Thursday, February 12, 2009

Talking Heads

At church on Sunday, LW and I listened to an older couple share some secrets on their long marriage. Communication it turns out is, of course, the key to successful marital bliss. I’m sure we authoring types like to think that we have an advantage in that area. What? We can’t write all that we want to say? Uh-oh!

All sorts of clever anecdotal tidbits were offered to illustrate various points on communication, and at one point, the husband mentioned that not all communication is verbalized. In fact, if I’m remembering correctly, he said studies show that people only digest 7% of the words they hear. I suppose we forget the other 93%. No, it’s just that people form the rest of their impressions based on nonverbal cues.

As I pondered that 7% statistic, I was reminded of THS, Talking Head Syndrome. THS happens when your book reads more like a play than a novel. In other words, you’ve all dialogue and no descriptions accompanying your quotes. Readers finish a passage dazed, wondering what the setting is and were the characters standing, etc. The dialogue failed.

Successful dialogue entails much more than conversation. Unlike THS, it involves characters moving and interacting with each other and their surroundings. Consider it this way -- if in real life we’re only taking in 7% of the words spoken, how much of your book do you want based strictly on dialogue?

Eliminate TMS. Utilize nonverbal communication within your novel. Go ahead, add in those sentences about your character sneezing, stomping their foot, rattling their sword, etc. Sometimes, the nonverbal communications your characters give may be much more important than what they are saying. This adds extra depth to your book. Oh, and on a personal note, try to up that 7% when listening to your spouse. It turns out nonverbal communication adds to your marriage as well. ;-)


  1. And when this is really thought through well, it is amazing the wonderful things it can do to a story!
    Great post!

  2. I did love that band in the 80s! (The Talking Heads!)

  3. Barrie -- I was wondering if anyone would notice that. At some point, maybe I'll advance far enough along to add audio.

  4. Thanks, PJ. I wish I could remember where I first read about the talking head syndrome. I know it helped me improve my writing.

  5. Interesting stuff, D.A. I'm trying to incorporate more of that nonverbal stuff in my novel rewrite.

    And I'm with Barrie - Talking Heads is one of my favorite bands! In fact, in one of the bands that I play in, we do a cover of Take Me to the River.

    On a side note, I downloaded the new David Byrne/Brian Eno album a few weeks back. Freaking AMAZING stuff.

  6. Hey Mitch, it sounds like we should do a Talking Heads tribute on our blogs!

    I think (maybe) the book I read that talked about talking head syndrome was the one by Carolyn Wheat called "Killer Fiction." I read several good ones all at one time and they somewhat blur together as to which was which. Seems like the other one I really liked was by Elizabeth George.