Thursday, January 03, 2008

Talking Heads


Head of the Acrobat's Wife
(Woman with Helmet of Hair)
Pablo Picasso,
The Art Institute of Chicago.

Talking Heads.

No, not the lack of dialogue tags/ action indicators where one must count alternate lines to see who is speaking.

I mean those passages where attitude is expressed largely by facial expressions.

Last year ( Dec.6) Nathan Bransford, as well as Electric Spec , questioned this tendency to describe emotion/interaction largely in facial terms.

Seems Agent Nathan, in particular, had seen an excess of disturbing, disembodied grimaces -- as well as pouts, twitches and grins, head shakes, eyebrows up and mouths turning down.

We could blame this head-shot habit on television, I suppose.

When a character's focus zeroes on another character, s/he will naturally search for clues and cues in the other's facial reactions, especially if the pair are ( or would like to be) up close and personal.

Just as we are inclined to do, automatically, in real life.

In fiction, however, imitation of real life is not always an adequate defense.

Because certain visual descriptions have become so overused, they begin to read like cliches -- which produces an additional prose problem. One that goes beyond the isolated body parts effect.

And, obviously, since adverbs are under interdict, the solution is not to provide vocal adverbs, as in he said scornfully, to supply by implication the accompanying facial expression.

Nathan's observation suggests an excess in description to watch for and work on.


Santa left a Spy Light Hand ( ages 6 and up) in my stocking, constructed of finger clips and flexible cables.

Call me Seven of Nine.


32 comments:

IM Cupnjava said...

Hmm...I might be guilty of that. I'll have to be more mindful. Thanks for passing the word, Bernita!

SzélsőFa said...

I don't get the 7/9 pun :(

Re:talking heads:
If close-ups of head-expression have become cliches and/or boring PLUS adjectives are banned (are they?), writers have other measures.

I'm thinking of describing small actions, body language. There are various signs of different emotions and those are not only visible on the head.
(am I on the right path?)

Bernita said...

And I may be guilty of it too, IM. I'm certainly going to check.

Szelsofa, "Seven of Nine" is the name of a character in the television series Voyager. She was part of a collective called the Borg, who assimilated other races as drones and enhanced them with biometric supplements.
When Seven was rescued from the Borg, not all of her Borg implants could be removed by Voyager's doctor. Several remained functional, one of them on a hand.
And you are indeed on the right path.

BernardL said...

Let's see, Seven... we can't use adverbs, facial twitches, and too many saids, replies, or answers bore the publishing giants... I will not assimilate. :) Whatever happened to if the conversation and characters are interesting enough, the reader will gloss over the verbal connectors. Anybody else get the feeling people guarding the sacred publishing gates enjoy throwing boulders into writers' paths of expression?

Seven was the only reason I watched Voyager. :)

StarvingWriteNow said...

"7 of 9"

You going to put that on your driver's license?

Seriously, though, I think that healthy writing can be a lot like healthy eating: everything in moderation.

Aine said...

I can't wait to hear what else you found in your stocking! Mine was boring-- socks and a couple of CDs that I dropped in so "mommy's" stocking wasn't neglected. :(

Thanks for the Voyager memories. Jason and I used to watch together faithfully every week. Such a fun time in our history. ;)

Demon Hunter said...

You know, I had to already take out some of those things. They became annoying. It's almost as if writers feel they must use these descriptions to convey more meaning, even when they are not necessary. Thanks for the info., Bernita. :*)

Jaye Wells said...

Overused facial expressions remind me of soap operas. I imagine the dramatic organ music as someone (usually the person who shot someone) raises an eyebrow and scowls at the camera just before the commercial break.

This is not to say that my drafts aren't full of eyebrow waggling, scowling, and rolling eyes.

Bernita said...

Bernard, I heard that guys typically referred to Seven as "36 of D"...
She was/is probably my favourite character.
In this case, I suspect it was the disembodied effect that made the agent queasy.

Starving, I think you are right.

Heh, Aine! Mine used to resemble yours, when the children were small.
I found a channel that does re-runs, and I've been gorging on the series.

They do, my Demon.And it's such a lazy, easy habit to get into.

Exactly, Jaye.
We have to watch that our carefully crafted individuals aren't supplied with a stereotype overlay.

Sam said...

I get bothered more by excessive dialogue tags - blustered, whimpered, snarled, etc.
I do see where too many expressions described in too small a space would be annoying. (And make the story look farcial...)

Julie said...

Sounds like either extreme of overdose or total abstinence would be unconvincing re talking heads.

Random info, but saw Patrick Stewart in Ibsen's Master Builder up in town some time ago - and narrowly missed the theatre workshop he was running at the same time.

Dave F. said...

Think stage plays as compared to TV cameras and movie screens.

