Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Technical Topics -- Talking Heads II

In My Lord and Spymaster, I had a dozen nuggets of backstory to pass along to the reader. So I wrote a Talking Heads scene. Adrian and Sebastian search Jess' bedroom.

How do you make a Talking Heads scene slightly less horrible than it might otherwise be?


-- Best choice is you turn the action of the scene into plot action. (i.e. You make it 'not' a Talking Heads scene. )

So, instead of folks sitting around the kitchen table, talking,
which does not change the outcome of the story and is not story action or even plot action,
you change it into folks sitting around the kitchen table building a bomb or performing an emergency lobotomy or cutting letters out of the newspaper for the ransom note
all of which are at least plot action.

-- Failing important plot action, you do the next best thing.
You liven things up with 'stage business'.

Stage business doesn't advance the plot, but it's interesting. Folks bend spoons with their psyches or learn to play the fiddle or get hiccups.

What else do we do to take the edge off a Talking Heads scene?

-- You layer on sensation, of course, as you would in any scene. Give visuals. Blow whistles. Waft forth the smell of brownies in the oven.

-- You make sure there's real info to share. That is, they don't already both know what's being said. ("As you know, Bob ...")

-- Your characters interact with each other. You enrich, expose and develop the characters. You might even sneak some story in this way.

-- And, most especially, your characters react to the information that's being conveyed. They wouldn't be talking about it if it weren't important to them.

OK. Coming to one of my specific instances of Talking Heads.

In the search-Jess's-bedroom scene I want to convey the backstory factoid that Jess had an old boyfriend.
Sebastian and Adrian do not sit at a table and swap info.

You got yer stage business
and yer visuals
and yer interaction between Sebastian and Adrian
and you got yer character reaction to what's being said.

Here's the scenelette:

Adrian tapped the letters together and looped the blue ribbon around them and made a jaunty bow. "Gods. I was never that young. I'm glad Jess was, for a while."

"It wasn't tied like that."

"I'm showing her somebody's been in here." He set the letters carefully back in the box and closed the lid. "Not a sparkling correspondent, young Ned, but I don't suppose she noticed."

That was the name written in the front of the Odyssey. "Who's Ned?"

Adrian was up, wandering the room, leaning to peer in at the fireplace. He waited just long enough to be annoying. "The Honorable Edward Harrington. She was fifteen. He was bright, likable, ambitious and quite sickeningly in love with her."

"A paragon."

"It has given me considerable satisfaction, over the years, to think of Jess, out in the straw in a horse barn, bestowing her virginity on that boy." He ran his thumb along the carving of the fireplace. The mantel was black marble and the design was scrolled leaves. "He had the face of a young Apollo."

Jess's lover. The one who'd put knowledge in her eyes. "What happened?"

Adrian shifted the firescreen aside. "Genuinely bad luck. Josiah shipped him out as supercargo, to see what he was made of. Edward Harrington died heroically off the Barbary Coast, saving the lives of two of his shipmates. He was seventeen." Adrian rolled up his shirtsleeves and knelt on the bricks of the hearth. "Jess spent the next year constructing Europe's best accounting system. I don't think she slept at all for a couple months."

"I see." He wasn't sure what he saw, except that he was jealous of a boy, half his age and dead.

"He was a better man than either of us." Adrian twitched a knife from its sheath on his left forearm. "And look here. Jess has been sloppy."
************

What do I do to make the Talking Heads marginally palatable?

*****************

Adrian tapped the letters together and looped the blue ribbon around them and made a jaunty bow. That's stage business and visuals. "Gods. I was never that young. I'm glad Jess was, for a while."

"It wasn't tied like that."

There's human interaction. Sebastian is annoyed at Adrian. That's what interests the reader right now, not so much what was in the letters ... though that's supposed to be intriguing too.

"I'm showing her somebody's been in here."
Which is Adrian's reaction right back.

The Talking Heads don't just talk. They snipe.

