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Sunday, March 10, 2024

How to Fix Talking Heads in Your Story

What is "Talking Heads"? 

"Talking heads" or "talking heads syndrome" is a term used in the creative writing community for a passage of dialogue where all that exists is the dialogue. To the reader, it feels as if heads are floating in space, talking. We don't get any description. We don't get any blocking. We don't get any introspection. Just talking. As an example, it shows up like this.

“Happy Birthday, Cherie!”

“Oh thanks.”

“So, you have any big plans?”

“Nothing much. Just a family thing.”

“Cool, I was thinking we could go to that escape room? It’s tiki themed.”

“My favorite.”

“It’ll be awesome.”

“Is it even solvable with two people?”

“We’ll tell them it’s your birthday.”

While the dialogue itself could maybe use some work, this passage is a problem because the reader doesn't know where the characters are, what they look like, or what they are doing. 

And even if the scene did convey those things in the opening, straight dialogue like this that goes on and on, often has a weird effect on the reader, similar to that of having a blindfold on. (And simply adding dialogue tags isn't enough to fix the problem.)

Instead, it's more effective to flesh out the scene, so the audience feels as if they are there, experiencing the story for themselves.

Fixing Talking Heads

When telling a story, we use five types of lines: dialogue, description, blocking, introspection, and summary.

So the fix seems easy right?

Just add some other lines.

I mean, obviously we aren't going to fix the passage by adding more dialogue, nor does using summary make much sense. So that leaves us with description, blocking, and introspection. 

Fair enough . . . but . . . if you add the wrong lines, it can create new problems.

Consider the passage with these lines added:

“Happy Birthday, Cherie!”

“Oh thanks,” I said, while a jogger ran down the street.

“So, you have any big plans?”

“Nothing much. Just a family thing.”

“Cool, I was thinking we could go to that escape room? It’s tiki themed.” Tiffany had thick, curling hair and eyes the color of pond water. A scar shaped like a bullet hole marred the bottom of her chin.

“My favorite.” I put a hand on my hip.

“It’ll be awesome.”

I wished I hadn't eaten a donut for breakfast. “Is it even solvable with two people?”

“We’ll tell them it’s your birthday.” 

Tiffany sneezed. On my neighbor's doorstep sat a package.

Does this read . . . odd to you?

It should.

The jogger seems a bit random, and we get a description of Tiffany too late. And why do we need to know Cherie wished she hadn't eaten a donut, in the middle of a conversation? Why should we care about a package? Other lines, like the hand on the hip, feel like a lost opportunity to put in something more meaningful.

If the dialogue is what is driving a scene forward, then you don't want to pick lines that detract from it. You want to pick lines that support or enhance the scene--that provide context or create subtext, or that at least feel natural to your viewpoint character. Would Cherie notice a package on her neighbor's doorstep right now? Unless we've established a motive behind that prior, probably not.

When fixing talking heads, it's not enough to just insert whatever comes to mind. You need to choose lines that do the following:

- Add context

- Reveal character

- Reveal the characters' current emotions

- Create subtext

- Add emphasis

- Naturally enhance the setting (without being distracting)

And one of the best pieces of advice is to give your character something meaningful to do. Even if it's not strictly meaningful to the main plot (but bonus points if it is), it could be an activity that is meaningful to the character (which also reveals character), like tying fishing flies or training a border collie or finishing a cosplay. Try not to have too many conversations take place over meals, unless food is an important element of your particular story. Too many beginning writers grab meals for the backdrop of conversations far too often, so it can feel cliche.

Here is a better way to fix our talking heads example:

I zipped outside and beelined for my car, but Tiffany's high-pitched voice hit me before I spotted her curled mane of hair.

"Happy Birthday, Cherie!" She waved and shut her apartment door.

"Oh thanks." I flashed what I hoped was a grateful smile, then quickly dug in my purse for my keys. Why hadn't I gotten them out beforehand?

"So, you have any big plans?" Her high heels clinked closer.

I didn't make eye contact. "Nothing much. Just a family thing." I lingered on the word "family."

"Cool." Tiffany picked a hangnail. "I was thinking we could go to that escape room? It’s tiki themed."

My voice went flat. "My favorite."

"Come on, it’ll be awesome." She shook my arm at the precise moment I'd found my keys. They dropped to the cement.

"Is it even solvable with two people?"

I knew for certain, it wasn't solvable with one. This wasn't a gift. Tiffany was friendless.

"We’ll tell them it’s your birthday."

I opened my car door.

In this example, the description, blocking, and introspection add to the conversation in ways that feel natural. They provide context, reveal character (including the narrator's emotional state), and create subtext (Cherie actually doesn't want to go to the escape room with Tiffany).

So not only are they fixing the talking heads problem, but they are fixing them in ways that are meaningful to the story.

With all this said though, any writing rule can be broken. So I want to close by acknowledging that talking heads can work, if talking heads is the effect you want to create. In Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card intentionally uses talking heads at the start of many of his chapters, as Graff and Anderson discuss Ender's current situation. The instances are short and, to some degree, work as teasers, and where Graff and Anderson are exactly and what they are doing, aren't particularly important, so Card gets away with it.


  1. Thank you for a great article. Very helpful and fun article to read. Thanks

    1. Thank you! And thanks for commenting! (I've been super busy, and I'm a bit late replying to comments on this one, but I do appreciate them.) ☺️

  2. Love this, September! I've seen others use these technique to good effect and others fail. I'm seeing the difference why in your examples.

    1. Hi Traci,
      Thank you, and thank you for commenting. I hope the writing is going well for you! ❤️

  3. I just received a critique in which the critiquer said I had a passage of talking heads. This has been super helpful in sorting that out.

    1. So glad to hear! I hope your writing just gets better and better!


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