Writing Exercise: Speaking at Cross Purposes

A few months ago at the dinner table, our son mentioned that he had been reading about the movies based on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (aka the Millennium Trilogy). For some mindless reason, I heard “Girl With a Pearl Earring” instead of “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

“I didn’t know there were other books after the first,” I say.

“Yes, there are two more.”

“What are they? How could there be sequels?” I’m trying to think of the possibilities: The Girl With a Wineglass or The Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. I will need to look for them.

My son is looking at me as though I’d just stepped into the 21st century. “The Girl Who Played with Fire.”

Okay, that doesn’t ring any Vermeer bells, but I can imagine some 17th century story involving fire.

Seeing no look of recognition on my face, he continues patiently. “And The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest.

Now that just doesn’t sound right at all.

Of course, we soon realized the (my) mistake, and it’s a conversation we still laugh about.

I was reminded of our speaking at cross purposes recently while watching Framed on PBS Masterpiece Contemporary (based on the children’s novel by Frank Cottrell Boyce, himself a bit of a Renaissance man). In the book and film, an art expert, Quentin Lester, from London’s National Gallery travels to the small Welsh town of Manod, where the museum’s paintings will be stored temporarily. In this scene from the book, the narrator, nine-year-old Dylan, has just finished cleaning up a hen’s “business on the hood” of Lester’s car after he stopped at Dylan’s family’s petrol station. Dylan offhandedly refers to the hen by its name: Donatello (the hens are named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles):

The man had just shut his door. But when I said that, he opened it again and stared at me.

“Sorry,” I said.

“What did you say?” he said.

“Oh, I was talking to the hen, not you.”

“And the hen is called…?”


He kept looking at me.

I shrugged. “The other one’s Michelangelo. I know they’re boys’ name and hens are girls but…”

“Whose idea was it to call them that?”

“Oh. Well. Mine, really. I don’t like Donatello as much as Michelangelo. I know a lot of people hate Michelangelo, but I think that’s stupid. He’s legend. They’re all great, aren’t they? Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo,and Donatello.”

“Yes, they are,” he said.

“In their different ways,” I said.

“In their different ways,” he agreed.

Here’s a fun writing exercise: Develop a scene in which two characters speak at cross purposes. To help you get started, think of an example from pop culture that has names or terms that can be understood in other, older ways (e.g., “Angel” from Joss Whedon’s television series, or “The Big Bang Theory” as television series/scientific theory).

Read more about the film version of Framed at the PBS Masterpiece website, including an essay by Frank Cottrell Boyce about the real-life story from World War II that inspired his novel. Until January 25, 2011, you can also watch Framed in its entirety online (the scene above, slightly adapted—and even funnier—occurs about 20 minutes into the film).

Footnote: Since our dinner-time conversation, I have read and loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is waiting patiently for me to have time for it this weekend.

2 thoughts on “Writing Exercise: Speaking at Cross Purposes

  1. I love your post today, very funny! I need to watch “Framed” as soon as I have some free time.

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