This post was originally published on my original blog and contains snippets from old past writing of mine.

Up until a couple months ago, I had this problem that plagued me ever since I started writing. Dialogue has been something I’ve always considered myself good at- not great- but good, but while I am good at getting my characters to talk, I’ve failed in the area of descriptions.

Which resulted in, for the longest time, the “talking head” syndrome.

(From Night Lies) “Hey Eden?” Faith asked as they 

approached her talking to Nikki.Eden turned her green eyes on her. A question forming in her eyes. “Yes?”
 “Is Lieu here?” Eden nodded. “She came with me, but she went to go get her purse from our pod a little bit ago, she should be back any minute.” 
“Why do you need to talk to her?” Nikki asked, eyeing the two girls with suspicion.
“It’s….” Faith started, unsure of how to answer her.
“Xander wants us to give Lieu a message for him,” Letty cut in.
“Why can’t he just send her a missive?” “Because…it’s private!” Letty exclaimed.
“And very important!” Faith added.
Nikki nodded and turned back to her conversation with Eden.
“Let’s go look some more, maybe she’s arrived now,” Letty whispered in Faith’s ear. 

That my good people, is that “talking head syndrome” commonly looks like.

Anyways, I’ve become better at descriptions so that for the most part, I’ve virtually gotten rid of the problem of “talking heads”, so because I feel this is a trap people can commonly fall into if they’re not careful, I’ve some tips to help in case.

Use setting to help break up talking heads. 
A wonderful way to help this problem is to include bits and pieces here and there about the setting. I have this problem commonly because when I write I “see” what’s going on in my head. Therefore when I write, sometimes I forget that not every one can see what goes on in my head and end up including just the dialogue. (example parts bold in text) (Night Lies)

“That’s Lieu Sparrow…yeah that was her sister I was telling you about…” Someone whispered behind her.“What’s she doing out so late?” Another voice asked. Lieu glanced behind her to glare at the two women with her bright green eyes. One of the ladies pretended not to notice, she glanced out the window and pretended to fix her black pinned up hair. The other lady just glanced at one of the screens on the ceiling which was showing a News report. Right now it was something to do with riots in Peaceful over new rules in Whizball.

“She’s probably visiting Fletcher. Did you hear what happened to him?” Someone whispered back. Lieu swung her plastic blue chair around to find the speaker, but no one was looking at her. It was probably the lady with the ‘messy’ hair behind her. Swinging around to look out the window, Lieu ignored anyone else who was whispering about her. 

An easy way to use your setting while your characters are talking is to have them interact with the setting. Although it often happens in real life where you stand around talking, your characters shouldn’t just stand around chatting all the time.

They could be doing something like making dinner while they talk, trying on different pairs of sunglasses, or drawing a picture. This is also a great way to use setting when you’re trying to flesh out your world for your readers. Even if you’re just standing talking to someone, you’ve probably noticed things going on in the background or around you. Things catch your attention, and distract you. Have your characters do the same.

If they’re just sitting and talking, your character could subconsciously notice someone with purple hair in the background walking past. Yeah, it may not specifically have something to do with the plot or moving the story forward, but it doesn’t always have too. World building and description are just as important.

Use internal dialogue
This technique is one that I actually quite the most to help avoid talking heads syndrome. Its a fairly simple and easy method.  There are two different kinds of inner dialogue, direct and indirect.

Indirect, is what goes though a character’s mind, but instead of being in first person, its often written in a summarized form that goes especially nice with third person, past tense. With first person, its trickier, even more so if you’re writing first person, present tense.

This is what indirect often looks like in 3rd person, past tense (Night Lies).

News traveled fast in the city of Legacy. It hadn’t even been ten minutes since she had shot Xander. People knew who she was only because she had been on the news so many times since her parents had died and when Cassy had been kidnapped.

She wasn’t rich, she had never been- even when her parents were alive. Lieu earned four Credits an hour working at the Sunrise Cafe in the rich part of the city.

