The Big Picture on Small Talk


In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at UCLA, I took a screenwriting class. I was too immature for the course but also too immature to recognize that. The instructor was Richard Walter, screenwriting faculty chairman and “the screenwriter’s guru.” The text was Aristotle’s Poetics, literally a classic, which emphasizes the unity of time, place, and action in successful drama. Had the course occurred the following year, the required reading would likely have been Walter’s own newly published manual, Screenwriting: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing. I remember this book, which I purchased voluntarily, as helpful and humorous, with vivid illustrations—some of which I still recall over two dozen years later.

In a section about chitchat, Walter advises that scripts not include the kind of “prattle” that pervades our daily interactions: “Hi, how are you?—Fine, thanks. Yourself?—Not bad, thanks.—The family?—Just great, though the baby has a rash. You?” Also called “small talk,” this cordial conversation about trivial matters is used especially in social situations, such as at parties, around the office, in line at the grocery store, waiting for a bus, etc. In a movie or television show, such “trifling talk” neither advances the plot nor enhances character. Walter cites a screenplay, written by a student, that contained 20 pages’ worth of such pleasantries. The writer ultimately decided to substitute more exciting language. Compare:


TOM: Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE: Hi, Tom.


TOM: Sexy dress!

DEBBIE: Like it?

TOM: Love it!

naked dressRereading this example the other day made me think of a scene from an early episode of Sex and the City, in which Carrie wears a short, slinky, nude-toned dress (which Charlotte dubs “the naked dress”) on her first official date with Big. As she approaches his car, he addresses her:

BIG: Interesting dress.

CARRIE: Meaning?

BIG: Interesting dress.

The exchange hints at the characters’ powerful physical attraction, to which they succumb moments later (and again, on and off, throughout the show’s run). A more small talk-y, less effective greeting might have been as follows:

BIG: Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE: Hi . . . well, we call you Mr. Big.

As an introvert, I question whether small talk is best avoided in real life, as well. (I have never been shy about my introversion.) Articles on the qualities of the introverted temperament consistently mention a dislike for small talk. But why do introverts shun chitchat? Here are some possible explanations, which I can personally validate:

  1. Introverts enjoy deep conversations, about ideas and theories.
  2. Introverts like to think before they speak.
  3. Introverts don’t talk unless they have something to say.
  4. Introverts are active listeners.
  5. Introverts are exhausted by small talk, because interaction drains their energy.

While engaging in light dialogue can be stressful and tiring for those of us who are introverted, this type of communication is inescapable. Therefore, fellow introverts, I encourage you to keep the benefits of small talk in mind the next time you find yourself on an airplane next to a stranger, at a networking event, or in the barber’s chair:

  1. Small talk provides an opportunity to connect.
  2. Small talk conveys interest, people like when you take an interest in them, and so they will like you.
  3. Small talk can lead to big things, such as relationships and business deals.
  4. Small talk puts you in the present moment.
  5. Small talk improves your problem-solving abilities.

In other words, small talk might advance the plot and enhance character after all.

Highly Quotable Films

Monty Pythin

Several weeks ago, my husband and I had an at-home date night. Dinner was gluten-free pesto pizza, and the movie was Night Shift, a 1982 comedy directed by Ron Howard and starring Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton as city morgue attendants who decide to become pimps. I was thrilled to see that the film was available on cable, because I had been regularly quoting from a particular scene and wanted to show my hubby the original (which I couldn’t find on YouTube). I first saw Night Shift in the theater when I was 14, because my mother, sister, and I were tired from shopping at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. (Shopping continues to exhaust me.) Though I saw the film again numerous times in my youth, I was amazed at how many of the lines I still remembered. I was also surprised at my restraint: I said only about half of them out loud.

Princess BrideTo me, Night Shift represents an HQF (highly quotable film). It offers not just the occasional piece of marvelous dialogue but a continuous succession of amusing utterances. I conducted an informal survey of online lists Airplaneof “most quotable movies.” The film cited most often was . . . Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Interject your favorite line here; try to stop at one.) The following movies were also regularly identified: The Princess Bride, The Godfather, The AnchormanBig Lebowski, Napoleon Dynamite, and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Other popular quotable films included The Wizard of Oz, Airplane!, Pulp Fiction, Mean Girls, Ghostbusters, Forrest Gump, Casablanca, Star Wars, Office Space, Caddyshack, and Young Frankenstein.

