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How to Get Rid of Talking Heads

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Mon Aug 27, 2007 8:27 am
LowKey says...



Talking heads are bad. Not only are they terrible to read, but they had a frightful habit of making your readers disappear. TALKING HEADS ARE BAD! So what is a talking head? Let me show you an example.

“Would you please stop that?” she asked.
“Stop what?” he asked.
“That! That annoying, maddening sound you keep making!”
“I’m not making any sound.”
It began again.
“What are those things?” she asked.
“These?”
“Yes. Those.”
“They’re peanuts.”
“Okay. What are peanuts?”
“You’re tricking me.”
“I’m not. What are they?”
“Try one.”


Notice anything? No description! No action! No reaction! A story simply cannot exist without description, action and reaction. Well, it can, but it won’t be very good. :wink: This is an example of talking heads. Look familiar?

Look at the example in the quote box above. This is an excerpt from a story I’m writing. So far, we have Andrea and Connor. All they are to the reader at the moment, though, are He and She.

She orders He to stop. Stop what? He has to ask that question in order for us to find out that ‘it’ is a sound. This bogs down the reader and is annoying for them. One of the worst things you can do as a writer is to leave your reader to fill in the blanks like that. So far, all Andrea and Connor are to the reader are (get ready) talking heads. Let’s fix that.

Andrea is not just going to hear a sound and snap at it; it has to have been wearing on her for some time now. How about "a moment later, Andrea heard the annoying sound she had begun to detest"?

A moment later, Andrea heard the annoying sound that she had begun to detest.
“Would you please stop that?” she demanded.


Still scratchy, but better. Note that I changed ‘asked’ to ‘demanded’. This shows how fed up she is better than telling. Remember, show, not tell.

A moment later, Andrea heard the annoying sound that she had began to detest.
“Would you please stop that?” she asked, fed up at the sound.


Or even just:
A moment later, Andrea heard the annoying sound that she had began to detest.
“Would you please stop that?” she asked, fed up.


You can get the same meaning across with just one word. Either way is fine, mind you, I just prefer ‘she demanded’. Less words, to the point.

So now we know right off the bat that ‘it’ is a sound that Andrea detests. Quite a step from knowing She wants He to stop something, don’t you think? :D
On to the next part!

“Stop what?” he asked.
“That! That annoying, maddening sound you keep making!”


He has to have some sort of physical reaction to that. She just snapped at him from out of the blue! He also has to let the reader know who he is, so we'll need to tie that in somehow without making it too obvious. 8)

Connor sat frozen in his saddle as he stared at her.
"Stop what?" he asked, confused.
“That! That annoying, maddening sound you keep making!”


Okay, good. We now know He's name is Connor. We also know that he is confused. He asks an innocent question (stop what?) and she snaps at him again. We are now beginning to get a feel for what's going on. Connor's confused, Andrea's annoyed.
What do we have so far?

A moment later, Andrea heard the annoying sound that she had begun to detest.
“Would you please stop that?” she demanded.
Connor sat frozen in his saddle as he stared at her.
"Stop what?" he asked, confused.
“That! That annoying, maddening sound you keep making!”


:D Much better! We now have character reaction! (How characters react to each other.) But we aren't here to talk about that, are we? No, we're here for the talking heads. :)
Next part!

“I’m not making any sound.”
It began again.


Ugh. This is very bland. We need to spice it up a bit. We already know that Connor's confused, so we don't need to do anything there. Talking heads are bad, yes, but you really don't want to overdo it. The reader will be just as annoyed with a description of every little thing the character does as they will with nothing, if not more so. Be careful.

So let's go on to the second line. We automatically assume 'it' is the sound, but still. Look at it. It's boring. Let's try this:

A moment later the popping sound began again.


I like it. Note the 'popping'. Up to this point, the reader has no idea what sound Andrea is hearing. They just assume that it's not jolting or scary, just annoying. Why? Because of how Andrea reacts. For all they know, Connor could be making weird noises with his mouth, or doing armpit farts. They just know that it's annoying. This way, we drop a clue as to what's making the noise.

"I'm not making any sound."
A moment later the popping sound began again.



It would only be right to give Andrea a physical reaction to this, so let's add a few more lines.

"I'm not making any sound."
A moment later the popping sound began again. Andrea threw her hands in the air.


Now Connor needs a reaction. How about:

“What?” Connor asked, holding another nut.


