How To Avoid Talking Heads

RamonaGravitarWhat are Talking Heads?

There are three definitions for the term Talking Heads.

First, there’s the cool indie band whose music is edgy and avant-garde.

Second are the commentators on 24 hour news/current events shows who blather on and on about…stuff.

The third type of Talking Heads are characters who converse without any accompanying action, setting, gestures, reactions, sensory details or interior thoughts.

What’s the problem with that? Aren’t lively conversations a plus in a work of fiction?

Yes. And no.

One effective way to engage a reader is to serve up interaction via conversation. Lively dialogue quickens the  pace. An authentic verbal exchange exposes information important to the story. Well-written dialogue is  entertaining while it moves the plot forward.

After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good dose of banter or a knock-down drag out argument?

In real life, conversations don’t happen in thin air. They shouldn’t exist so in fiction, either. Have you ever come across page after page of dialogue that looks like this?

~ “We’re talking, so this must be interesting to the reader, right, Angus?”

~ “Right, Sue Ellen. Dialogue is engaging. All my writing teachers say so.”

~ “But do you think it’s a little confusing there are no dialogue tags?”

~ “Dialogue tags? We don’t need no stinking dialogue tags.”

~ “Ha ha!”

~ “There you go, Sue Ellen, I made you laugh. All my writing teachers say humor is important.”

~ “True, but where are we? I can’t find a setting.”

~ “Setting?”

~ “I’m having trouble concentrating, too. Where are my interior thoughts?”

~ “Interior thoughts?”

~ “You’re being obtuse. I’d slap you or make a face, but I don’t seem to have a body. How is it we’re speaking but we don’t have  bodies?”

~ “Bodies?”

~ “Are you just going to repeat everything I say, just for the sake of banter?”

~ “Are you just going to repeat everything I say, just for the sake of banter?”

This an extreme, of course, but look at this conversation. We learn in lines one and two that the speakers are Angus and Sue Ellen. We learn that Angus has perhaps taken too many writing classes. But if you look outside the dialogue, what else can you learn about these two characters?

Nothing. Because nothing is there. Apparently, Sue Ellen and Angus are body-less beings who live in the aether.

As is, I’m listening to two beings who are floating around, speaking, but groundless. Unless a dialogue exchange is grounded in a physical place, and I can see the physical bodies doing the speaking, what we have on the page are two talking heads.

Now for a caveat:

Sometimes writers create conversation-driven stories. Hemingway’s “Hills Like  White Elephants” is an example. The bulk of the story is a verbal exchange between lovers.  However, the scene is set up in a place–a bar–before the dialogue begins. The two characters note the surroundings–the hills like white elephants–both directly and metaphorically. These two characters speak, but they  don’t indulge in blathering. The conversation is punctuated by what they do not say.

Additionally, Talking Heads are not to be confused with a story written entirely in dialogue, such as a monologue. For example, the narrator in Dorothy Parker’s “A Telephone Call” is a woman. That’s all we know. The only prop is a clock. The story is her dialogue of waiting for a man to call. While her desperation grows, she checks the ticks on the clock and bargains with God.

These examples fall under the first definition of Talking Heads. They’re indie band short stories. They’re edgy and take chances.

The example above is more like the second definition– commentators who exist in their own little worlds and blab on and on about…stuff.

How do you prevent a case of Talking Heads from taking over a scene in your story?

  1. Place the characters on a set—a city, a café, a mobile home, a field of daisies.
  2. Give them bodies and move those bodies around.
  3. Show reactions, physically and emotionally.
  4. Get inside the characters’ heads and hearts and share what’s inside.

Are your dialogue exchanges fully drawn with setting and senses, and bodies in motion?


Tomorrow’s Topic: How to Foreshadow

4 thoughts on “How To Avoid Talking Heads

  1. Your example is hilarious, Ramona. But, I wonder if there is such a thing as too much. In my manuscript, I’ve given my characters direction, motion and internal thoughts. But sometimes I feel like I’m inventing things for them to do while talking that are extraneous.

    When my son was in high school, a teacher assigned them the Hemmingway story you referred to. I had to read it twice to make sure what they weren’t saying. The teacher was courageous. Talking about abortion in Virginia isn’t an easy subject. I often wondered if her leaving the school had


  2. E.B., WordPress is being a little ornery this morning. I had trouble getting the post up.

    Yours is an excellent question, and the answer is a resounding YES. If a section of dialogue is peppered with too many interruptions to show gestures or thoughts, it makes the writing choppy. Some writers have a character perform an action after every line of dialogue. That is very disruptive. I call it making the scene hyperactive. Very general rule of thumb: Interrupt a paragraph of dialogue only once, or twice if it’s a very long section. After about six lines of dialogue, your character is giving a speech.

    I love the Hemingway story. I think it’s beautifully crafted. It would distress me greatly to know a teacher had to leave her post for teaching it!


  3. Another great tip post, Ramona. I was going to leave the same kind of comment as E.B. In the Donald Maass workshop we attended in Boston recently, he mentioned being careful not to add too much physical context because, as you say, it chops up the flow.


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