Fix your talking heads problem
So you’ve found a way to make your characters’ speech sound natural and unrehearsed. But are you really making the most of your dialogue? Read on for tips on how to make your dialogue do extra duty.
Dialogue can be a big challenge. You can’t reproduce how people speak word for word, because, um, then, you know, sometimes it’s hard to read and runs on and it finished in a completely different tense from where it started! Dialogue has to be a more concise and polished version of how people really talk—while still feeling “natural.”
There are a lot of great resources out there to help you put better words in your characters’ mouths—in fact, our fearless leader Kate had a great blog post on it a couple of months ago. I wanted to dig deeper into one of her tips—avoiding what we call “Talking Heads Syndrome.” And no, I don’t mean trying to dance while wearing a bizarrely oversized suit.
When we talk about your dialogue having a problem with talking heads, we mean that your text only focuses on what the characters are saying, ignoring anything else that might be going on at the same time. Take this sample:
“Why didn’t you turn in your homework this week?” Mrs. Nolan asked. “I told you last month that I couldn’t give you any more extensions. The semester ends in five days.”
“I had to pick up extra shifts at the coffee house,” Linda said. “I’ll write five extra pages if you’ll let me have until next week.”
“Alright, but that’s the last time,” Mrs. Nolan said.
Now, the dialogue here isn’t particularly awful. People could actually talk this way. But do you notice that there’s nothing else happening besides the words? If you filmed this passage verbatim, it would be a pair of heads talking to each other, and nothing else.
When your dialogue is just “talking heads,” you’re ignoring how dialogue has several roles to play in a story. Yes, it can advance the plot, as characters reveal information. And it can demonstrate character, through what a character says and how they say it.
But there’s also what your character leaves unsaid—how what they think can contrast to what they say. And there’s how they react physically as they speak—perhaps their mouth communicates one thing, but their body reveals another. Thus dialogue sections should have more than just what’s inside the quotation marks. Check out this revised sample:
“Why didn’t you turn in your homework this week?” Mrs. Nolan asked, a frown creasing the normally smooth skin of her forehead. “I told you last month that I couldn’t give you any more extensions. The semester ends in five days.” She paged through a calendar. “Sorry, seven days.”
Linda fiddled with the cuff of her brother’s old varsity jacket. It had started to fray, but she didn’t have anything else to keep the January cold away. “I had to pick up extra shifts at the coffee house,” she said. It’s barely enough to keep us in food, but at least I get all the stale danishes I can eat.She couldn’t explain that to Mrs. Nolan, though. The teacher might seem flighty, but she was also a mandated reporter. “I’ll write five extra pages if you’ll let me have until next week. Good ones.” She forced herself to smile and meet her teacher’s gaze.
The crease vanished, and Mrs. Nolan once again looked young enough to be Linda’s sister. “Alright,” she said, making a note in her record book. “But that’s the last time.”
Do you see how, by adding physical actions and internal monologue, we get a lot more information about the characters? And because it’s given in response to what the other person is saying, these extra insights can feel more natural. (As long as you don’t go overboard and enter “infodump” terrority, of course.)
In addition, by letting our narrative lens move away from the talking heads, we’re also allowing the reader more room to imagine what’s happening on the page. Different readers engage with a text in different ways, so adding physical details or interior monologue gives multiple options for your reader to connect.
This doesn’t mean that you never want to indulge in rapid-fire dialogue that only focuses on speech. Done in moderation, it’s a great way to pick up the pace, especially if you’re having fun with banter. Quick verbal exchanges can also serve to heighten emotion. For the most part, however, you’re going to want to enliven your dialogue with more detail.
I often find my first drafts suffer from Talking Heads Syndrome, so I use revision as an opportunity to bolster my dialogue. So I’m going to STOP MAKING SENSE now and turn PSYCHO KILLER on my latest revision. Happy writing!
Diane is available for developmental edits, copy edits, and editorial assessments, and promises not to make so many 80s references unless you’re into that kind of thing. Find out more about her here.