Sounds good to me. But we're editing the original work, remember. So let's give Andrea a reaction that'll steer us back to where we should be.

She sighed and turned to look at him again.


It's okay. Serves its purpose, right? Right. Now let's look at what we have again:

"I'm not making any sound."
A moment later the popping sound began again. Andrea threw her hands in the air.
“What?” Connor asked, holding another nut.
She sighed and turned to look at him again.


All righty then! Next part!

“What are those things?” she asked.
“These?”


Hmm.... It's okay. We can leave this as is, if we wanted, but I don't want to. :D Let's give Connor an action to remind the reader what he's all about.

“What are those things?” she asked.
Connor looked down at his hand.
“These?”


Okay! Connor's still confused, poor boy. But now we've given him a physical action to show his confusion. You're probably wondering why we didn't do this before. The answer? What action would you pair with "I'm not making any sound." that would fit Connor? Characterization is very important when dealing with talking heads. You want to give them action and depth, but only actions that that character would do. For Connor, the best fitting action was to have him stare blankly at Andrea and not do anything. Seeing as we already reported one of his actions right before that to the reader, doing it again right after that would be like tattling. I repeat: the reader does not want all the details.

Are we having fun yet? Let's look at everything we have so far.

A moment later, Andrea heard the annoying sound that she had begun to detest.
“Would you please stop that?” she demanded.
Connor sat frozen in his saddle as he stared at her.
"Stop what?" he asked, confused.
“That! That annoying, maddening sound you keep making!”
"I'm not making any sound."
A moment later the popping sound began again. Andrea threw her hands in the air.
“What?” Connor asked, holding another nut.
She sighed and turned to look at him again.
“What are those things?” she asked.
Connor looked down at his hand.
“These?”


Compare that to what we started with. We've made some progress.

Next part! :D

“Yes. Those.”
“They’re peanuts.”


Again, no need to describe Andrea's actions. Let's stick with Connor. He's blunt, but let's describe his tone. To him, this is quite obvious. For someone to ask him what a peanut is is just crazy! What would he do?

"Yes. Those."
"They're peanuts." he said it as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.


What do you think?

NEXT SECTION!

Okay, almost done. Let's clump 'em all together.

“Okay. What are peanuts?”
“You’re tricking me.”
“I’m not. What are they?”
“Try one.”


Connor's confusion is all gone! good for him! And Andrea doesn't seem to ticked off any more either. This last part looks pretty good. There are definitely things you can add.
“Okay. What are peanuts?”
He blinked.
“You’re tricking me.”
“I’m not. What are they?”
“Try one.” he said, leaning over to pass her one.


Pretty good, no? Okay, no, it's not. But look at what we have:


A moment later, Andrea heard the annoying sound that she had begun to detest.
“Would you please stop that?” she demanded.
Connor sat frozen in his saddle as he stared at her.
"Stop what?" he asked, confused.
“That! That annoying, maddening sound you keep making!”
"I'm not making any sound."
A moment later the popping sound began again. Andrea threw her hands in the air.
“What?” Connor asked, holding another nut.
She sighed and turned to look at him again.
“What are those things?” she asked.
Connor looked down at his hand.
“These?”
"Yes. Those."
"They're peanuts." he said it as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Okay. What are peanuts?”
He blinked.
“You’re tricking me.”
“I’m not. What are they?”
“Try one.” he said, leaning over to pass her one.


And look at what we started with:

“Would you please stop that?” she asked.
“Stop what?” he asked.
“That! That annoying, maddening sound you keep making!”
“I’m not making any sound.”
It began again.
“What are those things?” she asked.
“These?”
“Yes. Those.”
“They’re peanuts.”
“Okay. What are peanuts?”
“You’re tricking me.”
“I’m not. What are they?”
“Try one.”


A little tweaking here and there:

A moment later, Andrea heard the annoying sound somewhere between a crack and a pop that she had began to detest. She tried to ignore it, but after the seventh crack, she whirled around.
“Would you please stop that?” she demanded.
Connor sat frozen in his saddle as he stared at her, with what looked like a warped nut in his hand.
“Stop what?” he asked, confused.
“That! That annoying, maddening, sound you keep making!”
“I’m not making any sound.”
Andrea rolled her eyes, exasperated.
A moment later the popping sound began again. Andrea threw her hands in the air.
“What?” Connor asked, holding another nut.
Beyond the point of arguing, she turned to look at him again.
“What are those things?” she asked.
Connor looked down at his hand.
“These?”
“Yes. Those.”
“They’re peanuts,” he said it as if this was the most obvious in the world.
“Okay. What are peanuts?”
“You’re tricking me.”
“I’m not. What are they?”
“Try one," He said, leaning over to pass her one.


