Talking Heads

Pat Rice here:

I usually try to write about my writing life on my personal blog,, but today’s topic seems to have a cultural slant, and I’m really interested in hearing the opinion of experienced readers.

Recently, I heard a new author complain that her agent advised her to highlight all the setting descriptions and characterization in her book, then whack out as much of them as possible, essentially stripping the pages down to dialogue and sex.  Now I understand how that might work for erotica, but this was an historical romance!

Have books come to this? Are we now writing screenplays and TV scripts instead of novels?  I’ve noticed a lot of the current “action” romances are high on dialogue and low on setting, and admittedly, there are historical romances with no history.  But I’ve been thinking those just reflected individual styles.  Instead, could talking heads be the latest trend?                   

I understand that we don’t need as much description as readers did in pre-television days. After all, we know what a sailing ship and an English country estate looks like in full Technicolor. So how much grounding in the setting do you need?

As readers, do you skim over description? What about a character’s internal monologue?  Do you need to see words inside quotes before you’ll read them?  Or do you skim down to the sex scenes?  I’m fascinated.  Tell me!




Talking Heads — 13 Comments

  1. Personally? I get so very tired of books that lack the narrative cohesion. I’m all for a good quick light read, as opposed to the classics which have pages and pages of description that really is out of place in today’s world. As you mentioned, we no longer need to describe the eighteenth century British War ship is quite such vivid detail, but without any detail then we’re getting dangerously close to the “talking heads” and “bumping uglies” stages of writing. To me as a reader, such writing is worse than useless, it’s painful to read (not to mention boring).
    As a writer, I just can’t imagine not giving the relevant details on the way past. Yes it’s an eighteenth century late period British Warship, but the fact that the sails are multihued because of their recent passage through the Caribbean where they were dis-masted and needed to stop for repairs but couldn’t find enough straight canvas so the mizzen sail is scarlet red and royal purple silk. Ok, I’ll stop.

  2. If I wanted to experience erotica with no characterization and bad settings, I’d rent some porn.

    I read books for the characters and the worlds. Sure, I don’t want to wade through pages and pages of geography and “look how much research I did” exposition. But I certainly don’t want the characters to be nothing more than puppets getting busy. I think characterization is important in all genres, even in erotica, and a good character is exactly what will stop me from just paging through to the steamy bits. I want setting if it’s needed; historical characters are different from modern ones, and if there’s no setting it quickly becomes odd to hear them saying “my lady” and such.

  3. Since I constantly struggle between exposition and dialogue, this is always a fascinating topic for me. For instance, I LOVE the description above of the red and purple sails. And if they play into the story, I’d definitely include them. But what if this is the only time they get mentioned?

    And a talented author can convey a great deal of characterization through dialogue, but it was so much easier when we saw our protagonists through author omnisicient POV or through the eyes of all the other characters! But in today’s fast-paced writing world, where we try to keep word count under 100k (I’m talking romance and that’s our limit), using more than a few POVs could be deadly to the pacing. So then we end up with the hero thinking of the heroine in cliched masculine terms. Or worse yet, the heroine looking at herself in the mirror and describing her golden hair! It’s a puzzle…

  4. I think she needs a new agent, frankly. Agents who think they can tell you what to write are problematic in any case, but one who tries to get you to eliminate from your work the very thing that defines your genre? Uh, no.

    And just as a data point, a lot of erotic romance, and erotica, has description and internal dialogue too. What this agent seems to be looking for is a screenplay, not a novel.


  5. And without setting and characterization, how do I know how to read the dialogue (or understand the meaning of the sex to the participants?). Either the Young Writer misinterpreted the advice she was given, or the agent is an idiot.

  6. I wonder if part of the problem is writers who shift out of their lovely, intimate POV “voice” into dull, neutral journalese reportage on the scene.

    Like: “Amanda adored the shape of Todd’s lips. That enticing cure at the corners . . . if only he would look her way, but what could she say?

    Amanda sat at her oak desk, which contained her laptop, her Tiffany lamp, and a pencil set. The room was longer than it was wide, containing twelve cubicals. Todd’s cube was right across from hers.

    What color are his eyes? She leaned forward subtly, trying to see as he talked into his cell . . . she leaned on her yellow tablet–and crashed to the floor.”

    That middle graph could go, but if the writer put each of those details into Amanda’s POV–gave her a reason for noticing each (did he think her lamp dorky? Did he have a better desk? Did her pencil set give off nerd vibes?) then they become a part of the story.

  7. There are many possibilities lurking between idiot and misunderstanding, I agree. But Sherwood may be closest. Some young writers do love the sound of their own voice and many have been taught it’s “literary” to vividly describe the world surrounding their characters. While I’m fine with vivid setting, it really does need to feed into what’s happening in the story. It’s not always easy to knock over lamps to see the cute guy in the next cubicle if one is on a sailing ship, though. “G” I think we need to see/hear/feel what the character does, so we’re back to fine line territory. And the agent is an idiot. “G”

  8. There needs to be description. I once read a few books that seemed like they were being told almost entirely through, dialog, what wasn’t dialog was sex. Which left me feeling that the plot was promising but the characters were all dull because they discused everything.

  9. One of the best things to happen to me as a writer was that I got a contract to write a media tie-in novel about Daredevil, the Marvel superhero who is blind but has super hearing, smell, taste, proprioception (okay, maybe not proprioception, but…) In order to sell the character and stay with POV, I could not describe a scene visually: the minute he entered a room I had to go with specific sensory detail that would tell him and the reader specific things: how many people in the room, where are they, who are they? Can he divine anything about them from their smell, heartbeats, sound of their shoes on the floor or what have you.

    Now, whenever I picture a scene I’m writing, I have a much fuller idea of the sensory world my character is moving through.

  10. I have great sympathy for people trying to write good history, or even fake history that seems possible while you’re in the book (often good fantasy.) Many current readers seem to read fast — so fast, they miss details I always valued and put in. Perhaps the trick for a Romance Historical is the old but valuable piece of advice that basically says “Every sentence/idea must work twice.”

    The business about using a piece of silk as a temporary sail as a repair to make sure they catch the winds is an interesting tidbit of history, the kind of thing I love to see tossed in. But what if its reappearance tells us something about a secondary character you don’t have a lot of time to establish, but need as more than a walk-on — like the owner or captain of the ship?

    What if the sail remains because the owner is too tight to replace something that is working? Or is changed immediately upon reaching port because it looks silly? And then the mate who gets rid of it for the owner gives it to a friend, who washes the salt out of it and with careful cutting around tar is able to cut clothing out of it?

    As always, we can become better writers with almost any constraint, but we need to figure out when the advice is from a casual or discerning observer. Jennifer Crusie wrote Bet Me in a fast, breezy dialogue style — but Agnes and the Hitman is more internal, as both characters are a lot more introverted. The second book would not have worked written like the first was written — it would have been a very different book.

  11. Owtch, don’t ever use silk for a ship’s sail unless it’s in Elven poetry. It’s EXPENSIVE; would you use a mink coat to mop the floor? Also silk rots in the sun. It would be the most ephemeral of emergency fabrics; almost anything else would last longer and do the job better.