There was a term I heard early on in my writing career that left me baffled for the longest time. It’s called Talking Heads. And no, I don’t mean a music band. Uh, oh…did I just date myself? Hmmm, moving on…this is what I mean:
“Jane? What are you doing tomorrow night?” said Albert.
“I thought maybe you and I could go out.”
“Oh. Well, okay. We could do that,” said Jane.
“Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight,” said Albert.
What’s going on in this exchange? Albert asks Jane out, and she accepts. Okay. But what else is going on? Nothing, right? No one is doing anything. They are just talking back and forth.
Yeah? And? It’s called speaking, right?
Well, how many people do you know that sit perfectly still, don’t fidget, don’t show body language, or don’t alter tone of voice while they speak? Don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone like that. And good dialog needs to show all these tiny details.
People rarely sit and do nothing. Even the shyest, most withdrawn person gives away something – they show us the tell-tale signs of being withdrawn, or being uncomfortable talking to a stranger. I’m a shy person. I’m hard to read, and have been told so. And yet, I’m still showing the other person something: I’m showing that I’m hard to read! Someone who’s easy to read will be showing much, much more. And it's up to us, as writers, to pay attention to these things, and then include them in our stories. It makes the characters more real, and the story more engaging.
Let’s take another look at the above exchange, except this time we’re going to pay attention to body language.
“Jane?” Albert flipped his finger over the corner of a packet of sweetener. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Nothing.” She glanced at the restroom door, where Allison had gone over ten minutes ago. “Why?”
“I thought maybe…” Flip, flip. “You and I could go out.”
Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” Her gaze fell to the table, where she shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced sideways at the restroom door.
Albert’s lips stretched wide across his uneven teeth. “Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He shoved the sweetener back into its container, patting it down, then folding his arms across the table.
What’s happening here? Lots. Granted, this is omni POV, and you could say that I went overboard with the details. But we haven’t had the chance to get to know the characters, so there were assumptions I couldn't make. Still, we can see that Albert is nervous about asking Jane out, and is relieved when she accepts. Jane doesn’t want to go out with him, but doesn’t know what else to say so she says yes.
So, what does that get us? Well, action sets tone. But this post is already too long, so that’s what I’ll be discussing next week. :)