I was at a dinner party on New Year’s Eve, and one of the guests suggested playing the game of identifying movies by their quotes. I figured I would be pretty good at this pastime but found myself stumped by the first one: “And we’re walking, and we’re walking.” The line sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it in the 1993 film Dave, in which Kevin Kline portrays a presidential look-alike. That was pretty much the end of the game. However, I ask you to play it with me now! The following quotes are from my personal HQFs. (The answers appear at the end of this post.) If you guess five or more of the corresponding movies correctly, well-done! If you get eight to ten right, you are probably my sister.

  1. “Watch out for that first step—it’s a doozy!”
  2. “Where’s the rest of this moose?”
  3. “Eight o’clock? I don’t know. That’s when I rearrange my sock drawer.”
  4. “You make someone a bridesmaid, and they shit all over you.”
  6. “I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.”
  7. “Yes, Mrs. Mandelbaum, this one I’ll meet.”
  8. “Oh, that Dorothy. The hair, the teeth, and the smell. That Dorothy.”
  9. “Do you know what he was planning for next Friday night’s poker game, as a change of pace? Do you have any idea? A luau. A Hawaiian luau. Roast pork, fried rice, spare ribs—they don’t play poker like that in Honolulu!”
  10. “This land is not for sale. Someday I hope to build on it!”

The American Film Institute undertook the challenge of identifying the 100 greatest movie quotes of all time. Of the most quotable films mentioned earlier, seven have entries on AFI’s list. (Casablanca has six!) Jean Picker Firstenberg, president emerita of AFI, asserts, “Great movie quotes become part of our cultural vocabulary.” Indeed, we use them in our own lives and circumstances, for various purposes: To make a point. To sound clever. To entertain. To start a conversation. To bond with others. To recall the satisfaction evoked by watching the movie.

Ultimately, a memorable quote, from a movie, play, book, television show, or even commercial, is one that resonates with us. It might express an idea to which we would never be able to put words ourselves, witness a fundamental aspect of our character, or educate us about something meaningful. I am reminded of the double-blind-date scene from one of my own HQFs, When Harry Met Sally . . ., in which Marie (Carrie Fisher) quotes Jess (Bruno Kirby) to himself:

JESS: I think restaurants have become too important.

MARIE: I agree. “Restaurants are to people in the 80s what theater was to people in the 60s.” I read that in a magazine.

JESS: I wrote that.

Marie goes on to say, “That piece had a real impact on me.” Jess replies, “It spoke to you, and that pleases me.” Being spoken to can be a profound experience.

In fact, Jess and Marie leap into a cab together at the first opportunity.

Answers: 1. Groundhog Day, 2. Arthur, 3. The Sure Thing, 4. Sixteen Candles, 5. Night Shift, 6. This Is Spinal Tap, 7. Crossing Delancey, 8. Gregory’s Girl, 9. The Odd Couple, 10. Love and Death.

Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

fire hydrantMy dog Cota regularly pees on a particular fire hydrant during our daily walks. Each time he reenacts the hackneyed image of a pooch relieving himself on the faucet that allows firefighters to tap into the municipal water supply, I shake my head and mutter, “So cliché.” A cliché can be a theme, characterization, or situation—such as man’s best friend urinating on a “Johnny pump”—that appears so often in film, television, literature, or art that it becomes boring.

Another type of cliché, which I encounter frequently in my work as an editor, is a sentence or phrase that conveys a common thought or concept—but that has become stale through overuse. An example would be “man’s best friend” in the previous paragraph. While such expressions may have been clever or compelling when they were introduced, they have long since lost their novelty and impact. Because clichés are dull by definition, I will offer just a sampling for illustration:

  • The whole ball of wax
  • The bee’s knees
  • Break the ice
  • Bury the hatchet
  • The elephant in the room
  • A fly on the wall
  • Jump the gun
  • Know the ropes
  • Barking up the wrong tree
  • Raining cats and dogs
  • Run circles around
  • Turn on a dime

Like me, you may have rolled your eyes, snickered, or experienced chest pains at the banality of these sayings. But I encourage you to pause and consider them. At one time, these word combinations colorfully and inventively captured ideas.

