Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Like these characters? Good, because they’re going to talk. A lot. And I ain’t tellin’ you who’s talkin’.

14abfqTo be clear: I LIKED The Name of the Rose. I admire Eco’s grace with language–hell, the man could write in what, four or five languages with ease? He felt the thrum of narrative in his fingers and his heart. As a reader, I took great pleasure in the rhythm, and danced where I was led.

But just because I danced does not mean I agree with how this dance went. Two steps in particular irritated me time and again. This is the first.


In the prologue, the narrator Adso states he’s not going to bother describing people because “nothing is more fleeting than external form.” Fine. I suppose describing a bunch of monks will feel repetitive in some respects. Part of me feels like this is a cheat on Eco’s part, though. This is a record from centuries ago. Imagine your own version of these people while I put words in their mouths. And boy, does he.

Time and time again I find myself turning back pages to figure out who’s talking. Of course, dialogue and rhetoric are lifelines for those in the cloister. Plus, there are hundreds of pages of history to share in order to bring this story to life. That history’s got to come out somehow. Why not in dialogue?

But that means pages upon pages of talking. Just. Talking. If you’re lucky, you get a “William said,” or “the abbot nodded.” While omitting dialogue tags isn’t a sin outright, it DOES become a nuisance when characters often speak for more than a page, and then someone responds with a page’s worth of dialogue, and so on. Readers shouldn’t feel like they’re experiencing the story blindfolded.

On a preferential level, I also find it important to share what on earth characters DO while they talk. How many of us literally stand still and speak to one another for several minutes at a time? Isn’t there other stuff going on around us? The world’s stimuli can open up so many opportunities to learn about a character. Take a bird. Let it fly over the abbey. Let it relieve itself as it flies over some monks. (Hey, I’m a mom of small children. “Poop” is one of the top ten words in this house.) I bet the abbot would be horrified. The oddball Salvatore would have likely laughed and eaten the stuff, or maybe thrown a rock to kill the bird and then eat the bird. And William of Baskerville would have likely raised one of his Connery eyebrows and rubbed the stuff off with snow while never losing his train of thought.

I dig moments like this. Characters don’t speak to one another in the Cone of Silence from Get Smart.


Life is going on around them, and it’s NOT going to leave them alone.

Did Eco miss a mark? Technically no. Adso does state this is a record he wishes to leave for future generations to help record signs of End Times. What would it matter to future scholarly monks if bird droppings landed on an abbot’s head in the 14th century?

Yet I cannot help but wonder what this story could have been had all our senses beenΒ  engaged.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.

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27 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Like these characters? Good, because they’re going to talk. A lot. And I ain’t tellin’ you who’s talkin’.

  1. LOL! You made me laugh, rather delighted I might add, because yes! We need dialogue, we need all of our senses engaged! What is with these story tellers that are all about history, descriptions of the scenery, anything but the relationships between people and what they are doing? Of course, I suspect that is a very female way of perceiving things. For me it is all about the characters and what is happening to them, who they are as people. There are a lot of men in the world who actually read NOT wanting all their senses involved. Don’t ask me, I don’t understand it, but I do notice that is quite common.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe it is a female way of seeing things, but isn’t that just it? We like to SEE. We like to be ENGAGED. I suppose I see the male side of it–just give us a few pieces and our imaginations will do the rest. But I see nothing wrong with requesting a sandwich and GETTING that sandwich as opposed to, say, half a piece of bread, a torn bit of turkey and a spoonful of jalapeno peppers. Now, *imagine the sandwich…* πŸ™‚

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  2. I agree wholeheartedly with insanitybytes22 that you made me laughed. πŸ˜› Such fun! As I tweeted you, the carpool line went by too quickly for once whilst I began reading this….

    The first paragraph completely hooked me, and it was also beautifully written, i.e. the dance metaphor.
    I’ll be honest, although Eco might berolling over in his grave about this – it would drive me up the wall to read so much diaglogue without the tags. I need those!

    The highly imaginative poop paragraph alone is worth its weight in gold. That And I loved “Get Smart” way back when so it was a blast to see that referenced.

    As I edit my draft of “Birth of a New Brain”, I fully realize that I’m committing an Econian sin by not fully engaging all the senses! I’ll be going through all 28 chapters this summer and early fall yet again to try to remedy that problem. I’m not comparing myselt to Eco by *any* means (as you know, I’m the Queen of Mediocrity!) but somehow it helps me to read this and know that other writers much greater than I am make very big mistakes. Call it schadenfreude, call it what you will. Call it late for dinner! 😜

    I loved this post! I want more! And speaking of more, time for coffee cup #2.β˜•οΈ I’m just getting started…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re like this just on one cup of coffee? Goodness, I’m nearly done with my first pot and only *just* functional… πŸ™‚
      Aw, shucks–I’m glad the metaphor worked as it did. I really did want to emphasize that I enjoyed the story, and there is much in his work one should aspire to. But these other things niggle at me, especially when I know the guy is *perfectly* capable of pulling it all off with great aplomb.
      In my discussions with other Eco fans, there was a debate as to whether or not ROSE should have been two books: one is the mystery, and the other the period political intrigue. You honestly could remove one from the other, and the single story would stand just fine on its own. So the fact that Eco could twist these two completely different plot threads into a single cord is EXTREMELY impressive. But then there’s these little things, like the extremely sparse action amidst all that talking, and I can’t help but wonder why Eco made that choice.
      ANYway, I’ve got one more Eco thing I want to write, and I’ll probably just get it done and over with so I can move on to another writer. I just have to pick one, and I’m thinking I may go for nostalgia this time…. xxx

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      • I knew you enjoyed the story a great deal; Eco won’t come to haunt you! I have a new admiration for him thanks to your posts and he should be grateful. Or his spirit, I guess. And oooohh – I’m excited to see which writer you choose next!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Jeez – there was JUST an freaky earthquake as I was working on the comment above – I wanted to refine it, so forgive me for it not being complete. Off to see what the quake was on the Richter.
    Forgive my pottiness but it scared the sh*t out of me. I mean POOP! πŸ’©

    Liked by 1 person

      • We have ticks here too – Lucy gets them sometimes when Craig takes her for a walk….they are soooooooo gross & I’m usually the one who finds them! I’m paranoid about Lyme Disease, but so far we’ve bee lucky!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m paranoid, too! Years ago, after a night playing with friends at a family gathering, I woke up the next morning able to open only one eye. Finally got to a mirror, and here there was this THING on my eyelid. Turns out a wood tick must have gotten into my hair and crawled down and nestled onto my eyelid and got frickin’ huge. Yeah, that was a fun trip to the doctors. 😦
        So yes, I’m rather paranoid when it comes to my kids and ticks. We’ve found one on Blondie and one on Bash, but we thankfully got them off before they could dig in. Luckily Blondie’s old enough now to understand what ticks look like and why they’re dangerous, so we’ve got another pair of eyes on the little hooligans. πŸ™‚

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  4. Ha, it is so funny, but very true. Depends on the author – either his priority is to deliver a certain message/opinion, or keep us entertained. They might just make their character sit and read a manuscript aloud.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! It’s not a bad book, SERIOUSLY it isn’t. πŸ™‚ But it does take dedication. Some books you can just sit in the boat and enjoy the ride; with this book, you have to put the oar in the water and work. Sure, you can still enjoy the beauty around you, but only as much as you’re willing to work for it.


  5. It reminds me of that scene in The Great Muppet Caper when Diana Rigg rants about her brother and her diamonds at length and finally Miss Piggy asks “Why are you telling me all this?” and Diana Rigg says “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Clunk and move on. – Jean Lee's World

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