And TA-DA! No more talking heads!

:!:Okay! Quick Review!:!:

* No tattle-telling! Your readers do not need or want all the details.

*No talking heads! Your readers want some details, after all. Find a happy medium. :wink:

*Keep to your characters! Don't make them have a physical reaction simply for the sake of a physical reaction, especially if they normally wouldn't have that reaction.

And that's pretty much it!
Last edited by LowKey on Thu Oct 01, 2009 9:18 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Mon Aug 27, 2007 10:13 pm
Caligula's Launderette says...



YAY! Wonderful tutorial on how talking heads are evil.

Dreamer wrote:*Keep to your characters! Don't make them have a physical reaction simply for the sake of a physical reaction, especially if they normally wouldn't have that reaction.


So true.

:D

Ta,
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Mon Aug 27, 2007 11:43 pm
piepiemann22 says...



You are so darn right. In fact, I sometimes do the same thing, thanks for the heads up.

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Mon Nov 12, 2007 5:29 am
Snoink says...



Hehe! This was a neat article to read. :)
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Sun Jun 21, 2009 12:41 am
Rosey Unicorn says...



I officially love this article.
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Sun Jun 21, 2009 1:43 am
OverEasy says...



<3 brilliant
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Mon Jun 22, 2009 9:41 pm
chasingcolts21 says...



This was a really great article. I dislike talking heads epically. :D
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Mon Nov 01, 2010 2:08 am
Idraax says...



This really helps! My scenes tend to be way to dialogue heavy.
Check these out please! :)
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Thu Nov 11, 2010 3:35 pm
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carbonCore says...



I largely disagree with this article. "Talking heads" are not at all bad if you can write the dialogue well enough. I do enjoy reading the occasional work that's thick with description, only to abandon description altogether for stretches of dialogue. To illustrate my example, I'll write a tiny little scene.

Water washed Bob's wounds, which leaked blood into the puddle. Not that he could see any of it - his face lay scraping the puddle's shallow bottom, the rocks and bits of concrete cutting into his skin. He forced himself to turn over to look up.

"Hey," one of the punks standing around Bob said, bending over him. "You hurt, pops? Maybe I should put you out of your misery?"

He drew a small knife from his pocket.


Now let's see if we can get across the same amount of information with pure dialogue.

"How's the pavement taste, pops? Salty enough for ya? Ha! Guys, look at this tool, making the water all filthy with his blood. Hey, don't look at me like you're surprised, pops! We put them cuts all over you. Make you look pretty, they do - red is definitely your colour... Now, that cut there up on your neck don't look too good - you won't mind if I finish it for you, would you?"


Both get across that: a) Bob is lying in a puddle of water on concrete, b) he was wounded by punks, c) one of the punks wants to kill him. Which one looks better? Well, that's up to you (and the example above was done in 2 minutes, so it is by no means actual "good" dialogue). However, neither is bad. It's simply a matter of what you are more comfortable with. The only real guideline is to provide a lot of information. How do you provide it? That's up to you.

The one thing I absolutely disagree with, however, is the use of "demanded" instead of "asked". Even "asked" is pushing it. The line already has a question mark after it, so why do you have to re-state that it was, in fact, a question? As for making the word "asked" more assertive by saying "demanded", well, that's just (in my opinion) lazy writing.

"Would you please stop that?" she demanded.


"For Pete's sakes, Bob, how many times do I have to ask you to stop making that stupid noise?!"


Which one sounds more demanding? Our good old friend Show vs Tell makes an appearance here. There's a difference between making the dialogue sound demanding and just telling us, "yeah, it's demanding, take my word for it." Of course, many things may be implied through tone, but you can't really properly express tone through text. If you absolutely must, use a metaphor or simile to let the reader understand exactly what the tone is.

"Would you please stop that?" she said in a voice that reminded Bob of a snake's rattle just before striking.


...or something. You get the idea. :D

Anyway, just wanted to drop my two pence here. tl;dr all rules are allowed to be broken if you break them with style. Happy writing, and good luck!
_____________
WRFF