Have you ever pondered having your character talk to a gravestone? Go ahead, admit it. It’s all right. I’ve considered it myself. This can be the moment where the character pours out his heart to his dead loved one, where we see the weeds growing up around the granite and the fog swirling over the ground, and can hear all the uninhibited, angry, fearful and loving thoughts of our hero.
Plus, it’ll be sad, right? A gravestone. Talking to someone who is dead. Automatic tears.
Not so much.
Having a character talking to a gravestone is a rookie mistake.
And I’m here to tell you why.
You know the scene. The main character, whose wife has been brutally killed, shows up at the cemetery and breaks down in front of her marker. He tells her how bereft he is, and how he’s going to destroy the monster who murdered her. Sometimes, after his monologue, he rearranges the flowers on the grave or brings new fresh flowers to replace the dead ones. Sometimes he tells the gravestone that whatever it is he has to do, he can’t do it. He just can’t. And he falls down onto the dirt and sobs.
Here’s the thing. This scene has become such a cliché– a convention used to reveal the emotions of the main character– that it throws us out of the story and we can see it for what it is. A contrivance.
Talking to gravestones is basically the writer trying to TELL the reader (or viewer) something rather than revealing this information through SHOWING.
This also is the case when the writer has his or her character talk out loud to themselves. The writer doesn’t trust the reader to “get” what’s going on so he or she feels the character has to say things like, “I miss you so much.” Or “Wait, what’s going on here? That address I found under the mattress doesn’t match the numbers that were given to me by the dead girl’s mother.”
Instead of talking to gravestones, have your character…
Do something that reveals how he is feeling. If the hero misses his dead loved one, he could touch a piece of clothing she wore. We’ll get it.
Let him do something they used to do together, only now it’s joyless.
Let him become even more obsessed with catching her killer, cross the line, and get into trouble for it.
Instead of having your characters speak out loud to themselves to reveal information…
Find a different way to reveal this info. If you’re writing prose, and you need to reveal a “clue” about the mismatching addresses, you could have a moment when the character reflects and acknowledges the two addresses are different. In a film, the audience could SEE the address the dead girl’s mom offers up, and then SEE the address found under the mattress. They’ll SEE they don’t match.
Because we feel the ‘author’ behind talking to grave scenes, we are often left with characters who seem inauthentic. Can you up the level of your craft and trust your skill to reveal information in a more naturalistic way?
Take Action! If you have a talking to gravestones scene, look at it closely. Why do you think you need it? How can you reveal the emotions of the main character in another way? Could he or she just approach the grave, lay the flowers down, try to keep control, lose it, and then walk away? Could he or she see that the flowers on the grave are dead, and throw them aside, frantically pick some wildflowers nearby and replace them? If you have a character talking to him or herself out loud, why? How can you edit out that dialogue, and reveal the connections he/she is making in a purely visual way?
In real life, people probably talk to gravestones. But in fiction and film, it can be a crutch.
As for most things in life, there are always exceptions. For me, the only person who gets a total pass on talking to a gravestone, is FORREST GUMP. Because as a character, he would totally talk to Jenny’s grave. Yes, I can feel there’s a “writer” behind it all, but it’s a beautiful speech that ties up the themes and the love in the movie. You can watch it below…
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