Talking Heads

Recently I spent some time critiquing another writer’s work. The writer does dialogue quite well, but every so often she went on and on with the dialogue without breaking it up with dialogue tags or narrative tags. Everything was correctly punctuated, even when she had three paragraphs in a row of dialogue from the same speaker, but for me it turned into talking heads. There was no sense of location, no body language, no internal thoughts. Just dialogue.

Now, once a writer has set up a scene with two people, it’s fine to have several lines of dialogue with no tags, but if this continues for too long, there’s a chance the reader will lose track of who’s saying what and won’t know the effect of what’s being said. Dialogue is only part of a conversation. Body language is another important part of communication, as well as gestures, action and reaction, sensory details, and internal thoughts. All are necessary to give the reader insight to the characters. When a writer leaves out those elements, he or she is cheating the reader.

Watch on television when a talk show host is interviewing another person. The camera will focus on one face (head) and then on the other for a bit, but after a while, the cameraman will either pull back slightly, showing the speaker’s full body, or will show both bodies, so we can see how they’re reacting to each other. Or the camera will swing out to focus on the audience. Directors know simply showing one head and then the other, back and forth, after a while becomes monotonous and doesn’t tell the viewer enough. We as writers need to remember that so we don’t also end up with talking heads.

Although dialogue tags such as he said or she said are fine to use to help the reader keep track of who’s speaking, they tell the reader very little and if you use too many on a page, rather than being unobtrusive, they begin to stand out. By having your characters do something, think something, or react in a certain way, you create action. The reader learns more about the characters: where they are, what they’re thinking (which can be quite important if their thoughts are in opposition to what they’re saying) or how they’re reacting to what’s being said.

When writing, it’s fine to put down the dialogue first. Write the give-and-take between the characters, but after you have the dialogue the way you want it, you need to sit back, close your eyes, and picture these two people actually having this conversation. Play it in your mind like a movie. Where are they? If you’ve already set up the scene, what are they doing in this setting? Are they sitting in chairs? Does one lean forward, appearing receptive to what’s being said, or lean back and cross her arms across her chest, appearing to block what’s being said? Smile? Frown? Does something being said trigger a memory? Does he think what’s being said sounds ridiculous? Do the characters hear other sounds in the background? Can you bring in the five senses?

Here’s an example from A KILLER PAST which will be released next March. First just the dialogue.

“Is there a reason you parked your car on Archer Street?”
“It stopped running.”
“And what time was that?”
“Hmm . . . I’m not sure. Do you take milk or sugar?”
“Neither. Morning, noon, or night?”
“Around ten, I guess. Ten or ten-thirty. At night.”
“Really. Two, ah . . . Two young men were attacked in that area last night. Would you know anything about that?”

It’s clear who’s speaking, and I’m getting information to the reader, but there’s no action, no emotion to the scene. Here’s how it will appear in the book.

Jack pulled out the wooden chair on the side of the table opposite the placemat with the mug and ice pack. He shrugged out of his overcoat before he sat down, and from the inside pocket of his wool jacket removed a three-by-five notebook and the stub of a pencil. “Is there a reason you parked your car on Archer Street?” he asked as her coffeemaker began spewing coffee into a purple mug.
   “It stopped running,” she said.
   “And what time was that?”
   “Hmm . . .” She brought the mug over and set it on the placemat in front of him. “I’m not sure. Do you take milk or sugar?”
   “Neither.” He shook his head, all the while watching her. “Morning, noon, or night?” he asked, even though he already knew from reading the interviews of the neighbors that the car hadn’t been there until after dark.
   “Around ten, I guess. Ten or ten-thirty.” She sat across from him and smiled. “At night.”
   “Really.” Ignoring his coffee, he sat back and stared at her. The boys had said an old lady beat them up, but he hadn’t believed them, and he still couldn’t fathom how someone Mary Harrington’s size and age could take on the boys. “Two, ah . . . Two young men were attacked in that area last night. Would you know anything about that?”

Although the first example indicates what’s being said, the final version, I hope, shows much more than the words they’re exchanging.

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7 Responses to Talking Heads

  1. Sue Myers says:

    Wonderful article! I’m keeping a copy close at hand for review, so I don’t stray while writing.

    Thanks for all your wonderful posts!

  2. Lucy Kubash says:

    Good post. I know I don’t like it when I’m reading dialogue in a book and have to backtrack to find out who is talking, so I have to remember not to do that in my own writing. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful example. The second one gave more details and pulled the reader in.

  4. Well done again, Maris. Thanks for sharing.