Monday, May 4, 2009

Talking Heads

talking heads--two or more characters in a scene/setting, exchanging dialogue with only minimal accompanying gesture or inflection; characters seen by the reader as exchanging dramatic information which is little more than narrative encased in quotation marks; by implication, characters who fail to demonstrate significant dramatic force within a story.

Individuals converse in real life. Characters use dialogue and agenda as though each were a volleyball being batted back and forth over a net. "Characters" in an oratorio sit in some pew-like arrangement, singing while reading directly from a musical score. Characters in an opera exchange dialogue, sing, and move about on the stage, providing dramatic action while they sing.

Some writers use talking heads in the belief that they are showing rather than telling, indulging their characters in long exchanges of information framed by quotation marks, but giving no sense whatsoever of what the speaker is seeing, tasting, feeling, or any other drama-based activity. Such exchanges, because they are notably lacking in subtext, add a weight of consequence to the narrative that is often fatal, providing the reader with an excellent opportunity to set the book or story down without intention of return.

Get your characters into a reaction process with one or more of the other characters in a scene as quickly as possible. Avoid the temptation to have characters utter speeches or, for that matter, anything else. Dialogue is spoken, even shouted, perhaps sputtered. Imagine a cast of characters in a play or film, not using their body, certainly not their face or eyes--only their voice. But remember, even radio drama has sound effects, noises the characters would plausibly make in their time within a scene.

All right, you ask, how do I go about getting important information into the awareness of the reader? Have one or more characters interrupt or draw the wrong conclusions, or cause an immediate digression. The reader will become frustrated, which is considerably more positive than if the reader were to experience boredom.

Even when you are giving the impression of making things easy for the characters, your best approach is to make it as difficult as possible. In one of Graham Greene's undeservedly neglected thrillers, The Confidential Agent, the protagonist is sent to a foreign city where he is to meet a fellow spy, who is working as an instructor in a language school. They must observe the convention of speaking in an artificial language called Intrenaciono, a take-off on Esperanto. Thus the protagonist must wade through his instructions in this artificial language and not only make sense of it but translate his own reports. A great deal is at stake during the transaction, but if the two are to avoid detection, they must play by these artificial rules.

Talking heads represent missed opportunities at genuine story telling.

And now, it will not do you any good to complain about the laxity of enforcing such exchanges in already published work. They have all had the effect of causing literary agents and editors to be more determined than ever that you not be allowed to get away with having your characters emerge as talking heads.

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