The Ultimate Dialogue Series: Part 3!
Talking Heads and ineffective dialogue
This is one of the main issues facing writers. Talking heads is where one character says something, then the other replies, then the first answers, then the second replies again, and on and on and on.
Sally: “What was I supposed to do?”
Tim: “Leave them to it.”
Sally:“Leave them to it? What good would that have done?”
Tim: “They’re birds. They’ll deal.”
Sally:“What do you mean ‘deal’? How can you say that?”
Tim: “What else do you want me to say?”
Sally:“What else should I want you to say?”
Tim: “That’s your problem, you always do that.”
Sally: “Do what?”
Tim: “That. Take McDonald’s side.”
Sally: “I’m sorry! When I was growing up the only time I got to spend with my estranged father who left me when I was 3 years old while my mother was pregnant with triplets was when he would take me to McDonald’s on the third weekend of every month!”
Sorry, I fell asleep just writing that.
There are multiple causes of talking heads.
The main culprits are 1) not having a purpose for the dialogue in a scene 2) trying to convince your reader of something and 3) not trimming the fat.
1) Not having a purpose for the dialogue.
Ask yourself, why do you need to have the dialogue? What purpose does it serve? Are you establishing characterization, revealing plot, adding tension, comic relief? If you don’t know why the dialogue is there, take it out. Trust me. If you like a line, save it in a notepad and add it somewhere else.
2) Trying to convince the reader of something
As writers we have opinions on everything. Politics? Yes. Philosophy? Hell yes. Coffee? Yarp. Unfortunately, our desire to tell the world about these opinions is usually fulfilled by dialogue. I mean, it’s bad form in writing (especially fiction) to go and say “You should do this and not that.” but, we think, if a character says it that should be fine. WRONG! Don’t do it. Resist the urge to preach to your audience, to tell them what they should be thinking. If you’re trying to get the reader to think as you do, you must do it subtly, with skill and grace.
In the sample above it’s obvious I want you to feel sorry for Sally and explain her history with McDonald’s. That’s a bad way of explaining her backstory. It might be faster but it’s just bad writing.
Look to see if you’re trying to convince your reader of something.
3) Not trimming the fat
Consider the great example above.
The question and answer of “What?” and “That.” is repeated. Use it once, then get rid of the rest.
Each character does not have to respond to each line. They can stutter, they can change the subject, they can scream. Don’t make the characters talk back and forth. Shut them up for a bit if you have to. Making them answer each line, each rebuttal, is a never ending loop. Instead, ask how the character should react to the line. Do they get mad? Do they even care?
Keep an eye on the talking heads, and you’ll improve your work 96%. Guaranteed.
Make sure dialogue is personal to the person speaking.
How do they feel about what they are saying? Are they confident? Are they unsure? Do they even care about what they are saying?
Generalities distance the reader from the character
Wanda: “Cars are unreliable.”
Cesar: “The Ford Focus is a real P.O.S. I’m never getting one again.”
Cesar’s is specific. For Cesar it’s more personal, he has a specific incident in mind, an opinion, a resolve.
Wanda’s statement is vague and general, not very compelling. Note that you can use general statements if you want a character to seem aloof.