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!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Are Your Characters Talking Heads?

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. LOL…that picture is hilarious! I have heard of Elizabeth George’s book and it has been on my list of books to purchase for quite some time. I’ve tried to keep my heads from just talking, but as I am editing I am finding a few here and there. 😉

  2. This is some great advice. Wish I’d heard it sooner. Word Designer
    Architect of Prose

  3. Great contrast. Happy Sunday! :O)

  4. That picture freaks me out a little! LOL
    Great post – love the message and the examples! 😉

  5. @Sherrinda: It’s one of best writing book I’ve read. Highly recommended!

    @Word: Well, then, I’m glad you found it here!

    @Diane: Thanks. You too!

    @Shannon: It is kind of freaky, isn’t it? But it cracks me up every time I see it!

  6. Great contrast! I’ve actually had people tell me that it’s okay to have a page of just dialogue and I’ve always argued that. Adding on description during dialogue makes it so much more powerful.

    Great post!

  7. Great advice! Like you said, “to dig a little deeper.” I think that is the key.

  8. @Stephanie: Sometimes dialogue *should* stand on it’s own. Too many action beats can clutter a scene. But I’d definitely argue that a page of straight dialogue is way too much.

    @Paul: That’s the key to good fiction, period, I think. The best bits are always beneath the surface.

  9. Because of my seeming inability to generally visualize characters in a scene, I take care to make sure I’m giving appropriate body language. I hope it comes across that way, though, since sometimes I’m heavy on it!

  10. It’s always a balancing act. Overdoing action beats can be just as distracting as too few. It’s just something you have to play by ear.

  11. Great post! I do have a lot of this in my first drafts, but I recognize that it’s wrong when I write it, and I always change it in the other drafts too!

    Some good information in this post- thank you :o)

  12. That’s the great thing about first drafts! You can let the creativity flow without worrying about dotting all your i’s. It’s in the subsequent drafts that your left brain has to kick in.

  13. Balance is always the key, isn’t it? I ordered the book because I can’t resist another great resource and I have so much I need to learn.

    I appreciate your blog and your posts. They’re always helpful and give great examples to make things clear for newbies like me. :o)

  14. I think you’ll really enjoy Elizabeth George’s book. Her process is very similar mine, which is undoubtedly why I gleaned so much. But I think anyone, no matter his style, will find her font of wisdom exciting!

  15. Last year (2008) my Nanowrimo group had one person who wrote their entire novel (50k words) as a dialogue.

    She read us a bit of it. As an experiment, not too bad. But I wouldn’t read it for enjoyment.

  16. You know, I’ve actually considered trying to write an all-dialogue story. As a metafictional experiment, it sounds like it could be a lot of fun!

  17. Great post! I find that I can’t write the dialogue and the action bits at the same time, so have to go back over the scene and add them in. That also give me time to think of ways to use the action to undercut, or emphasise what the characters are saying.

  18. Just seen your comment about the all-dialogue story. Someone did this a couple of years ago. Wish i could remember the title and author but I think the reviews agreed it was ‘difficult’… Go out there and make it fun!

  19. Was it Vox? Haven’t read it, but I think it was a novel done entirely in phone conversations.

    • This is several years late but this comment reminded me of an all-dialogue book I read as a teen, Phone Calls by R. L. Stine – it consisted entirely of phone calls between five kids. Very funny book, I couldn’t put it down and read it in one sitting.

  20. I had one of my reviewers tell me that recently. Talking head! lol This post comes in handy. I’m working on revising a chapter with this exact issue. Thanks for the tips! 🙂

  21. Glad the timing of the post worked out for you. 🙂 Happy revising!

  22. You have now set my new New Year’s resolution. Dump the talking heads!

  23. Sounds like a good resolution to me! 😉

  24. You’re so right…wow…it’s amazing how much a word here and there can add to your scene, to can change the whole flavor of the characters and what their doing. Thanks so much for the tips.

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

  26. 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.

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

  28. Great post which gives you a great knowledge.I liked the picture that is quite interesting.Good blog.
    Earn Money Online by Writing

  29. I got a kick out of the pic myself!

  30. 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! […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.