Information comes to the reader under cover of these two guys being annoyed at each other. The reader doesn't have to care about the info. She can care about the two characters on stage.


He set the letters carefully back in the box and closed the lid. Stage action. "Not a sparkling correspondent, young Ned, but I don't suppose she noticed."

See the character interaction?
Adrian lures Sebastian to ask questions. Adrian , for reasons of his own, obviously wants to convey information.

The way the info is released becomes important. The characters have a reason to talk about the info. They have an attitude toward the info.

One of the dangers with Talking Heads is we can set them to chattering about stuff they don't really need to discuss.
So in a Talking Heads scene you always ask yourself -- why this info? Why between these two people? Why now?

... Here, it's because Adrian has something he wants to say.
That was the name written in the front of the Odyssey. "Who's Ned?" 

Adrian was up, wandering the room, leaning to peer in at the fireplace. He waited just long enough to be annoying.

Adrian doesn't just lay the information out for Sebastian like he was dealing cards. There's an ebb and flow to it. Adrian teases Sebastian with what he knows. Sebastian pulls info out of Adrian.

"The Honorable Edward Harrington. Ned. She was fifteen. He was bright, likable, ambitious and quite sickeningly in love with her." 

"A paragon."

"It has given me considerable satisfaction, over the years, to think of Jess, out in the straw in a horse barn, bestowing her virginity on that boy."

This is Adrian's emotional truth. The factoids are just slathered all over with meaning.


The way Adrian says this shows Adrian's awareness of who he's speaking to. Adrian wouldn't say this, this way, to anyone else.
Info filters to us through its source. If story facts are not modified in the guts of the man who holds them, we don't have real characters. Likewise, info is shaped towards its recipient.

We don't just 'tell a fact'. We tell the fact we see and understand. We tell it to our audience.

Our characters have to do this too.

OK. OK. This is true in any dialog.But it's especially important to keep the basic dialog rules in mind when we do Talking Heads. T.H. tempt us to forget everything we've ever learned about dialog.

He ran his thumb along the carving of the fireplace. The mantel was black marble and the design was scrolled leaves. Visuals. Stage business, too, I guess. "He had the face of a young Apollo."
Adrian's emotional reaction to the factoids.

We transfer the emotional punch of these old factoids into the present. The T.H. do not merely tell the old story; they experience that story now.

This is not an exchange of info. It's a replaying of old events and old truths with the character's current reactions.

Current reactions hold the reader's interest. Sometimes, they're story.



Jess's lover. The one who'd put knowledge in her eyes. That's the internal from Sebastian. "What happened?" 

Adrian shifted the firescreen aside. "Genuinely bad luck. Josiah shipped him out as supercargo, to see what he was made of. Edward Harrington died heroically off the Barbary Coast, saving the lives of two of his shipmates. He was seventeen." Adrian rolled up his shirtsleeves and knelt on the bricks of the hearth. "Jess spent the next year constructing Europe's best accounting system. I don't think she slept at all for a couple months."
That stuff above ... here's a minor technical.I'm doing the big long run of straight backstory here. I get it out of the way, all in one lump. What I've done ... I've laid big dollops of emotion before and after, and I'm hoping like mad that the reader doesn't get bored while I real quick-like slip all these little facts past her.

"I see." He wasn't sure what he saw, except that he was jealous of a boy, half his age and dead.


And we got us some internals.
Internals go with Talking Heads like Burns with Allen.
Sebastian thinks about what he's just been told. He reacts. He feels.
This is the necessary ingredient. This is what mitigates Talking Heads and all this factoid dropping. The human reaction pulls the reader through the scene.

"He was a better man than either of us." Adrian twitched a knife from its sheath on his left forearm. "And look here. Jess has been sloppy."


