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.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Three Pillars of Fiction

Last week I examined some useful (I think) information I found in an informal study called “Immerse or Die.” Largely, this consisted in a compilation of mistakes the author found in fifty ebooks he’d read, mistakes that caused him to break out of his “immersion” in the fictional world.

This was interesting and useful because it provides us with real-world, concrete examples of common mistakes writers make. It gives us something to watch for as we write and, more importantly, as we edit.

It was good.

But there was more in the article to be gleaned. In his analysis of the data, the author had an interesting thought. He grouped all the mistakes into one of three categories: what he termed the three aspects of writing fiction. More accurately, they are the three areas that each must be done well for the fiction to work.

They are:

Mechanics: the nuts and bolts skills necessary to work effectively with the language: grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage.

Story telling: the traditional skills and elements we have been learning for years: plot, characterization, suspense, dialogue, etc.

Story building: weaknesses in the story design itself, such as tired old cliché plots, illogical economic systems, impossible physics, unbelievable characters.

What was very interesting about this part, I thought, was the results when he classified all the mistakes (I listed most of them last week) into these three categories. What he found was that 44% of all the mistakes were in the way the story was being told. Problems with the story building accounted for 31% of the problems. Surprisingly, problems with the mechanics, though including the most frequent single mistake, as a category only made up 25% of the total mistakes.

Interesting. Surprising, even. (Personally, I would have guessed that the mechanics category would have ranked higher, but what do I know?)

So what can we learn from this?

First of all, the easiest category to correct, Mechanics, though the smallest group of mistakes, still accounts for 21% of them. Study some grammar and usage and we can eliminate nearly a quarter of our mistakes.

Second, all the time we have invested in learning the art of storytelling was well-spent. Storytelling mistakes make up the largest portion of the mistakes he identified. It only increases the importance of continuing to hone our skills.

Lastly, how much time and energy do any of us devote to honing our story building skills? These were a full 31% of all the mistakes, so the category is not something to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, the mistakes we make in story building are often the most difficult to spot ourselves. That is why it is so important to have beta readers you trust to tell you about them.

Where do you find beta readers? Among your friends (but make sure they will tell you the truth, not just try to feed your ego), or join a critique group. As a last resort, you can hire a professional editor, who will do a thorough, trustworthy job, but can be fairly expensive.

Just as an example, a friend sent me a scene from a project she was working on. In this scene, she had her protagonist touring Italy in the summer. Because of the sun, she protected herself with a parasol. (Makes sense. Okay.) She was also described as taking numerous photos with a digital camera. Okay…wait…most people need to use both hands to hold the camera still enough to take a photo. So how was she holding the parasol?

My friend, intent on setting up the next plot twist, hadn’t even noticed the conflict, but it makes the reader sit up and say “That can’t happen.” It breaks their immersion.

The same happens when you say it takes twenty minutes to travel from point A to point B in lower Manhattan, when anyone who lives there knows it takes at least an hour, or when your hero’s life is saved when her bulletproof vest stops a sniper’s bullet, when a little research would tell you the standard Kevlar vests police use are designed to stop pistol rounds, not rifle, which would usually go through it.

All these are mistakes a reader can (and usually will) catch. When they do, they immediately lose their ability to believe the illusion you have created is real. They will stop reading and that is exactly what we DON’T want them to do.

In short, we all need to work at improving our skills in all three areas of fiction. It is only when we have mastered all three of them that we can truly become successful at this writing life we’ve chosen.

writing, Writing advice

Immerse or Die

For a long time I have been interested not only in writing and the writing process but in creativity and the creative process in general. While my particular forte is the writing of fiction, I believe much can be learned from the way in which any creative person pursues their creativity, be it sculpture, music, or advertising copy I believe that studying how John Lennon put together a rock and roll song can assist me in putting together a story. (For example, a close review of the Anthology recordings shows that, especially after the mid-sixties, he and Paul McCartney tried multiple different ideas before settling on the version they finally released.)

But I digress.

Recently I came upon a blog called CreativityHacker and an article in which the author analyses why he lost immersion in fifty different self-published ebooks.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “immersion” refers to the ability of a story to convince the reader that it’s world is real. It’s what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief.” Done well. It is a complete and bulletproof illusion, an illusion of reality. Done poorly, the immersion is broken. Do it often enough and we lose the reader.

So in a study he calls “Immerse or Die” the author chose a different ebook every morning as he worked out on his treadmill and read each until his immersion was broken three times or he’d read for forty minutes. He’d then write a report about each book.

These are the most common mistakes:

17–weak mechanics—editorial issues such as spelling, missing words, etc.
15–implausible characters—a character acts contrary to human nature
14–echoing—words or phrases repeat enough to become annoying
10–illogical world—the fictional world doesn’t make sense
9—conspicuous exposition—presentation of backstory poorly
6—weak language style—poor execution of accents, historical language
6—tell mode—telling instead of showing scenes
5—weak dialogue—boring, inconsistent with character. Unrealistic
5—coincidence—important plot points resolved too easy

These are interesting results for sure, but what can they tell us? What can we learn from them?

First of all, it tells us that all the most common mistakes are all fairly easily corrected. All we as writers need to do is find a good editor, either for free as one of our beta readers, or even better, a professional editor, who can point out the flaws for us (and sometimes suggest corrections). We can also be aware of these pitfalls in our own writing, as much as possible anyway.

The second lesson is that the most common mistake writers make is probably the easiest to correct. Grammar and usage. Face it, we want to be writers, want to work with the language to build beautiful things, right? Shouldn’t we at the very least know the rules? And it isn’t hard. Take a class at your local community college, or online. At least go down to your local book store or visit Amazon and buy a copy of The Elements of Style and read it. Learn the rules and abide by them most of the time.

By doing something as simple as learning the rules of grammar and word usage we can do much to eliminate nearly one fifth of the mistakes that cause readers to lose their sense of immersion in our stories. That means they keep reading. And that is what we want, right?