To demonstrate this point, I have collected clichés from outside the United States. Unfamiliar to us, they sound more exciting than our own clichés. Yet to the people who live in the originating countries, they are undoubtedly corny and tired.

  • Box of fluffy ducks (New Zealand, meaning, “I am fine; I am happy or doing well.”)
  • In fine fettle (Canada, meaning, “in good health” or “in good condition”)
  • Don’t piss on the chips (England, meaning, “Don’t put a damper on things.”)
  • There is no cow on the ice (Sweden, meaning, “There is no need to panic yet.”)
  • A face like a dropped meat pie (Australia, self-explanatory)

You should ditch clichés because they are unoriginal, ineffective, and lifeless—undesirable qualities for written and oral communication. As Oxford Dictionaries explains, “When you’re writing on a more formal level, it’s better to try to avoid using clichés. They tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused, and they may even create an impression of laziness or a lack of careful thought.” To me, clichés are instances of imprecise language; as such, they undermine the authority of the author, who appears unable or unwilling to state a point directly. Further, I have in mind the difficulty of translating clichés into other languages (i.e., if the book is enormously successful!), as they may not be understood by other cultures.

There are exceptions. I think clichés are generally acceptable in casual writing and conversation, social media posts, jokes, headlines, book titles, and blog posts about shunning them.

How do you remove a cliché from a business letter, college essay, public speech, work intended for publication, or other piece of formal writing? The first step is to recognize it. Clichés are so ingrained in how we express ourselves that integrating them into what we say is natural. When I identify a cliché in a manuscript, after weeping inwardly, I take the following steps to eradicate it:

  1. I think about the cliché’s meaning.
  2. I think about what the author is trying to say.
  3. If the cliché, despite its imprecision, reflects what the author is trying to say, I “translate” it back into the notion it represents.
  4. I rewrite the content accordingly.

Here are some examples (with clichés and their replacements in bold):

  • Before: After you win the lottery, former acquaintances tend to come out of the woodwork.
  • After: After you win the lottery, former acquaintances tend to appear suddenly or unexpectedly.
  • Before: The new company was in the fast lane and picking up speed.
  • After: The new company was taking aggressive action toward success.
  • Before: My sister made an ordinary remark, but it stopped me in my tracks.
  • After: My sister made an ordinary remark, but it struck me as profound.

At the end of the day, people are sick and tired of clichés. Give the people what they want—a breath of fresh air.

Should Authors Also Be Writers?

Last year, I received an assignment to edit a self-help book. The goal was to prepare the manuscript for acceptance by the publisher that had contracted with the first-time author to write it—although the expectation was that it would come back for further revision. The job included both developmental editing and copyediting. Developmental editing involves modifying a book’s structure and content; copyediting consists of fixing punctuation, spelling, grammar, and style. I introduced extensive changes at both levels, making the organization more reader-friendly and rewriting virtually every sentence.

After the manuscript was submitted to the publisher, I awaited word of its reception. Five months later, having heard nothing, I checked Amazon: the book would be coming out in November 2014. I took satisfaction in the fact that the manuscript had apparently been accepted. I checked back this month and was able to preview parts of the book (which had received all five-star reviews); I was gratified to see that my changes were intact, from the table of contents to the section heads to the text. Not to overinflate my role, but I made the author seem like a capable writer. Ironically, she never knew my name or that I, as a ghost editor, even existed.

Jane AustenThe situation brought to mind some news that emerged in 2010 about Jane Austen—that the words of the revered novelist did not, in fact, come “finished from her pen,” as her brother Henry asserted in 1818. As NPR reported, she “may have simply had a very good editor.” According to Austen authority Kathryn Sutherland, of Oxford University, “The English that she is known for is this polished, printed Johnsonian prose. And it’s not there in the manuscript.” (“Johnsonian” refers to the literary style of distinguished English writer and critic Samuel Johnson, best known for his influential Dictionary of the English Language.)

