Dialogue is a crucial element in fiction. A writer uses it to convey information, reveal character, or show conflict. But the characters delivering that dialogue should feel like real, physical people in a physical world. In other words, they shouldn’t look like talking heads.
Typically, writers try to avoid talking heads by interspersing character actions between the lines of dialogue. For example, the characters may be sharing a meal, so they take a drink or cut a slice of steak. As an added advantage, small actions like these also allow the writer to use an action tag (she took a sip of coffee) rather than a speech tag (he said/she said) to show who’s speaking.
A personal detour
My own rather weak tendency is to have the character nod or smile. I’m flinching as I type this here. Do better, DAW! Do better.
(And, Dear Reader, if you ever read anything I wrote, please forget I told you this. If you remember, you won’t be able to avoid seeing the bad stuff.)
Using a THAD
But even good action tags are better if they describe something meaningful. For instance, a woman who is trying to smooth out the stumbling blocks in her life can be shown ironing. Then the action tag does double duty. It avoids a talking-heads scene, and it subtly conveys her state of mind.
In her craft book, Write Away, mystery writer Elizabeth George calls this kind of action tag a Talking Head Avoidance Device (THAD). Once you start looking for THADs, you find them all the time in skillfully written fiction. For instance, I recently read Louise Penny’s Glass Houses.
In it, the central character, Inspector Gamache is about to talk about lying under oath. He’s holding a baby, and before speaking, he hands the baby to his Lieutenant Beauvoir. He’s not trying to stop the baby from hearing what he says. The baby is right there and wouldn’t understand anyway. But Gamache doesn’t want to touch the baby while talking about a thing he believes is shameful. When Gamache is done speaking, Beauvoir hands the baby back, an action that reads like a gesture of trust.
Here’s another example, this one from my forthcoming book, TheWysman. The central character, Jarka, is talking to Lyneth, the sweetheart of the absent Prince Beran, about her support for an orphanage.
“Are you thinking of withdrawing your support?” I remembered the conversation in the king’s waiting room. “Would Thien make you do that?”
She fingered the charm she wore on a thin silver chain around her neck. From glimpses I’d had, I knew it was a love knot, and I was pretty sure I knew who’d given it to her. “I have to believe the king is more generous than that. It’s just that I’m not sure where I’ll be living in the long run.”
That bit with the charm is a THAD. It breaks up a string of dialogue in a meaningful way.
Thinking up a THAD is worth a writer’s time. Watch for them in what you read.