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Avoid the Void! Talking Heads and Action Beats

What are “talking heads”?

In life, “talking heads” are people addressing the camera with their views on a topic. But in fiction, “talking heads “ are characters engaging in dialogue with no physical context. And that can leave your readers floating in a void too!

That doesn’t mean you need to meticulously describe the dialogue’s setting—that can interrupt the flow of the conversation and distract from the dialogue’s content. Instead, throw in some action beats to contextualize and enhance that dialogue and reinforce your character’s emotions. Here’s some basic dialogue:

“I don’t know what to do.”

“About what?”

“Work, life—everything.”

“I thought you were happy with your life.”

“I thought so too.”

“So what’s changed?”

“Nothing. And that’s the problem.”

 

Now picture possible contexts: rushing through an airport, maybe, or hiking up a mountainside. Go beyond the basic action beats of “she shrugged” or “he shook his head.” What sensory and setting elements could you use in action beats to help reveal character and circumstance?

 

Here’s one possibility:

Kerry struggled through the mob with her suitcase, backpack, and purse, trying to keep up with Ellyn. “I don’t know what to do.”

“About what?” Ellyn’s rolling hardshell case neatly parted the noisy crowd like the prow of a small ship.

“Work, life—everything.”

Ellyn threw her a quick glance. “I thought you were happy with your life.”

Sweat trickled down Kerry’s temples. Her arm ached, lugging the overpacked bag. How had Ellyn fit everything she’d need in that tiny valise? “I thought so too.”

“So what’s changed?”

“Nothing.” Kerry stopped, letting her suitcase thud to the worn vinyl floor. She couldn’t go on like this. “And that’s the problem.”

 

Here’s another:

Kerry breathed deeply with each uphill step, her ankles wobbling. She knew she should’ve worn hiking boots instead of her scuffed sneakers. “I don’t know what to do.”

“About what?” Wielding her hiking poles, Ellyn’s arms swooshed rhythmically in her pink nylon windbreaker, a bright spot against the  somber shades of evergreen surrounding them.

“Work, life—everything.”

Ellyn threw her a quick glance. “I thought you were happy with your life.”

A squirrel chittered at her mockingly from a branch, then vanished.  Kerry pressed her hands to her thighs, urging her legs onward. Just a few more steps to the viewpoint. “I thought so too.”

“So what’s changed?”

“Nothing.” Then the trees finally parted, and Kerry stopped, sucking in the cold air as the valley vista spread before them, the river a glimmering ribbon between the hills, leading to the horizon. “And that’s the problem.”

In each example, context allows for development of plot-relevant actions and thoughts that help distinguish Kerry (uncertain, struggling) from Ellyn (self-assured, competent). Then each final line of the scene metaphorically emphasizes  Kerry’s recognition of a need for a life change. What will that change be? Hopefully your audience will read on to find out! But to encourage them to do that, avoid the void! Adding action beats that incorporate context will dial up your dialogue and your reader engagement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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