If Austen was a “sloppy writer” whose books were “heavily edited for publication,” does that mean authors—even beloved ones—don’t have to know how to write well? And it’s the editor’s job, if necessary, to create that illusion? Consider the portrayals of writers in film and literature. They typically experience writer’s block or some other setback related to their writing, become inspired by the struggles in their lives, and triumphantly complete their manuscript. As they type “THE END,” do we think, “Now it’s off to a good editor!”? Rather, we think it’s the end of the story.

We don’t really want to know how the sausage is made.

Have All the Stories Been Written?

Romeo and JulietSeveral months ago, I felt inspired to collect ideas for short stories. (This step, which precedes the actual writing, is wonderful, because it isn’t the actual writing.) I tried to find scenarios that would convey concepts I found interesting. For example, I wanted to write about oneness—specifically, how the notion of oneness is difficult to comprehend because we appear to be in individual bodies.

I thought maybe I could illustrate this idea via conjoined twins. Identical twins who are physically joined seem less separate than the rest of us; there is no space between them to suggest disconnection. Indeed, to get along in life, conjoined twins must cooperate; discord would lead to suffering. Mark Twain’s 1869 comic sketch of Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Thai-American conjoined brothers, humorously illustrates the nature of inseparability:

By an understanding between themselves, Chang does all the in-door work and Eng runs all the errands. This is because Eng likes to go out; Chang’s habits are sedentary. However, Chang always goes along. . . . Upon one occasion the brothers fell out about something, and Chang knocked Eng down, and then tripped and fell on him, whereupon both clinched and began to beat and gouge each other without mercy. The bystanders interfered and tried to separate them, but they could not do it, and so allowed them to fight it out. In the end both were disabled, and were carried to the hospital on one and the same shutter.

Twain may have used the Bunker brothers as a metaphor for national unity.

Around the time I was researching conjoined twins, I became aware of a writing competition calling for short stories in the categories of romance, thriller, crime, horror, science fiction, and young adult. I reasoned that the goal of entering this contest might inspire me to do the (dreaded) actual writing. I chose horror to convey my tale about conjoined twins, although any of the genres might have provided a compelling framework. I fleshed out the plot and characters.

AHSThen the fourth season of the popular TV series American Horror Story premiered, depicting a freak show in Jupiter, Florida, in 1952. Among the characters was a pair of conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler. I found numerous similarities to my prospective horror story about conjoined twins! I surmised that the show’s writers had referred to at least some of the same online sources that I did. Another parallel emerged in the second episode. The freak show’s bearded lady and strong man were portrayed as exes who had a child together. A number of years ago, I wrote a short story (in response to a Writer’s Digest prompt) about a bearded lady and a strong man who get married, and she becomes pregnant!

These coincidences got me wondering if it was possible to write a truly original story. I remembered how shocked I was to read in The Riverside Shakespeare, as a college student, that the Bard had based Romeo and Juliet very directly on earlier material—namely, a novel published by an Italian writer circa 1530 (approximately 65 years before Will wrote R&J) that included the story of “two noble lovers”:

Luigi da Porto lays the scene in Verona and names the feuding families the Montecchi and the Cappellati. . . . His Romeo goes to a Cappellati ball to see a girl whom he loves but who scorns him, and falls in love with Giulietta, as she with him. After a longer courtship than Shakespeare allows, conducted mostly on the girl’s balcony, they marry, with the aid of the Franciscan Lorenzo, who hopes that the families will thus be brought together; but Fortune, “enemy of every earthly joy,” prevents this outcome by starting up the feud again. The rest of the story is substantially as in Shakespeare.

Da Porto had been inspired by a 1476 writing by Italian poet Masuccio of Salerno.

