Talking heads – Writing Nightmare #9

Talking heads – Writing Nightmare #9

Do you remember You got mail the movie starring Meg Rayan e Tom Hanks? There’s a scene that, beside being a great example of dialogue, resonate with me very much.

Joe Fox: [writing to “Shopgirl”] Do you ever feel you’ve become the worst version of yourself? That a Pandora’s box of all the secret, hateful parts – your arrogance, your spite, your condescension – has sprung open? Someone upsets you and instead of smiling and moving on, you zing them. “Hello, it’s Mr Nasty.” I’m sure you have no idea what I’m talking about.
Kathleen Kelly: [writing to “NY152”] No, I know what you mean, and I’m completely jealous! What happens to me when I’m provoked is that I get tongue-tied and my mind goes blank. Then I spend all night tossing and turning trying to figure out what I should have said. What should I have said, for example, to a bottom dweller who recently belittled my existence?
[stops and thinks]
Kathleen Kelly: [writing] Nothing. Even now, days later, I can’t figure it out

Source: www.imdb.com

I often have problems in saying what I want to say, when I want to say it, to whom I want to say it and with the right dose of sarcasm. I struggle when I have to talk to strangers and I often give a wrong impression of myself.

I am much better at writing what I want to say, without the pressure of a face-to-face meeting, and probably that’s why I love both writing and reading dialogues.

It’s almost a compulsion, I can’t help it, I could easily write pages and pages of dialogues without a single action. Sure enough, it’s not random that my favourite author is Jane Austen, an incredible writer known for her skill at showing the features of her characters through their words.

But what’s the risk in writing dialogues?

In my experience, there are two extremes that are to be avoided:

  • heavy pieces full of “he said”, “she answered”, “he remarked”, all expressions that slow the pace.
  • dialogues that are simply a list of lines, without a clear characterisation  of each speaker.

When I read a novel and I found the first kind of dialogue, I feel as the author treats me as an inferior creature not really able to understand his meaning. In the second case, I usually become confused and I have to read the dialogue several times to understand who says what.

A writer needs to compromise between clarity and pedantry.

When I write dialogues, I try to avoid “he says” and “she says” when they’re not necessary and when I have to use them I add other information, about the tone the character uses or his facial expression.

There’s another risk though: ending up with pages of the so called talking heads.

I’m not referring to the 70/80’s band (great music by the way), I’m talking about those scenes where you have lines, faces, maybe emotion but no movements, no settings, no action. If you are not Jane Austen, you need settings, a little description and some gestures that help the reader to see the scene other than hearing the voices.

My first drafts tend to be full of talking heads and editing is crucial to give them a body and a stage to act upon.

Would you care for an example?

Here we go with the unedited version:

As soon as we enter our suite at the Royal Lodge, I take of my shoes and throw them in a corner.

<< I am sure that, whoever it was, the inventor of high heels was a man.

<< Do that things hurt so much? – he asks nonchalantly – You didn’t seem pained at the party.

<< They hurt… after a while. But I learnt to deal with it long ago. It’s called “grin and bear it” – I answer – Do you have any interesting information? – I ask then, rubbing my poor feet.

<< Yes. You have an admirer.

Now that my feet seem to work properly again, I reach an armchair << Nice. Another man to be added to the “to avoid” list. Name, surname and identikit, please.

<< Who says that I’m talking about a man, Rainbow? – he replies.

<< Can you stop that please?

<< Stop what? Insinuating that you have a lesbian appeal?

<< No, calling me Rainbow… or any other mangling of my name.

… and then the edited one:

As soon as we enter our suite at the Royal Lodge, I take of my shoes and throw them in a corner.

<< I am sure that, whoever it was, the inventor of high heels was a man – I sit on the floor and tentatively move my toes to regain the sense of touch.

<< Do that things hurt so much? – he asks nonchalantly, loosening his tie – You didn’t seem pained at the party.

<< They hurt… after a while. But I learnt to deal with it long ago. It’s called “grin and bear it” – I answer from my spot on the wooden floor – Do you have any interesting information? – I ask then, rubbing my poor feet.

<< Yes – Hike stretches his long leg on the sofa – You have an admirer.

Now that my feet seem to work properly again, I can stand up and reach an armchair << Nice. Another man to be added to the “to avoid” list. Name, surname and identikit, please.

<< Who says that I’m talking about a man, Rainbow? – he replies with an arch smile.

<< Can you stop that please? – I’m too tired to deal with his sarcasm right now.

<< Stop what? Insinuating that you have a lesbian appeal?

<< No, calling me Rainbow… or any other mangling of my name.

The difference is not striking but I feel it while re-reading. Do you?

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