At this point, Adrian grabs us and jumps onto the next bit of stage business. We leap from past to present, from interior to exterior.
We go on to do an interval of solid, visual stage business. That's our respite before the final set of factoids lands like wet dough onto the floury board of the scene.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this. It's helpful to those of us who are struggling to write our first novels. I hadn't noticed that it was a TH scene. I was fascinated with the information about Jess and what they were doing -- like looking under a rug. I wouldn't have thought of doing that, which is probably why I'd make a horrible spy.
    So what exactly was Adrian thinking when he told all that background to Sebastian? Why did he say it the way he did? I find Adrian a real puzzle, much as I like him.
    Martha

    ReplyDelete
  2. [First: Adrian. {happy sigh} There. Got that out of the way.{g}]

    Maybe I'm weird, but I love TH scenes. I like the chance to take a breather and get to know more about the characters. I would go as far as to say that these scenes are what draws me to reread a book. The quiet moments of revelation and insight pull me back every time.

    Of course, you're very good at interweaving enough stage business that it's never _just_ talking heads with you. That helps, too.

    Linda G.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Martha --

    Adrian cares for Jess in an older-brother, avuncular sorta way. Adrian can't help her directly because she'd as soon kick him in the googlies as talk, she being understandably peeved at the whole structure of law and authority just now.

    But Adrian can use Sebastian as his agent for protecting Jess.

    Adrian wants Sebastian intrigued by Jess . . . thus these stories about Jess' past. The more Sebastian knows about Jess, Adrian thinks, the more he'll understand her and care about her.

    Ultimately, Adrian wants Sebastian to help Jess clear Josiah. He wants Sebastian to prove the British Service wrong, to take the role Adrian, as Head of Section, can't.

    Adrian doesn't just come out and SAY all this, of course.
    Sneaky to the bone.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Linda --

    In terms of making stuff readable ... I guess I picture it like you got three or four threads running along, pulling the reader through a scene. Jerk, jerk, jerk.

    maybe you have the reader asking where the characters are going to go with the interaction they've started.
    Or it might be some little mystery you've planted that leads to the next bit of business... 'what did Adrian find in the fireplace just then?'

    Non-essential scenes are more a structural problem. There you are, doing the third or fifth draft, or whenever you get to this, and you notice you got some sections of the WIP that you could pick out altogether and the story would chug along fine without them.

    Fr'instance.
    In MLAS, Jess and Sebastian are out in the garden and she's lying on her back looking up at the sky and he quotes John Donne to her.

    I could lift that scene out, in toto, and there'd be no difference to the story at all. It's a non-essential scene.

    This is another one.
    Talking Head scenes tend to be non-essential scenes.

    Now, I can't help but think it's sloppy to have non-essential scenes. I'm not saying I know how to stop it, you understand. But recognizing the problem, as they say, is half the battle.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh. Hi Linda again.
    I wanted to add . . .

    You say that TH scenes give you a bit of a breather.

    Yes! You got it.

    One good thing about TH scenes, (and some other non-essential scenes,) is that they vary the pace.

    If you must add one, you put it where a slower pace is needed.

    And if you, for some reason want to slow things down,
    -- or change the mood
    -- or let some time pass
    -- or just not have frenetic action pile up too deep
    then you add that TH scene you've been aching to write that would explain everything around it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Jo,

    LOL! Okay, so now I'm going to feel like a cat when I read your books, pouncing after the threads as you jerk me along. {g} Lucky for you I've always thought catch-the-jerking-thread is a fun game.

    I guess I would take issue with you about these scenes (I love the garden scene, too, btw) being "non-essential." You could, for instance, make an argument that reading for pleasure is a non-essential part of life. And I suppose it is, if you just mean breathing, and working to afford to eat, drink, and maintain shelter. But to me, pleasure reading _is_ essential. Life is more than subsistence. And a book is more than a mad stampede through a cinched-tight plot.

    I think you know this instinctively; that's why you include these lovely scenes. You're smelling the roses, and allowing your readers the distinct pleasure of doing the same.

    But if you must be practical about it (you have a very logical mind), the pacing explanation works well as a justification, too. {g} (Really well, actually. I'm going to keep it in mind with my current WIP.)

    Linda G.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I love your technical posts. This is so clear and well-elucidated. It's really helpful to see you spell out the reasoning behind the scene.

