Saturday, October 13, 2007

Avoid Talking Heads

by Lu Ann Staheli

What is a “talking head”? Maybe you remember the 1970's, when the punk singing group Talking Heads first made their debut. Or you might have heard the term “talking heads” used to refer to cable news anchors, TV or radio personalities who sit behind a desk and share their opinions.

I’ve often used the phrase “talking heads” in my language arts classroom. No, not to refer to those students who are so busy chatting that they don’t learn anything, although that has been tempting at times. I refer to a style developing writers often use, offering pages of dialogue, bouncing the reader back and forth like a ping pong ball, but failing to establish a sense of place, develop characterization, or move the story forward through action. Sometimes the reader can follow the author’s intention, but still come away from the work feeling they need to know more.
Here’s a sample passage adapted from the award-winning novel Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse to illustrate what can happen when writers fail to use more than dialogue to tell their story.

“Wear this in health,” Hannah had whispered.
“Come,” Papa said.
“Quickly, Rifka,” Papa whispered. “The boys, and Mama, and I must hide before light.”
“You can distract the guards, can’t you, little sister?” Nathan said.
“Yes,” I answered.

What is happening in this selection? Who are the characters? What do you know about them? Where are they? You probably don’t know all the answers to these questions after reading nothing but this adaptation.

Here’s the same passage in its original form. Notice the difference in information about where the characters are, what is being asked of them, and the action that is to come.

“Wear this in health,” Hannah had whispered in my ear as she draped a shawl over my shoulders early this morning, before we slipped from your house into the dark.
“Come,” Papa said, leading us through the woods to the train station.
I looked back to the flickering lights of your house, Tovah.
“Quickly, Rifka,” Papa whispered. “The boys, and Mama, and I must hide before light.”
“You can distract the guards, can’t you, little sister?” Nathan said, putting an arm around me. In the darkness, I could not see his eyes, but I felt them studying me.
“Yes,” I answered, not wanting to disappoint him.

You have probably figured out that these people are trying to escape from somewhere, despite danger and their own fears. These details were not clear in the first version.

If you want your reader to become engaged in your story, care about your characters, and leave the story with a sense of fulfillment. Add the rich details that take your reader right into the setting and the scene. Readers don’t want to follow a ping pong game, they want to make a connection with the characters. Don’t let your character’s dialogue stand alone as nothing more than “talking heads.”


Tamra Norton said...

Great term--"talking heads." Sometimes it can work for a bit if you know it's a couple of girlfriends sitting in a cafe or a similar situation, but your example from Letters From Rifka is perfect. The story is much more rich with the other discriptions inserted.

Heather Moore said...

A really great example. Talking heads can be used, but only when it really works. Generally, the reader wants to be able to visualize the scene beyond the dialogue.