So, what is the point of writing stories with the same subject matter, over and over? Perhaps the meaning of a story is more important than the details—and we are willing to accept the same content in slightly different forms. The essential content of most stories is the resolution of a problem. This resolution is not necessarily a happy one, but a natural outcome of how the problem is approached. For instance, I have thought of Shakespeare’s Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as having the same central issue but different outcomes. In the former, Desdemona must defy her father to be with Othello; in the latter, Hermia must defy her father to be with Lysander. The first couple dies; the second couple marries without objection. Both death and marriage are resolutions.

And because our lives are a series of problems, the resolutions found in stories provide catharsis.

Statistics for Word Nerds

word stats

As an editor, I consult online dictionaries on a daily—sometimes hourly or momentary—basis. Occasionally, I need to learn the meaning of a word with which I am unfamiliar. More often, my goal is to confirm a term’s style—whether it’s one word, two words, hyphenated, capitalized, etc. For a conservative opinion, I go to Merriam-Webster. For the prevailing usage of a contemporary word or phrase, I visit If I can’t find a ruling in either place, I search for a New York Times article containing the term, and mimic its treatment there. Now you know my word-referencing secrets. (Be grateful I spared you my Web-thesauri strategies.)

As if looking up words in dictionaries weren’t exciting enough, these online resources now offer amusing lexical statistics. Last month, introduced its “difficulty index,” which ranks words based on their complexity and frequency of use. Here are the various categories, with examples of each:

  • All English speakers likely know this word (book, dog, house)
  • Most English speakers likely know this word (aluminum, butterfly, secretary)
  • Many English speakers likely know this word (chlorophyll, encyclopedia, pancreas)
  • Some English speakers likely know this word (begonia, marjoram, paranormal)
  • Few English speakers likely know this word (glockenspiel, kerflop, macrobiotic)

I have spent an embarrassing amount of time looking up words and trying to guess their difficulty levels. I suspect the algorithm may be flawed, however, because cupcake comes up as a term that few English speakers are likely to know (yet I’m pretty sure it was my first word). Further, I think the classifications could be a little more practical:

  • Using this word will make you sound snobbish.
  • This word is not acceptable in Words With Friends.
  • Microsoft Word puts an annoying red squiggle under this word.
  • Do not attempt to use this abstruse word in a sentence. (This category would include the word abstruse.)
  • Only James Woods knows the meaning of this word. (The Academy Award–nominated actor has an IQ of 180!)

factoidAnother entertaining (and addicting) dictionary tool is Merriam-Webster’s popularity meter, which indicates how frequently a word has been looked up in the last seven days, compared with other words, and whether it is on an upward trend. For example, at the moment of this writing, factoid is in the top 1 percent of lookups, is the site’s most popular word, and is a “fast mover”—that is, it has increased significantly in lookups over the past week. (The foregoing brief and unimportant piece of information is an example of a factoid.)

Last week, when I checked Merriam-Webster’s list of most popular words, I found a very peculiar item at the top: chin music. I understood why people would need to look up this rather obscure term (according to, few English speakers are likely to know it), but why were they searching for it now? The only potential reason I could discover was a recent sports article with the phrase in its title. (In baseball, “chin music” refers to a high inside pitch meant to intimidate the batter. It’s also slang for idle talk.)

Merriam-Webster lists the most popular words for three recent periods: 24 hours, seven days, and four months. The following words appear in the top 25 in all three categories, demonstrating continued popularity: bigot, comradery, empathy, holistic, insidious, integrity, pedantic (the most popular word in the last 120 days), and pragmatic. I’m not sure what to make of this collection of terms, but it strikes me as reflective of the duality of the human experience: empathy, comradery, and integrity versus bigotry and insidiousness.

I hope this post hasn’t been overly pedantic.

Taking Leave of the Senses

Perfect Sense

A few weeks ago, I made an observation about a movie I was watching. Then I made the rash decision to turn that little act of noticing into an entire blog post—and I really don’t know if it is going to work. The movie was Perfect Sense, a 2011 apocalyptic romance (pandemic love story?) starring Eva Green and Ewan McGregor. I gave it five cupcakes out of five, although I suspect it’s the kind of film that people will find either pretentious or earnest, empty or meaningful, based on their personal outlook. (IMDB rates it 7.1.)

spoiler alertI will be giving away the ending of Perfect Sense here, but I recommend seeing it anyway. It’s quite affecting. Plus, it contains “good” nudity, as my husband would say, as well as the occasional expletive to keep things colorful.

