Are Your Characters Talking Heads?

Dialogue Mistakes: Are Your Characters Talking Heads?

Good dialogue is one of the most enjoyable parts of any story—both for the reader and the author. But dialogue alone isn’t enough to make a scene. Perhaps you’ll recognize the following dialogue mistakes from your own reading—or maybe even (gasp) your work-in-progress:

“John, where have you been?”

“Oh, just… out.”

“Out where?”

“You know, errands. The bank, haircut, library.”

“Think you’re cute, don’t you? Howard called. He said you were playing slots again.”

The Problem With Dialogue Mistakes Such as Talking-Head Syndrome

The above dialogue-heavy scene is suffering from several problems, most notably “white-wall” or “talking head” syndrome. Although the bare facts of the conflict are conveyed through the dialogue, we have no idea who these people are, where they’re situated in the scene, or what their body language is conveying.

Dialogue can easily carry the bulk of a scene, but it shouldn’t have to do everything. Compare the first scene with the one following, which includes just a few added sentences.

The door banged behind me, and I winced.

Michaela stomped into the kitchen doorway, slinging a wet towel over her shoulder like it was a matador’s cape. “John, where have you been?”

“Oh, just… out.”

“Out where?”

“You know, errands.” I pushed past her and went to the sink for a glass of water. “The bank, haircut, library.” Lukewarm water shot out of the spigot and overflowed the glass. I turned around and tried to blink innocently at Michaela.

“Think you’re cute, don’t you? Howard called. He said you were playing slots again.”

I choked. Water shot up the back of my nose.

Improve Your Dialogue With “Talking Head Avoidance Devices”

When planning your scenes–even scenes where what’s said is what’s important–give your characters something to do. Bestselling mystery writer Elizabeth George refers to these actions as “Talking Head Avoidance Devices” (or THADs).

Write Away One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing LifeHer wonderful book Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life includes a list of various tasks your characters can undertake to keep the scene alive while they’re talking, including

  • Getting a bee into a jar
  • Performing surgery
  • Cleaning a swimming pool.

The possibilities are endless.

But don’t forget it isn’t enough to give your characters mindless busywork to fill up the blanks between dialogue. Their THAD has to matter to the plot, has to bring something new to the table. In the above example, John’s drinking a glass of water is an attempted cover for his nervousness at being caught.

Just as you should never include a filler for the sake of filling, you also shouldn’t hesitate to dig a little deeper into your scenes in order to avoid talking-head syndrome. By allowing characters to communicate with their bodies as well as their mouths, you can open up a whole new layer of nuance in your dialogue.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you ever struggle with dialogue mistakes like talking-head syndrome? What steps will you take to correct it? Tell me in the comments!

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Are Your Characters Talking Heads?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. And best part is that action beats are ton of fun to write!

  2. Talking Head Avoidance Devices – I like that. Thanks for the great example, it made it really clear what you meant. This is great advice. Thanks for sharing this post.

  3. Glad you found it helpful. I highly recommend Elizabeth George’s book Write Away, from which I borrowed the “talking head avoidance devices” phrase.

  4. Great post which gives you a great knowledge.I liked the picture that is quite interesting.Good blog.
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  5. I got a kick out of the pic myself!

  6. Jim Arnold says

    Katie, every time you post one of these vlogs/blogs, I get so inspired to break out the computer and beat the keys til they’re worn to the board beneath. But so you know, I do try to instill as much movement as I can in dialog.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Reminding you that when people talk, they do things. They generally don’t just stand there like talking heads! […]

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