    And I'm with Linder; I love a TH scene - done well, anyway. This was great fun to read. Thanks.

    Rene

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank ye kindly, Rene --

    I do like to think about the why and how of scenes. The Technical Topic is somewhat me working out how it's done.

    I am quite determined to learn to plot, one of these days.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi Linda --

    The ideal, I'd guess, is a quiet efficiency that combines plotting, and story-telling, and action, and character development, and those factoids and backstory we feel lost without, and, y'know, humor, and philosophy, and political correctedness, and maybe a cuddly animal ...
    all in one scene.

    OTOH, that's probably like fruitcake. You taste it and think how much better it would be if they left six or seven ingredients out.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Jo,

    Sneaky to the bone -- is that something you have always known about Adrian, did you realize it along the way, or did you make him that way to serve a purpose in your stories?

    You made a comment a while back about how a story is like a shell necklace, chosen from all the beautiful shells on the beach (the fictive universe), as opposed to my macro/micro metaphor. Your metaphor is so much more useful, and as a result I've got my beach more and more full of shells. But I have people who are not main characters, but are related to things that happen to main characters. For example, the older brother of a main character gets involved with Lutheran heretics at Oxford (it's England, 1529), but I don't know much about him. Do I just wait and see what I need to know about him? Wouldn't that make the writing shallow?
    Your thoughts?
    Thank you for taking the time to post.
    Martha

    ReplyDelete
  12. Sneaky to the bone -- is that something you have always known about Adrian,

    Well. Yes. Adrian has always been my most clearly realized character. And he's been remarkably consistent from my first contact with him.

    As to the story creating the characters ...
    I feel like my major characters kinda pull the story around them and along with them, rather than changing to make the story run neater.

    I do have characters that modulate and waffle and give me trouble --
    My villains. (sigh)

    I'm working on this.

    Not Lazarus though. He is very much what he is.


    ... how a story is like a shell necklace, chosen from all the beautiful shells on the beach (the fictive universe) . . . I've got my beach more and more full of shells. But I have people who are not main characters, but are related to things that happen to main characters. . . . Do I just wait and see what I need to know about him? Wouldn't that make the writing shallow?

    I think there are always characters standing around in the corners, ready to walk on stage as we need them. Grey's brother, Spence. Pax, who was about to sail for France. Lazarus's latest and most obstreperous 'toy', Flossie. Carruthers, the woman who runs the Paris Section.

    I know lots about these folks. I can't help knowing.

    It's probably a little bit like that for you. You 'see' folks who are tenuously connected to your story universe. You get the feeling they may walk on-stage any moment.

    I don't think we have to consciously create these people. They'll pop up when they're needed, won't they?

    If they bend the story around them, you'll make that work, I should think.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Mark me down as another fan of the much-maligned TH scene. One of my guilty pleasures (said the romance reader) is Robert Parker's Spenser mysteries, and those are just loaded with scenes wherein two guys sit around talking while drinking coffee out of paper cups. Sometimes one is trying to extract information the other doesn't want to give, but often the setup is nonadversarial: it's just two guys discussing what's been learned so far in the case and where it might go from here. And conventional wisdom be damned, I never get bored reading those.

    I think TH scenes work particularly well in romance because - especially if they're scenes between the H/H - there's usually a hell of a lot going on beneath the surface. I like that tension.

    Oh, and I find it funny that you say you need to learn to plot. I read a number of fine romances this year, and no other kept me turning the pages quite like TSL.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi Claire --

    That's the question, of course .... why do some TH scenes 'work' and others make us flip forward three pages to where the story starts up again?

    Mysteries, being cerebral and plot-driven, (how's that for a foolish oversimplification?) may tolerate TH better than other genres.

    And Romance -- as you point out -- absolutely require the H&H to do some time, faced off and talking.

    Fortunately, there's lots of stuff the H&H can engage in while talking that will be of interest the reader and themselves.

    ReplyDelete
  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete