When a writer does not add enough context to a conversation we call that ‘talking heads’. Usually, when there is a conversation in a movie or a book, there’s more going on than just the dialog. Actors are showing emotions, or lack of them, and say their lines just so. Characters in book frown, laugh, and fret as they talk. If this information is missing, you have the talking heads. This week, I’ll take a look at this writing smell.
Before I continue, I’d like to point out that the heads in the article banner are from busts in the Vasa museum in Stockholm. If you’re ever there, go see them. The museum is great.
What are talking heads?
I’ve talked about white-room syndrome before, where the context of a scene is too sparse to distinguish what is going on. ‘Talking heads’ is similar, but specific to conversations. A large part of communication between humans takes place non-verbally. If you’ve ever had a meeting with people on a conference telephone, over Skype, or using some other type of video conferencing, you’ll understand how important non-verbal communications are. With two people in a telephone call it’s not so bad, but with more than two, you start to miss the non-verbal cues that make a group conversation flow smoothly.
In a movie, at least part of the non-verbal comes across by the actor’s performance and the director’s way of shooting. In writing, that has to be solved another way. Luckily, writers have a tool for that: more writing. Dialog should be interspersed with descriptions of non-verbal cues, and physical responses to a conversation. When a writer fails to do this properly, you get the talking heads smell: it feels as if the dialog is being spoken by a set of talking heads floating in a void.
One thing that I should mention here is that this problem is partially alleviated by the character’s personality shining through in the dialog. But characterisation in dialog is a subject that deserves its own post (at some point, when I feel like it).
Also, this problem is partially a matter of taste and style. What one person will call ‘talking heads’, another will call ‘tight writing’.
Take a look at the following scene.
“I can’t do it,” Alice said.
“Can’t or won’t?” Bob replied.
“Alright, I won’t do it. It’s too dangerous.”
“Come on. We need to get something to nail this guy.”
“Then you do it!”
“He knows me. He’ll make me in ten seconds flat, you know that.”
“I… Okay, I’ll do it.”
That’s a lot of dialog. There’s not a lot wrong with it, per se, but it’s just dialog, without any non-verbal signals and only a minimum of dialog tags.
Without extra clues, you have to fill in what the characters are feeling yourself.
The above scene doesn’t feel finished, like something is missing.
How to fix it
The fix to this problem is to add extra dialog tags, and descriptions of the speakers’ non-verbal reactions.
It can also help to have a character perform some small action, as long as it doesn’t distract from the conversation. The trick is to try and make this extra description so that it not only describes the non-verbal communication, but also sets the scene, and characterizes the characters.
Let’s have a go for the example above. I added the text in bold.
“I can’t do it,” Alice said. Bob was chopping vegetables on the kitchen counter.
“Can’t or won’t?” Bob replied. His knife stopped and he looked at her sternly.
She raised her shaking hands defensively. “Alright, I won’t do it. It’s too dangerous.”
“Come on,” Bob said, angrily attacking the tomato before him. “We need to get something to nail this guy.”
“Then you do it!” she shouted.
Bob put down the knife and shook his head. “He knows me. He’ll make me in ten seconds flat, you know that.”
“I…” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Every line of dialog has been extended with some action. Suddenly, the conflict in the scene is much more vivid. Bob is angry. Alice is scared, but finally accedes to his wishes. In addition, we know that they’re in a kitchen (setting the scene) and we learn that Bob likes cooking (characterisation).
An extra advantage of tagging all your dialog like this, is that if you do want to emphasize a particular sentence of dialog, you can now do that by leaving out the tag for that sentence. Because everything else has description, the single bare sentence stands out.
Talking heads are a wasted opportunity for characterisation and description. Don’t waste it, but give those heads a body.