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Mini Lesson: Avoid Talking Heads

Today's mini lesson is all about the phenomenon called "talking heads." This term refers to a long stretch of dialogue with only speech verbs and no description of the physicality of the characters, or of the setting, aside from occasional movements above the neck. If you're only describing eyes, lips, eyebrows, and heads shaking/nodding/tilting, you have talking heads.

This is a problem for one very simple reason: novels aren't scripts.

When a playwright creates their script, they only include the dialogue, attribution (who's speaking), and rare scene directions. But a script is intended to become a performance. Its final form includes set design, costumes, and actors bringing the names on the pages to life with blocking (movement) and the characters' quirks or mannerisms. When we have only the dialogue and attribution, the experience of the story is incomplete.

The same goes for your novel, so you need to ensure all of those pieces are happening on the page the way they would on the "stage" of your story. It's up to you as the author to create the set, the costumes, the blocking, and the character mannerisms—plus internalization. If you only include dialogue and head-related movements, that's all the readers get to see, leaving your scene incomplete like a script.

The good news is that people are constantly moving. It's not practical or necessary to describe every time a character moves, but you want to ensure you're grounding your readers in the physicality of both the space (setting) and the characters themselves. How are they interacting with the furniture and items around them? How are they physically reacting to what is being said? 
    Examples include: crossing their arms after being accused of something; fidgeting with whatever little items are within reach; jumping out of their seat at hearing exciting (or infuriating) news; and pulling a blanket over their head and hugging their knees to their chest for comfort.

Including the elements aside from the basic "script" of your conversations helps to build a sense of your world, to break up stretches of dialogue, and to humanize your characters. Adding internalization does the last two as well, but you want to make sure to balance building the internal and external worlds of your story. If all we have is dialogue and internal reactions to what's being said, we still aren't getting a complete picture of your world or your characters, who in almost all cases will have bodies in addition to heads.

So if the only movements being described within long stretches of conversation happen above the neck, as if the bodies have disappeared or been paralyzed—and that isn't the effect you're intentionally creating—take another pass at your draft to help readers see the full scene.

    Do you have any special tips or tricks for fixing "talking heads" moments? Share in the comments!

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