date, on the other hand, filled every silence with tales of self-importance.
Midway through their lopsided conversation, the man launched into the story of a mysterious dust he discovered daily on his car during the year he worked at a government project facility. I switched my attention from Caesar salad to notebook. My pen stuttered across pages in a hurried cursive. Perhaps those notes will become a screenplay. If they do, the heartbeat of the scene will be one haunting line of dialogue: "That was the year I got divorced," the man said nonchalantly, "...or maybe it was the year I got cancer... I forget which."
Eavesdropping isn't for everyone. Some might be troubled by perceived ethical boundaries. But there is a character virtue to be developed by screenwriters: empathetic listening. A good ear for dialogue is developed by turning one's attention outward to others. I know the old maxim: "write what you know." But surely not every character in every script can be the alter ego of a single storyteller. Scriptwriters should listen so desperately hard that they crawl into the words and stories and lives of people who are nothing at all like them. Then, they may tell those stories with a winsome authenticity that invites audiences across borders of race, class, nationality, gender, ability and... difference.
Perhaps a valuable exercise for up-and-coming scriptwriters might be simply to transcribe a conversation between two or more of their friends.