“Now stopping at Carthage Hospital; have a nice day. Thank you for choosing Metral Hovertrains, we hope you enjoyed this ride….Next stop, Neona Square,” the ESS announced, jarring Lieu out of her thoughts.

In a moment of spontaneous thinking, Lieu decided she would go see Xander. After all, there was no way he would know it had been her. It was no secret though, that Lieu was friends with the famous Xander Fletcher. They were only friends because they both were best friends with the Mirari twins- Eden and Sage- who’s parents had built the famous and expensive space cruise ships.

Many people when they saw the four of them hanging out- for Eden and Sage were notoriously inseparable- they often thought Xander and Lieu were going out. Only, they weren’t. Sure, Xander was rich, sexy, and smart- every girl’s secret dream was to date him- but Lieu had more important things to worry about. And what girl wouldn’t want to date him?

Only Lieu, who at times, thought Xander was too blind, too caught up in his own dream to notice anyone else. Although she had to admit he did make time for his friends and little sister, Faith.

 Indirect, 1st person, past tense:

My head bobbed up and down to the pretend music blasting over a ministat. I ignored Aarrah and kept pretending to listen to popular music over the mind radio that most people had implanted. But if someone was to ask me what I was listening too, I would be at a loss for I had no idea what people actually listened too.

“That’s not popular music last I knew,” Aarrah commented when I started to hum an old Starlighter hymn.I glared at her and stopped humming, knowing that she was right. Humming hymns probably wasn’t the best idea in a place like this. 

“That’s because all the music you listen too is outmoded,” I retorted, hoping that I sounded like an annoyed teen. I leaned over the armrest and peered at the star chart. “Oh! Can we go to Airca this time, please? You’ve always wanted to go back and it sounds so pretty.”

 I knew that she did want to go back to her homeplanet, she always had wanted to, ever since she had escaped with me. She even had wanted to raise me there, but it would have been an obvious place to look for us. Aarrah’s brother and her people would never give us away, but it was too risky for us. 

Direct thought is basically how we think in our every day lives. Direct is a powerful tool, especially for 3rd person, past tense because it use 1st person, present tense no matter what person or tense the rest of the story is written in.

Because direct thought can be a powerful tool for our stories, it should not be used a lot because it would take away from how special it seems. Direct thought should be used sparingly, usually saved for emotional or important thoughts. But in some cases, it can also serve as a fantastic tool to highlight character’s personalities.

Usually written in italic, it look like this (in 3rd person, past tense) (Night Lies):

Whoever she met, always had some sort of code name, she knew, and wore something that wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. The clothes could have been worn by anyone and they always spoke in a plain voice that would sound like anyone else in Legacy.

Lieu ripped the note part and scattered the pieces across the street as she began walking home. With her gym bag slung over her shoulder -the first aid kit and make-up bag inside- she would have looked like any girl coming home late from the gym. Okay, well, maybe not, she admitted, knowing that people who went to gyms didn’t go there in miniskirts, but maybe they’ll think I came from from a party. Wouldn’t that be fabulous? 

I Italicized the direct thoughts in this excerpt so that you can easily tell it apart from the rest of the story.

When written in first person, past tense, it looks like this:

This will be good for me, I told myself.

And when written in first person, present tense, there really isn’t any way to separate direct thought from from the other internal dialogue because the character is often narrating already in direct thought.

In short:

  • Having your characters interact with objects while they’re talking or carrying on a conversation is one of the best ways to get rid of “talking heads”. This is a great time to show off their quirks. For example, maybe they make mac and cheese different then most. Maybe they use pepper jack cheese instead of American. 
  • Notice things going on around the characters that are talking. While it doesn’t have to advance the plot, this background stuff is great for world building. 
  • Describe the setting as they talk or walk or whatever. It also is a great way to weave the setting into the story instead of having one huge infodump. 
  • Use internal dialogue:
    • Direct
    • Indirect

One thought on “Writing Advice: How to Write Better Descriptive Dialogue.

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