I heard an actor interviewed back a few years ago. The questions was - what did you do to translate the role from the stage to the screen? and the answer came that on the stage, you have to move and gesture for the audience to see you. After all, the cheap seats are quite a distance away and they might not see one eyebrow raise.

On the screen, the camera sees all from very close up so only small and controlled movements work. When you present an actor's face 12 feet tall, hand movements are wasted it's the face that conveys meaning.

Chumplet said...

I talk with my hands, just like my father. I remember watching him give driving directions on the phone. His hands waved about while he talked. It must have helped him if not the guy on the other end of the line.

Sometimes the dialogue itself can convey emotion -- that's a sign of true talent.

Charles Gramlich said...

Very good point. I worry about doing this too much myself and maybe now I'll be more conscious of what I'm doing instead of just shrugging it off.

Josephine Damian said...

Also seems to be a screenwriting technique, which is employed by a lot of novelists - since the camera can't see inner thought - screen writers use facial expressions to convey emotion or contradiction to what's being said.

A bad habit if over-used.

Bernita said...

Eck. Those get on my nerves too, Sam.

Nice if the heads are attached to bodies occasionally, Julie.

And voice too, Dave. Dialogue.

Sandra! Tie my hands and I'm mute.

Me too, Charles.

"A bad habit if over-used."
- pretty well covers it, Josephine.

The Anti-Wife said...

It's somewhat reflective of how non-confrontational our society can be. Instead of having our characters discuss their feelings or emotions, we use their body language or facial expressions to convey them. I think that's why some works lack depth.

There's nothing better than an well drawn conversation between people. Having just finished "Jane Eyre", I really appreciate the intensity of feelings Bronte conveyed with her dialogue.

Can you see my hands moving?

Lisa said...

I try to take Szelsofa's approach when I can, although this is a tricky thing to carry off seamlessly. I did go through a WIP several weeks ago and banish a few too many facial expressions that I realized I'd used. Other types of body language seem to be more interesting much of the time -- fidgeting, leg crossing, arm crossing, pacing -- there are lots of options. I do think this is one of the things in writing that I find comes the least naturally to me and requires the most tweaking.

spyscribbler said...

No adverbs, no facial tics ... I suppose those challenges force us to tell our story in a better way.

But gosh, sometimes it feels like such a relief to break the rule and write "scornfully." LOL. Not that it's good for the writing, though. :-)

Gabriele C. said...

I use body languague.

For one, I rarely watch movies, and second, most actors' sole expression seems to be a half open mouth, and that looks just stupid.

Not even my bad guys are stupid. :)

Bernita said...

Hee, AW!
Where it becomes most difficult, I think, is in a more physically active story.

Lisa, I'm fond - perhaps overly fond - of emphasizing hands.

Natasha,I agree. I've decided to allow myself about one of those per chapter

Bernita said...

And you use body language very well, Gabriele.

My heroine seems constantly faced with incidents that leave her wanting to let her mouth hang open.

raine said...

Am frequently guilty of such usage, especially in rough drafts (yes, I'm nodding as I say that).
But I try to catch an overabundance in edits, due partially to a requested crit of a few chapters by an acquaintance in which every single sentence was accompanied by a gesture.
It helped me see my own.

(And btw--the Borg rocked, lol!).

Bernita said...

Rough drafts don't count, Raine!

Robyn said...

Resistance is futile.

One book I read had the hero narrowing his eyes while his brows rose. I spent the next five minutes contorting my face trying to decide just how he did it.

December/Stacia said...

This is one of my biggest problems, I always have to go back and edit this stuff out. But as you said, we're not allowed to use adverbs, we're no allowed to "tell"--sheesh!

Lana Gramlich said...

"Woman with Helmet of Hair?" Is he trying to suggest she has helmet-head? *LOL*

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Do you ever get up and walk around as you read your work aloud? Play the roles, as it were? I think you'll find your characters start to move with their whole bodies.

And the dog finds it fun because I actually get up from my desk and move around. Confusing, but fun.

Ello said...

I think I suffer from this. I need to start looking through my WIP! (eyebrows waggle alarmingly!)

SzélsőFa said...

Thanks Bernita for the education about the character. And Robyn's comment really made my day. I tried to do that for a couple of minutes, too :)))

Bernita said...

Sounds like a case that might justify the use of "then," Robyn!

But you do edit it out, December. The problem is, partly, we may have a thing for heroes who raise an eyebrow or narrow their killer eyes.

Today, Lana, the piece might be titled, "Woman With Bad Hair Day."

I do for tricky sequences, SS. That's very good advice on how to expand the whole body description.

Ello, "waggling eyebrows" gives a completely different picture of a face!

Church Lady said...

I agree with Bernardl. Much of this is a matter of taste. I think it's fairly obvious when something is overwritten (or underwritten for that matter), but beyond that, it's writing style and reader's taste.