Talking Heads Dialogue Problem

dialogue talking heads dialogue problem

Talking Heads Dialogue Problem

The problem is this: two people are talking and nothing else is happening. This is known as the “talking heads dialogue problem” and it is a common problem. Sometimes the chatter is far more important than the characters actions and you start your first draft focussed only on that aspect. Then it’s time to revise the first draft and give it a body.  Character must always be doing something while the dialogue takes place, this is called gesturing. The action can be small or big as you like as long as something is happening. The actions connect the characters to the scene and give them dimension.

  • John curses out loud while bashing David’s head in.
  • Charlie straightens his suit before greeting Barry.
  • Mary shifts her weight as she talks.
  • Susan clears her throat and pulls a strand of hair out of her face.

Forms of gesturing

  • A look: Mary looked away.
  • Move: Johnny shuffled aside.
  • Facial expression: Bella grimaced.
  • Tone of voice: Patrick thundered.
  • Mood: ‘I won’t hurt you,’ Anne said, running her fingernail along his jaw line.
  • Pause in speech: William struggled to get his head through the hole in his jumper.

Purpose of gesturing

  • Portray character
  • Develop mood
  • Allow a break between dialogue passages
  • Underline the dialogue with emphasis
  • Build conflict and tension: he stomped on a bug – he tapped his foot – he cracked his knucles – she fiddled with her pen –

Basic guide lines

  • Gesture should match dialogue
  • Avoid too many gestures (stick to about one gesture per dialogue passage)
  • Gestures should be believable and fitting to the character (Can he do that? Would he really do that?)
  • Gesture should have a purpose (Why this gesture? How does it help carry the story?)
  • Gestures should fit the scene. (Holding a cup in a café / Keeping a poker-face in front of your boss)

The easy cure for it, is the “walk and talk”

  1. Choose the location where they can do something. This can be anything. It doesn’t need to be meaningful, it just need to be a good contrast against the dialogue.
  2. Talk about the thing they have on their mind, which is unrelated to what they’re doing. For example, have them talk about the upcoming math exam while watching girls. The contrast between the two makes the scene more interesting.
  3. Work what you want them to talk about, in between the action that they’re doing.

Walk and talk options

  • Walking the dog.
  • Playing with a dog or cat — fetch, a laser pointer, etc.
  • Hiking or bicycling.
  • Folding laundry.
  • Gardening or planting a tree.
  • Digging a hasty grave.
  • Shooting at a firing range.
  • Decorating for a party, Halloween, or Christmas.
  • Wrapping gifts.
  • Polishing or repairing weapons or armor.
  • Sharpening a sword or kitchen knives.
  • Brushing or braiding hair — their own, or someone else’s.
  • Painting their nails, or someone else’s nails.
  • Getting dressed or undressed (or helping a kid get dressed, or trying on different outfits.)
  • Sewing, knitting, or crocheting.
  • Getting a tattoo. Or giving one.
  • Counting change, and/or making rolls of dimes or quarters.
  • Packing a bag.
  • Going through boxes of old stuff in an attic or basement.
  • Unpacking boxes in a new home.
  • Washing a stain out of something.
  • Cleaning up a mess — like spilled food or drink, an overflowing toilet, or a smashed lamp.
  • Building or tending a fire.
  • Playing golf or mini-golf.
  • Playing cards.
  • Playing basketball.
  • Untangling a necklace or a fishing line.
  • Lifting weights.
  • Taking an exercise class.
  • Cooking, baking, or grilling.
  • Doing the dishes or putting dishes away.
  • Painting a room.
  • Showering.
  • Putting on makeup.
  • Shaving.
  • Woodworking.
  • Dancing.
  • Sparring.
  • Punching a punching bag.
  • Grocery shopping.
  • Restocking shelves or pricing items.
  • Watering houseplants or feeding the fish.
  • Giving someone a shoulder or foot massage.
  • Going through a place searching for something.
  • Tending to a wound, drawing blood, or giving someone a shot.
  • Browsing in a bookstore or library.
  • Fixing a motorcycle.
  • Changing a tire.
  • Changing a baby’s diaper.
  • Collating and stapling papers.

source: Eriksson, P. S. (1987) Shut up! He Explained