Writing advice, Writing and Editing

The Dreaded “Talking Heads Syndrome”

One of my biggest pet peeves, especially when it comes to the art and craft of writing fiction, is what is called: “Talking Heads Syndrome.” While we often see this among the many mistakes beginning writers make, it seems to be even more prevalent in writers who have reached an intermediate skill level: that is, they have a pretty good grasp of many of the skills they need, but have not yet mastered them.

Most of us (including me) fall into this category.

So what is “Talking Heads Syndrome?” (No, it has nothing to do with the Sunday morning talk shows, or the new wave band). “Talking Heads Syndrome” refers to an otherwise fairly well-written scene (dialogue, characterization, mechanics, etc.) but in which the characters don’t seem to be anchored to the physical world. The characters seem to be nothing but heads floating somewhere in the ether.

An example, a fellow writer in one of my critique groups wrote a scene for a mystery story in which a detective is arguing with her boss. Though somewhat trite, the dialogue was realistic and believable, but there was virtually no description of their surroundings, no description of how the characters react to their environment.

It was supposed to take place in the police Captain’s office, but it could just as easily have happened on the bridge of a fishing boat, the headquarters of a military base, or on a space station. To be most effective, every scene must have a sense of inevitability. It must give the reader the feeling that the scene is the only thing that could have happened with those particular characters, at that particular time, in that particular place.

Think of the best novels and short stories. None of them would be the same story or, arguably, as good in any other location. Huckleberry Finn wouldn’t be the same on the Danube; The Great Gatsby wouldn’t be as good set in Des Moines; Wuthering Heights is not the same novel set in South Africa.

If you can easily shift a scene to a completely different setting without having to completely change the scene, you may have “Talking Heads Syndrome.”

Okay, you think you might have “Talking Heads Syndrome.” Now what? How do you fix it?

My suggestion is that you use psychology.

How do psychologists explain how all of us relate to our environment? They use three terms that I think pretty much cover it. They are:

Proprioception The ability to sense the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and the amount of effort involved in moving. (For example: the universal question of what do I do with my hands?)

Exteroception The ability to perceive the outside world around us. (Involves traditional senses: what the character sees, smells, tastes, hears, and feels.)

Interoception The ability to sense internal stimuli: pain, hunger, fatigue. (For example: the detective has an ulcer, which is flaring up because of the argument with his boss.)

The secret to curing “Talking Head Syndrome” is to take these three principles of perception into account as you imagine and then render your scene. If necessary draw a map of the location and block out the character’s movements just as a director would a stage play. Get deep into the mind of each of the characters, know what they’re feeling, their aches and pains, their hopes and secret fears. Each of them will have an emotional opinion of every location they frequent, from their office, to their home, favorite hangout, and the grocery where they buy their food.

Another idea, one I’ve used a few times, is to write up a detailed sketch of each location in your work. Use as much sensory detail as you can, not just what can be seen, but what the place sounds and smells like, how it feels. Then add a few thoughts about how each of the characters feels about it (because the odds are good they won’t feel exactly the same. Different things bother different people). This way you have a ready reference to consult. It also avoids embarrassing mistakes like saying a house is wooden in one part of a novel and brick in another.

The true secret to avoiding “Talking Heads Syndrome” is to completely immerse yourself in the world of your characters and using the knowledge gained there to describe it to your reader. Knowing how much and what to tell your reader? Well, that’s why they call it art.

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