Talking Heads

PatRice_AllAWomanWants200Recently, I’ve been critiquing with several other authors for the purpose of learning more about craft. They are staunch proponents of making dialogue do the work of carrying the story.

Some time back, 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!I am apparently a visual writer. I want to “see” the wisteria hanging over my protagonist’s head as she rejects the hero. I need the picture of where the killer is standing in the room in relation to the victim—complete with placement of candlestick, lead pipe, and dagger. My mind demands an image of the house my heroine has to live in. And while the line “What a dump!” is dramatic, do I really want my quiet spinster stating that so succinctly as the earl invites her in?

Have novels really come down to screenplays and TV scripts? I realize many 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 our future? To what purpose?

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 we 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!

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Talking Heads — 8 Comments

  1. While I don’t subscribe to the idea of stripping the manuscript down to the drastic levels described, I do feel some books are overly heavy on description. I don’t need four pages of descriptive narrative to view a setting. I do think the setting is important for the reader to be able to view the characters in their world, but like anything else sometimes authors don’t need to hit one over the head with it..

  2. No, no, no! I do not want talking heads. What is wrong with these agents and publishers?

    It’s true I don’t want pages and pages of description, a la Jean Auel. With books like that, I do resort to skimming. But like you, I want to see where my characters are. I want to see them react to the environment, heck, even use the environment in some way. There’s a good balance, and I think the author has to find the balance that works for each book.

  3. I think it was author Elmore Leonard who said, “I leave out the parts people skip.” I like enough description that I can “see” the setting, but I’m okay with a sketch rather than an oil painting. When I usually find myself scanning or skipping is if the narrative drive falters. It’s not so much the overdone characterization or description, but that the plot has come to a grinding halt and nothing is happening. That said, I am a big believer in letting dialog carry the story. The late Robert B. Parker was a master at that.

  4. I don’t think description is the problem so much as how it is presented.

    Sometimes the story stops dead for a solid block of description, fueled by the verb ‘to be’: the ornate table was placed in the center of the room, the ceiling was sky blue, the rug was costly and rare. All these details might be vivid if the voice wasn’t so neutral and dull.

    Nobody complained that The Princess Bride had too much description, because the description matched the voice of the dialogue.

    Another problem can be POV bobbles. If the rest of the surrounding text is all in tight third, the reader can get a bit disoriented at sudden descriptions of a character’s looks, wondering who is seeing them. Paying attention to who is narrating the story can fix that.

  5. I am thoroughly relieved that readers still want to “see” the story. I was starting to worry because I need my dialogue grounded in my reality.

    Sherwood, you’re right. That POV thing is tricky. It was sooo much easier in the early Regency historicals when the dog could describe what his master looked like. “G”

    • Well, the early Regency historicals were meant to emulate the silver fork novels of days of yore (the ones Georgette Heyer grew up reading) but I think the problem came in that so many writers who didn’t read farther back than Heyer were unconsciously (and therefore awkwardly) trying to combine modern limited third with the old omni, without being aware when one was becoming the other.

  6. I eventually came to realise that getting rid of talking heads is a complex problem: for me ‘the story’ mostly _lives_ in the interactions of characters. Which means that, other than talk and shrug and occasionally arrive or storm out, my characters tend to do very little if I let them. There’s also a pattern of summary (everything else that happens) and drawn-out dialogue, related exchange by exchange, which is different from the patterns of more setting/action-oriented writers, where the dialogue might be much briefer (sometimes only a couple of exchanges before the next thing happens and the story moves on, to stop again for a few lines of dialogue and go off into a different room/house/county.

    And switching from one to the other isn’t easy because it needs more than ‘just’ adding more description. (I prefer to read the second; I seem to default to writing the first. This tendency is the reason why it’s Very Bad for me to try and write fast.)