Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Talking Heads (or, When Life Hands You Dialogue, Throw in Some Action )

We’ve all seen it:

Hello, Cindy.”
“Hi, Jane.”
“How are you?”
“Fine, thanks. You?”
“Fine. Got any plans for after work?”
“Maybe go out for a drink.”
“Mm. I was gonna go for groceries.”
“Well, that, too, but I’d rather get a drink.”

Boooooooring. And how many of you had to count the lines to remember who’s talking? Or how about those passages where one person provides exposition of the plot or background, then another person presents an opposing opinion, then a third tosses in an idea that negates everything the first two said, and it starts all over. 


Talking heads are boring on TV and they’re boring at a party and they’re boring in a book. (I’m not talking about the Talking Heads you still hear on FM radio. Though some people find them boring, too.) Humans are visual creatures and we like action. It’s up to you, the writer, to give your readers action.

Take a tip from director Ken Burns, for instance, in his great series on the Civil War. As in so many of his films, he has actors read from letters written during that tragic conflict. Gifted though the actors are, the readings could be a snooze. But Burns also gives us action, in the form of photos. Not static photos--he zooms in on a heartbreakingly real face, pans across fields of broken bodies, or highlights a telling detail. The spoken word blends with the pictures to create an indelible image.

So how do you emulate Ken Burns? By adding action to your dialogue. For example:

Jane stopped by her friend’s desk late on a Friday afternoon. “Hey, Cindy, whatcha doin’ after work?”
Cindy rubbed her eyes and gestured at the stack of paperwork beside her computer. “All this, then I need to get groceries.”
“Hmmph. Me, too. Wanna go for a drink?”
“Sweet Goddess, yes,” Cindy said with a laugh. Her shoulders lost some of their tension.

See the difference? Instead of just reporting what each person says, you’ve now given your characters a setting, indicated how hard they work, and shown something of their personalities. You’ve engaged your reader in the passage.

As for those long expositions, report in dialogue only what is necessary to the plot. Summarized the rest from your character’s POV or break it up into shorter bits that can be inserted into scenes where they do the most good. Show the listeners’ reactions by indicating their body movements or interior dialogue. Maybe a word from the speaker triggers memories or makes a connection:

Jason’s mind wandered while the boss droned on. He caught the phrase “binomial equation” and drifted back to his high school algebra class. He’d been far more interested in that pretty girl Vanessa What’s-her-name than in… Now the boss was sketching on the white board, a complex pattern of cross-hatching and curved lines. Jason raised his hand. “Maybe we should get Professor Martin in on this,” he suggested.

If you must include long speeches, remember Ken Burns, any televised political debate, or a good science documentary. Include visuals like the audience reaction or appropriate clips of related action.
In short, do whatever you must to engage your readers’ visual cortex. Remember, we humans are visual creatures, and we like action.

Nikki Andrews is an editor at Champagne Books and a writer of mysteries and scifi. Visit her blog here for more grammar fun.


  1. I love this blog. I've seen this in published works, believe it or not. I tend to write like talking heads in my first draft, but I layer in the action when I go back through.

  2. I've seen this, both as an editor, and in my own work. I know for myself I get lazy when I'm lost 70,000 words into a draft on some days, so when I go back to revise / polish I zero in on spots like this and give them a much-needed chiropractic adjustment.
    Thanks for the tips!