Talking Heads

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today writing on the topic of talking heads. What, you ask, are talking heads? Well, there are actually two types. One involves the dueling pundits seen on television. You know—the conservative and the liberal debating some hot topic or two experts with differing opinions on, well, just about anything. Stretching that definition a little, there are experts (or celebrities) on panels.

Jen Blood, Me, Lea Wait: talking heads on writing

Then there’s the other kind, the kind found in fiction.

In a novel, especially in the early drafts one one, a writer creates talking heads by putting two or more characters on the page and giving them dialogue but very little else. The dialogue itself may be riveting, but even the most lively exchange also needs action. I’m talking about the difference between a radio play and a technicolor movie here, and even with only audio, you have sound effects to support what characters are saying to each other.

The earliest draft of any given scene in one of my mysteries is, I admit, nearly all dialogue. I put two characters together and let them talk and in that way I learn all kinds of things about their personalities, their relationship, and what has to happen next in the story. However, an entire book with nothing but characters yakking at each other would lose readers fast. Yes, scenes with lots of dialogue are following the old rule to “show, don’t tell” but they’re missing, you should pardon the pun, the “telling” details that make a scene come alive.

Many writers put in descriptive details at the same time they invent dialogue for their characters. Most of the ones I insert at that stage consist of boring word choices, the odd cliché, and a dash of purple prose. I usually replace all those with something better during the many “read through and revise” sessions that follow.

That’s not to say it’s easy to come up with good ways to describe what’s going on during a conversation. Even physical descriptions of the participants are tricky. A character may inded be a tall redhead with green eyes and freckles, but to make readers remember her the next time she shows up in the story, it might be better to refer to her hair as carrot-colored or maybe, for fans of British word choices, ginger. On the other hand, describing those fiery locks as Titian-tinted tresses is probably over the top.

For my own use, I have made lists of useful words to use to describe a character’s appearance. Some are commonplace while others are a bit more distinctive. Take noses, for example. I have a tendency to have people look down long, thin noses at someone in my early drafts. My nose list offers alternatives. A nose can be a beak, or hawk like, or bulbous, or large and slightly flattened. It can be Roman or Aquiline. It might have broken veins or a bump on the bridge, the result of being broken. Chins can be negligible, double, or contain a dimple or a cleft, and they can quiver in the heat of an argument. You get the idea. Such descriptive details should, however, be used sparingly. My rough drafts may list all the physical attributes of each character as he or she is introduced into the story, but those details will have to be spread out, or left out, when I revise. The same goes for descriptions of what characters are wearing. In one of my books, I thought I was being clever by hinting at personality through dress. Readers rapidly tired of all that emphasis on clothing.

But back to talking heads. Readers expect hints as to the appearance of each character and at least a few details to give them a picture of the setting, but the people in the scene also need to move. If they just stand around (or sit around) and talk, things get very boring very fast. Fight scenes, in fact any scenes that involve characters in conflict, are relatively easy to write. Physical reactions that go hand-in-hand with a character’s emotional state come readily to mind. Fists clench. Eyes blaze. Skin loses color, or gains it. The quiet scenes are the ones that present problems and there are a lot of those in a cozy mystery. The amateur detective talks over a clue with a friend, or tries to get a suspect to reveal something during a casual conversation. What are they doing while they chat?

In the Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, if Liss is at work at Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, I tend to fall back on three choices: drinking coffee and eating some goodie from Patsy’s Coffee House in the shop’s cozy corner; packing orders for shipment in the stock room; dusting the shelves and cleaning or rearranging stock on the shelves. The latter two allow me to work in details of some of the Scottish-themed items Liss sells, but that gets old fast. Nine times out of ten, I fall back on the coffee-drinking scenario. This has challenges of its own.

How much coffee can one character drink in the course of a 250 page mystery novel? And it’s no good substituting tea, or some kind of soda, or even beer or liquor. After awhile the reader is going to start believing the sleuth has at least one superpower—the ability to down endless quantities of liquid without ever needing to use a bathroom. I’ve been trying to break myself (and my characters) of the coffee habit, but they have to do something to avoid becoming nothing more than talking heads.

Books written or set in earlier times could have characters smoking. Cigarettes, cigars, and especially pipes, provided plenty of casual action and interaction. I don’t think anyone smokes in cozies, not even villains. I have gotten some mileage, and sometimes a bit of humor, out of Liss’s dislike of herbal teas, since her aunt keeps insisting on serving them to her, but that’s just the problem. I don’t want to keep repeating the same old ploys just to give my characters a bit of action. I’ve written scenes where the conversation takes place while washing dishes, while exercising, and while watching a movie on TV but I’d really like to find some “stage business” I haven’t used before. It would have to be believable, of course. I can’t see Liss taking up knitting just to give her something to do with her hands while she’s interrogating a suspect in the cozy corner.

So, over to you, the clever, perceptive people who read this blog. Do those endless cups of coffee bother you? Do talking heads? And if you have any suggestions for alternative actions that would work to liven up the conversations in Liss’s world, I’d love to hear them.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of more than fifty-five traditionally published books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation—2018) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are and and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.

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4 Responses to Talking Heads

  1. I have to watch what they eat or there will be too much meat. I have to watch eye color and hair color, or I’ll have a book full of redheads with eerie blue eyes. I like your lists. I have a list for pain. And of course, lists of colors. And my Rodale’s synonym finder right beside my desk. Usually I write something, walk away, start making dinner, and suddenly I understand what was supposed to be in that scene. The office is two floors above the kitchen, so I get plenty of exercise from these ahah! moments. Great post.


    Liked by 1 person

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Thanks, Kate. There was one thing I left out–the need to watch out for characters who smile, frown, nod, or grin ALL THE TIME!


  2. Amber Pierce says:

    I think the trick is making the scene does multiple things at once! Use the action beats to have the characters interact with the setting, and use it to further nonverbal tension. I probably worry about talking heads too much and wind up with beats on every line, which is like the opposite problem haha — I have to go through and clean up useless body language beats and replace them with proper thoughts, reactions, and internals to keep the POV nice and deep. I find it’s easy to create accidental distance during dialogue scenes, because instead of thinking and reacting, I wind up letting the character rely completely on their words. So I always have to go back through and preen out excess actions/descriptors and replace them with something that both forwards the motion/setting/plot and brings the narrative depth back closer where it should be.


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