Don’t Talk Like That: Talking Heads

Two heads facing each other with books inset in each
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Hi SErs! Harmony here 🙂

Today, I’d like to take another look at dialogue. Because this is such a large topic, I have spread the topic over a few posts. As the post title suggests, we’ll look at ‘talking heads’ with dialogue today.

‘This is Detective Inspector Treen. Mike Treen.’

‘Yes?’

‘You reported your son, Jayden Kellow, missing an hour ago, yes?’

‘Yes. Yes, I did. Have you found him?’

‘Not yet. I’m sure he’ll turn up just fine. Boys his age … well, you’d be surprised how often they get drunk and collapse at a friend’s house. And then, come the next day, they show up at home full of a hangover and remorse. And it hasn’t been twenty-four hours yet.’

‘Not my Jay. He’s not like that. And he said he was stuck …’

‘May I ask you some questions, Mrs Kellow … Carole?’

What is Talking Head Syndrome? Basically, talkings heads happens when we have line upon line of speakers with no beats, tags, or other attributions. This brings two major issues to the page: 1) The reader cannot identify the speaker easily, especially with 3 or more characters, and 2) We introduce ‘white room syndrome’ into the bargain. The characters exist in a vacumm in this scenario. Below, I copy in the dialogue as it originally appeared in The Vanished Boy before I butchered it ….

‘This is Detective Inspector Treen. Mike Treen.’ The voice sounds deep and gravelly and measured. A voice you trust automatically. Like soft, deep, brown puppy-dog eyes always leave you with a warm feeling.

‘Yes?’ Terror and dread constrict her throat and chest until she feels nearly suffocated. She’s convinced the police have found Jay’s body somewhere.

‘You reported your son, Jayden Kellow, missing an hour ago, yes?’

Carole clears her throat. ‘Yes. Yes, I did. Have you found him?’ Her voice comes out all high-pitched and scared-sounding. Not her voice at all.

A slight pause precedes a cautious reply, ‘Not yet. I’m sure he’ll turn up just fine. Boys his age … well, you’d be surprised how often they get drunk and collapse at a friend’s house. And then, come the next day, they show up at home full of a hangover and remorse. And it hasn’t been twenty-four hours yet.’

Carole grits her teeth and shakes her head. ‘Not my Jay. He’s not like that. And he said he was stuck …’

‘May I ask you some questions, Mrs Kellow … Carole?’

As you can see in the above extract, the beats and attributions help us to identify each speaker. Also, by adding in these extras, we introduce emotions and thoughts, which give life to the characters. This also prevents your speakers from existing in a vacumm as we show the relationships in just a few words.

Top Tip: If you have a lengthy section of dialogue, add in an activity that one or more of your characters can engage in as they talk. You can use anything that aids in character and world building … dialogue while catching and moving a spider, performing surgery, brewing coffee, cooking breakfast, in a car chase with a suspect … you get the jist.

Remember: Any dialogue, including beats and tags, is there to further your plot. Don’t ever use this as filler or to info dump or drop in back story. This is not the place.

The take-away from all of this is to avoid talking head and white room syndromes. As I said in my previous dialogue posts: Before we break the rules, we need to know the rules, and we only break them if we have a valid reason to do so to enhance our artistic expression in writing.


That’s it from me for today. I hope you find this post useful. And I’ll see you again on May 31st 🙂


Post One: Name Dropping can be found HERE.

Post Two: Tags and Beats can be found HERE.

Post Three: Punctuation can be found HERE.

©2021 Harmony Kent

56 thoughts on “Don’t Talk Like That: Talking Heads

  1. Pingback: Don’t Talk Like That: Quotes and Paragraphs | Story Empire

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  4. A super post, Harmony. I like how you demonstrate using beats to portray emotion even when it’s just two people talking. And it adds depth to the story big time because we don’t just hear the words, we feel them. Great examples! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent points, Harmony. If we do have “rapid-fire dialogue” between two speakers, it’s best to keep it to three lines with no attrib or body cue. Three speakers? Like you said, way too confusing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent post, Harmony! Your reminders, accompanied by examples, really make it clear how important it is to use dialogue correctly. My first drafts fail miserably until they’re rescued by a rewrite, beta readers, and my wonderful editor. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I tend to have white space in my first draft. I like what Mae said about thinking through it. Writing slow just means there isn’t a lot of clean-up and editing to do later.

    In the first example, I couldn’t help but think. “Bond. James Bond.” Having read your story with the dialogue beats/action, that never occurred to me when I read the passage. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Hi, Harmony
    This is a fascinating post as always. I HOPE I’m not guilty, especially as I don’t use dialogue tags.
    However, my real comment is your use of colour behind the text. I usually find SE posts hard to read, so if I comment, take it as a compliment, folks. Yours was so interesting I squinted. No need today. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • So pleased the colour helped with the visuals, Sarah, and glad you enjoyed the post. May I suggest having a try with some dialogue tags here and there? It’s definitely better to have identifiers outside of the quotes rather than within them 🙂

      Like

  9. Pingback: Don’t Talk Like That: Talking Heads | Legends of Windemere

  10. Pingback: Don’t Talk Like That: Talking Heads | Welcome to Harmony Kent Online

  11. I’m like Judith. When I write, I’m constantly thinking about what my characters are doing or what they’re feeling, also taking their surroundings into account. It means I write slow, but I also have a thoroughly fleshed out draft when I’m done.

    Good reminder post, Harmony!

    Liked by 5 people

  12. A great post, Harmony:) I tend to write talking heads in my first draft and need to go back and add in movement and background. I love your examples it really shows a difference between the two. More good advice!

    Liked by 3 people

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