Keeping Your Dialogue Free of Talking Head Syndrome

Dandelion clock, monotoneIt’s easy to get caught up in the words your characters are exchanging. Writing dialogue can be a chance to have some fun developing your characters, moving their relationships along, and providing important information about the rest of your narrative. However, as in all areas of writing, authors tend to be prone to a few mistakes when crafting dialogue. One common error is frequently described as “talking head syndrome.” It looks a little like this:

“Sorry I’m late,” Andrea said. “Traffic–”

“Sorry I asked you to meet me at 5:30,” John laughed. “I should have remembered rush hour.”

“I didn’t mind too much.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“You always were the considerate one.”

By the end of this brief exchange, it’s hard to picture who’s talking, let alone what expression they might have or where they might be in the room. Talking head syndrome can happen to the best of us, especially when we’re really caught up in crafting a witty and significant section of dialogue.

The solution to this problem is simply careful editing. Go through all of your dialogue scenes and make sure that they don’t have more than a couple of lines in a row of unattributed dialogue. It can be challenging at first to attribute your dialogue to its speakers while still maintaining a good variety of sentence structures. With practice, however, you can strike a pleasant balance between the hum-drum repetition of “he said, she said” and the muddled excess of words like “growled,” “roared,” “shrieked,” and “mused” in every single sentence.

Your dialogue is an important means of getting the reader engaged with your story. However, talking head syndrome can leave your reader feeling confused and distant from the characters. By being sure to attribute your dialogue with both variety and efficiency, you can avoid talking head syndrome and make sure your characters’ interactions are vivid and memorable.