Dialogue Tips

Talking Heads, Bobble Heads, and Small Talk...oh, my. And also...I have added a new service for editing partial manuscripts!

Writing advice is everywhere on the internet. We’re all lucky that so many talented people share their knowledge on the information highway and in books, podcasts, videos, courses, and in-person or virtual workshops. What happens, sometimes, is writers (new and experienced) take advice as rules or take the advice but miss something in the execution. Today, we’re going to talk about the common advice about talking heads and the avoidance of small talk. If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve probably heard that you don’t want “talking heads” in your novel. That doesn’t mean the band—though probably they aren’t in your novel either. Talking heads refers to an imbalance of action and feeling/thought during dialogue and the characters are just volleying words back and forth. The problem is that the fix is not just adding tags and occasional nods and smiles. And that is, unfortunately, what I see a lot of. Then you’ve just turned your talking heads into bobble heads, and you’re not adding much to the story or characterization. How often do you really nod? How noticeable is it? What’s more powerful than a nod in assent to something? A nod when you really mean no. A nod when you are trying to hold back what you really want to say. A nod when you are asking the question and trying to get the other person to agree with you—not when you are answering them. Generic actions, like “she nodded” are what I refer to as “stage directions” and should be a minimal occurrence, not the bulk of your scene. Stage directions are what you would see in parentheses in a play script. If you are going to use nods, smiles, biting of the lips, drumming of the fingers—they should mean something. They should add to the subtext. Other stage directions that get too much manuscript time are “she sat down,” “he walked,” and “she set it down.” If you are drawing attention to an action, it needs to be doing something that shows characterization, furthers the plot, or adds subtext to the scene. Open your current manuscript, if you dare, and search “nod.” Maybe nod isn’t your brand of poison. Search “eye” or “smile.” Are they thrown in to mix up your sentence construction only to avoid talking heads or do they really do something important? Do you have more of them than pages in your WIP? Which brings me to another dialogue advice problem. We’ve often read or heard that small talk is boring and has no place in fiction. However, I think that is a generalization and that small talk can be anything but small if in the hands of a writer paying attention to their craft. “Hi. How are you?” “Fine, thank you. It’s been a long time.” “Yes, it has. How is your brother?” That certainly is boring. And an example of talking heads. What if we fix it with stage direction? “Hi. How are you?” She smiled tightly. “Fine, thank you.” He looked at her. “It’s been a long time.” She nodded. “Yes, it has. How is your brother?” Well, that’s no better—but that is something I see a lot of. If you were an actor, though, you would be looking at your character’s motivation for that dialogue. Small talk can be laden with subtext. Without changing the words inside the quotation marks, and without making your characters bobble heads, how could you make this dialogue jump off the page? It would depend on the subtext and what your character’s motivation is. Small talk can be an excellent way of playing off what isn’t being said. “Hi.” Breathe, girl. Just breathe. “How are you?” She didn’t care. That’s not true. If she didn’t care, she wouldn’t be fantasizing about flying monkeys swooping in and carrying him far, far away. Or her. She’d take her chances with the flying monkeys herself if it meant she didn’t have to take his order in this stupid ‘50s diner. What was he even doing in a place like this? She smiled tightly. Maybe he wouldn’t recognize her. Her polyester uniform was a far cry from the Vera Wang wedding gown he’d last seen her wearing. “Fine, thank you.” He set his menu down and looked at her. Really looked at her. He didn’t hide his surprise well. But he recovered the color in his cheeks fast enough. He’d gone ghost white to beet red pretty fast. “It’s been a long time.” She nodded but it hadn’t really been that long. One year. One year ago, he left her at the altar because his lying, scheming family told him she was only after his money and had tried to seduce his youngest brother, James, the night before the ceremony. And he believed them. “How’s your brother?” she asked, masking her anger with fake innocence, enjoying the way that blood vessel in his temple instantly popped out while his jaw locked into a hard grimace. What a jerk. What if the scene took place at the door of a ritzy apartment building and the woman was a past her prime actress returning to her penthouse after a stint in rehab and was trying to save face with the doorman? What if the man was visiting his mother who always favored his brother over him? The tl/dr message here is that dialogue is not just what your characters are saying. It’s what they are not saying. What they wish they could say. What they want to hide. What they are trying to get the other person to say. It’s not what part of their body is moving—it’s how they are using the props in your setting and their bodies to avoid, encourage, hide. The words inside your quotation marks are just a small part of the dialogue. How you craft around them can matter much more than what is voiced aloud. So, avoid talking heads. Yes. But also avoid bobble heads. Avoid small talk. Yes. If you are only using it to get to a meatier part of the conversation. If you can use small talk to show subtext, then by all means, use small talk. The reader will eat up “It’s fine weather we’re having” if it adds layers to the dialogue. (We’ll get to “she said angrily” on another day, my sweet summer child. Because show don’t tell is too much for today. But for now, avoid adverbs to tell how someone said something for most of your wordcount.)


I've added a new service! I am not currently accepting new clients for full manuscript editing, however, I can offer edits on partial manuscripts on a limited basis. The service is the same that I offer to my regular authors--line edits, characterization, pacing, genre fit, opening etc. But we'll look at the first 5o pages. This is great if you're looking to define your writing strengths and weaknesses, polishing work for contests or submissions, or just trying to get your bearings.

Check it out!

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