Monday, July 28, 2008

Action Speaks Louder Than Words

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.
“Nothing. Why?”
“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 Even the shyest, most withdrawn person gives away something – they show us the tell-tale signs of being withdrawn, or being uncomfortable talking to a stranger.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. :)


Anonymous said...

Great advice, Tabitha. Sometimes, 'Talking Heads' can be refreshing every now and then, if the tone is upbeat and back-and-forth like that. Many times, however, it's better to paint the scene, as you suggested.

Marina said...

I try not to have talking heads, but then I have to be careful that my characters don't all catch the dreaded shrugging disease. There seem to be shoulders going up and down all over the place in my WIP. I put the red pen through them and reassure myself that it's just the first draft.

Unknown said...

Excellent--just what I needed right now. A critiquer complained that she didn't get a sense of who some minor characters were, and I had no idea how to put that info into the story...but the answer is here--throw in some details while they are talking! Perfect timing!

PJ Hoover said...

Nice example, Tabitha! I notice you use basically no tags in your example, so I have a question for you. In my current WIP, one of my "fun" goals is to use as few true tags (he said, she said) as possible. How little is too little? Can the other identifiers be overdone? Will this ever get to be too much for the reader?
Just curious about your opinion since it's one of the big things I'm working on with this WIP.

Tabitha said...

Pema - so true! If it's clear who's speaking and the tone has been established, then Talking Heads work just fine. As with everything in writing, Balance is the key. Thanks for pointing that out. :)

Marina - shrugging and sighing seems to be the most common catch-all of actions. :) That's why I love Angela and Becca's blog (The Bookshelf Muse) so much. They take different emotions and give the different actions associated with each. Very useful!

Beth - glad this was helpful! :) There is so much to dialog (action, emotion, tone, etc.) that can really bring out a character. It's all in the showing. I know that's another concept, but everything in writing is so intertwined that it's hard to pull out just one and keep it separate. :)

PJ - My personal opinion on tags: don't use "he/she said" unless absolutely necessary. I think some kind of action will add more to the story in most cases, though there are cases where it makes more sense to use "said." I'm going to get into this in more detail in a future post. But if you want to discuss this in more detail, feel free to email me. :)

Angela Ackerman said...

have you ever read 'Self-Editing for Fiction Writers? They have an excellent section dedicated to dialogue and a sister one for 'beats' (the tiny bits of character action that move the scene along during dialogue exchanges).

This is a very difficult thing to master, because the 'beats' should always be relevant (as you stated, they should show the emotions the characters are feeling) but if they come too frequently, they will overwhelm the dialogue, leading to a feeling of constant interruption.

Reading this book and understanding beats and how they should work was one of the big reasons Becca and I started the Emotion Thesaurus...we were getting stuck in the shrugging/eye rolling pit of doom too.

Anyway, I look forward to your next post, because as I said, this subject made a huge impact on our writing. Balance is the key--a few very specific beats mixed in with the dialogue, but not so many the slow the pace of the conversation.

Tabitha said...

Balance is most definitely the key. :) It's the key to everything writing related, really.

I think it's going to take two more posts to cover everything I want to cover with dialog, because this is such a huge topic. I think many writers don't realize how huge it is. I surely didn't when I first started this writing thing, and I'm still learning. :)

Marcia said...

The trouble with talking heads, I think, is that the mental picture dissipates. A novel's reader wants a fairly continuous movie to be playing in the head, or at least to be able to imagine a series of stills. I know I've wandered into a talking heads passage when suddenly all I've got is soundtrack.

I also prefer minimalism in dialogue tags. I find myself mentally editing a lot of "she said" out of published work. If you have a separate sentence that includes an action by the speaker, you don't also need "she said." I find myself wondering if the author didn't edit them out, or if MG editors want more dialogue tags. Yet in my published books, no editor ever added more.

Tabitha said...

The mental picture most definitely dissapates. And if there isn't enough action, we can also forget who's speaking.

I am also guilty of mentally editing out "he/she saids" from published works. :) I think there's a lot of gray area around using "said." It's accepted as the standard, yet if it's absent no one cares. An interesting position for it to be in. :)

Susan Sandmore said...

This is the sort of thing I didn't really notice in books until I started reading them as a writer. And then I realized that the stories I felt had natural dialogue have this sort of thing. Since my preference is for MG, I'm mainly thinking of Noel Streatfeild here. She has a lot of "she tugged at her sock" but not too much. Just enough so that the people are doing something, but not so much so that it's distracting.

Tabitha said...

I didn't notice them either. I found this technique completely fascinating once I learned about it. But it makes so much sense! No one sits around doing nothing as they're speaking. People make facial expressions, they fidget, they look at stuff. Anyone who just sits there may as well be a robot. :)

Anonymous said...

This is some great advice, thanks for sharing it. =)

Tabitha said...

Thanks! :) And thanks for stopping by! :)

Mary Witzl said...

I never really noticed tags until I started writing, but I often DID get confused when people completely left them out and pared down the 's/he heads' to a bare minimum. I try to be careful, but I too have a lot of people shrugging, sighing, tugging at their hair, scrunching up their faces and rolling their eyes. I always end up doing overkill and having to edit it all out. Sigh. And while I'm at it, I'll roll my eyes too and shrug...

Tabitha said...

That's when it's time to break out the Emotion Thesaurus at The Bookshelf Muse! :)

It's so easy to fall into the shrug/sigh/eye-rolling trap. But, if that helps you get that first draft down on the page, then go for it! :)