Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Stuff In Between Dialogue

Sometimes when you’re writing a scene, you need to avoid the “talking heads” syndrome where 2 people are chatting on the pages but doing absolutely nothing to further the plot. They need to have this conversation—but what do you have them do while they’re discussing?

1. Absolutely nothing. Don’t be afraid to have a simple back-and-forth with no action, or even (gasp!) no dialogue tags like “he said” and “she said.” Just be careful not to go on too long or your reader may lose track of who is saying what. It depends on the interchange, but 6-12 non-tagged lines are usually long enough before you have to tag or identify:

A looming presence appears beside my desk, like a specter of doom. “Curtis.”
“Yes, Mrs. Taylor?”
“Your assignment was due last week, and I don’t see it in my homework box.”
“Um…this may sound hard to believe, but my dog ate it.”
“You’re right. I don’t believe that for one microsecond.”
“No, really! I know it’s a freakin’ cliché, but Rambo was locked inside my room while my mom was doing some girlie hair dye thing with my sister—”
“I’m going to need a note from your mother about that, then.”
I slouch in my desk. Oops, definite snag. Used the wrong alibi for that one.

2. Have the character think or do a simple action. Especially useful when writing in first person, this Shows the reader the character’s personality rather than Telling what someone is like. For instance, the last 2 lines of thought in the previous example. Actions also work, such as Curtis slouching in his desk—just be careful not to overdo it and have an action for nearly EVERY single line. That gets old and tedious, fast.

3. Actions that actually propel the scene forward. Integrate the actions into the dialogue so that something is happening to get the characters from point A to point B. Be careful of doing a lot of overused actions such as sighing, glancing, blinking, lip pursing, and hair smoothing. Use these sparingly and make sure they fit the character you are describing.

Also, don’t have EVERYONE have a habit of twirling strands of hair or biting his/her lower lip whilst thinking under pressure. That’s unrealistic. Keep it to one character as his/her specific trait.

How long have you gone on with a dialogue, with no tags in a scene?
Do you find writing dialogue difficult, or fairly easy?
Do you have trouble figuring out what actions your characters should be doing while they are in a conversation, so they don’t sound like “talking heads”?



  1. It can be helpful to mix in unspoken thought, like you have in your example at the end (but don't directly point out). Interactions with the environment, or the setting acting (ambient noises, weather) will also make the scene not seem like "talking heads," but ground the scene in time and place. An unusual setting can be especially helpful to keep a scene interesting when you need a character to relay a lot of information to another. In _Save the Cat_, Snyder calls the technique "Pope in the Pool."

  2. I usually don't have a problem with these scenes, although an editor might tell me to delete or add tags or put in some gestures and action.

  3. I'm a beat junkie. I hate tags, but I LOVE to show the characters reactions immediately by their physical responses. After all, 60% of communication is nonverbal.

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  5. Carol, I use small talk for character development. I think you have to. A reader needs to care for certain characters and small talk is a way to develop personalities and relationships. I keep the conversations to a minimum though.


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