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?
IDEAS FOR THE STUFF BETWEEN
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”?