Set in Glasgow, Perfect Sense centers on Susan and Michael. She is an epidemiologist, he a chef. Their occupations are a plot convenience, as the film is about a globe-trotting disease (“Somebody call an epidemiologist!”) that affects the senses (all of which enter into the acts of cooking and eating). Susan lives across the street from the upscale restaurant where Michael works, and they meet just in time to become consorts on the front lines of both infectious disease research and sensory stimulation. I didn’t mind this contrivance because it worked, I probably would have written it the same way, and the actors are ridiculously attractive (even in surgical masks).

The affliction, which is not obviously contagious and has no identifiable source, takes away the senses one by one, starting with smell. The loss of each sense is preceded by an outburst of emotion: smell by grief, taste by terror, hearing by rage, and sight by love. The entire world goes through the stages of the disease roughly simultaneously, causing periods of pandemonium and civil unrest. Between losses, however, society adjusts to the new normal. For example, after the sense of smell is gone, “The food becomes spicier, saltier, more sweet, more sour. You get used to it.”

The last sense to disappear in the movie is sight. “Fade to black” in a screenplay was never meant so literally! We do not witness the loss of touch. The audience is left to imagine what deprivation of that fifth and final sense would be like: People are no longer able to perceive the world or communicate with each other in any way. They cannot feel, see, hear, taste, or smell anything. This disturbing prospect led to my aforementioned observation, spelled out here: “No wonder we find it so hard to believe that we are not a body!”

“Whoa!” you might be thinking. “Who said anything about not being a body?” Some of the manuscripts I edit are in the mind-body-spirit category; I also read books and listen to podcasts in this area. In these materials, I have come across three basic options for the essential nature of who we are:

  1. We are a body.
  2. We are a body and we are spirit.
  3. We are spirit.

One of these theories may sound most plausible to you (and it’s probably one of the first two). Materialists, who maintain that the fundamental substance of nature is matter, would likely say that we are a body only. I have heard many New Age/spirituality authors, on the other hand, posit that we are spiritual beings having physical experiences (or something along those lines). Finally, one text I have encountered goes so far as to say that we are spirit only, and that the body and the rest of the physical world are illusions.

five sensesOur identity is wrapped up in the body, in large part due to the sensory input we receive. Even if we begin to think of ourselves as incorporeal—as momentarily separate from the body—a sensation (stubbed toe, loud noise, the smell of baked goods) will bring us right back into the physical. In other words, on an intellectual level, accepting that we may not be a body is doable. But when something happens that impacts the body in a major or even minor way (we receive a cancer diagnosis, come down with a cold, have a deep-tissue massage), conceiving of the body as illusory seems absurd.

The spiritual text mentioned earlier concurs regarding the body: “It is almost impossible to deny its existence in this world.” It follows up, “Yet if you are spirit, then the body must be meaningless to your reality.” A famous teacher of this work observed, “That is why [this text] is such a threat: it teaches the nonexistence of our very self.” I am reminded of a stand-up joke told by Woody Allen, about how his wife would engage him in philosophical discussions and prove he didn’t exist—which infuriated him.

If we were to lose our bodily senses, as in Perfect Sense, we would no longer be aware of our body, other bodies, and the rest of the physical world—everything that appears to constitute reality. This idea is inherently frightening. In fact, on the movie’s IMDB message board, viewers have used the following words to describe its ending: “Terrifying.” “Maddening.” “Devastating.” “Depressing.” “This movie left me curled up in a fetal position bawling my eyes out.”

Within the context of a curriculum for spiritual transformation, denying the information provided by our senses is similarly distressing. It requires a huge leap of faith—a rejection of all that seems most real. But how many of us would attempt the shift from body-identification to spirit-identification, if doing so resulted in healing and lasting peace?