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Talking Heads Syndrome (Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes) | Live Write Breathe

Talking Heads (Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes)

#7 Talking Heads Syndrome

Ever read dialogue that made you feel like you’d just cast off in a rudderless boat? The scene seemed interesting, but you just couldn’t get a grappling hook into it. The viewpoint wasn’t clear, and you lost track of who was saying what and weren’t exactly sure where the characters even were, let alone what they were doing. This sounds like a case of the dreaded talking heads syndrome. The writer failed to set the scene in time and space or to give you enough identifying information to navigate the conversation.

The result of these kinds of omissions is always a confused reader.

Example of Talking Heads Syndrome

“My daughter is stuck in the tree!” Mary  said.

“Help her, please.”

Gabriel hesitated. “Call the fire department.”

“There’s no time. She could fall any moment.”

“Do you have a ladder?”

A scream pulsed through the air.

“Hang on, princess!”

Notice how much easier the scene is to understand with the addition of some strategically placed information.

“My daughter is stuck in the tree!” Mary  pulled Gabriel off the porch step and into her yard.

He glanced up, then whistled through his teeth, already pulling his mailbag off his shoulder. How on earth could a toddler climb that high?

“Help her, please.” Mary’s words came in short bursts, and her fingers moved convulsively on his arm.

“Call the fire department.”

“There’s no time. She could fall any moment.”

He hesitated. Nowhere in his post office training had handling such a situation been remotely discussed. “Do you have a ladder?”

A scream pulsed through the air, and the mailbag slipped from his fingers. “Hang on, princess!”

What Causes Talking Heads Syndrome?

I have to guard against talking heads syndrome in my own writing, so it’s easy to explain how this dialogue writing mistake happens. You see, when words are flowing onto the page, the last thing I want is to slow down to describe the details I ‘see.’

I’m too busy living the story.

Overcoming Talking Heads Syndrome

For me, the solution is to write a sparse first draft, then flesh out details the second time through. Even then, I have to watch that I don’t become so caught up in the story that I miss a spot. If I do, an editor is sure to point it out.

I’d rather not bother with adding in those details, if you want to know the truth, but readers need them.  They can’t see into my mind, and so I must perform the labor of interpreting the ‘movie in my head’ for them.

The creative process seems to be two parts inspiration and one part mundanity.

I’m fascinated with dancers, who move in time to the music while keeping track of their steps and place in the dance. Singing is similar, where you simultaneously form words and count. I say this a little tongue-in-cheek, because my voice teacher had to wean me from singing by ear. She forced me to read music gave me some skills, and now I learn music faster. I’ve even performed entirely from memorized sheet music.

Writing is similar. It’s not always fun to delve deeper and anchor dialogue with setting details and tags or beats, or to incorporate subtexting, where a character says one thing but means another.  However, including more threads in a writing tapestry weaves a richer fabric.

Some Final Thoughts

If you need guidance on how to manage dialogue tags or beats, be sure to read the applicable installments in this series. For more on sub-texting, I refer you to Brandilyn Collin’s definitive work, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors (affiliate).*

Read dialogue writing mistake #8: stilted dialogue.

Go to dialogue writing mistake #6: Information Dump Disorder.

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Talking Heads Syndrome (Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes) by Janalyn Voigt | Live Write Breathe

Written by Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt

© Janalyn Voigt
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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

4 thoughts on “Talking Heads (Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes)”

  1. YES!!!
    I used to call this scriptwriting, except with fiction there were no “Character:” tags to let you know who’s speaking. Heaven help us if a third/fourth character joined the conversation. I remember editing someone’s story where the talking heads went on for three pages without a tag or a beat. :/

  2. I always enjoy reading your series of posts. They are very helpful to us newbies. I really liked this one about Talking Heads. Seeing how to do it right helps me understand what I need to do with my writing. That is one of the many things I struggle with.

    Thank You!

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