But back to the talking heads: since then I've always been conscious of trying to avoid this scenario, though sometimes a scene does slip past me, which is why it is helpful to have readers going through a manuscript before it gets sent out. We're always blindest to our own errors. I can spot talking heads from a thousand km in a student's manuscript, but sometimes overlook it in my own.
How to address such problems? Research. There are several ways of doing this: talk to other writers and see what they do, read other writers and see what they do (i.e. read as a writer, paying attention to the craft), read books on writing. As a teacher, I read a lot of books on writing. But even before I was a teacher, I always read a lot of books on writing. I love reading books on writing. My friend, Sherryl, and I could start a very decent bookstore with our writing books -- if either of us could bear to part with them, which we can't. (I think being a teacher has just given me justification to buy more and more and more writing books without having to feel too guilty about it -- something my husband hates!)
Often, these books say similar things, but sometimes one comes at something in such a new way that it's almost an earth-shattering moment. Sometimes it's not so much that the insight is new as the way that it's put strikes a chord and gives me a real WOW moment. So it was with Elizabeth George's Write away: one novelist's approach to fiction and the writing life and her discussion of what she calls THADs -- Talking Head Avoidance Devices.
A THAD is something you get your characters to do in a scene that would otherwise consist solely of dialogue. As well as fleshing out the scene, this can show character, be a metaphor or reveal information. She talks about knowing she has the right THAD when she feels a surge of excitement. I know what she means. I felt it last night.
Last night my students were doing an editing test. Usually, while they're doing a test, I have workshopping to do, but we hadn't yet started workshopping in my novel or poetry classes, and I had forgotten to bring in anything else to do, which is the first time I've done that in eight years! So, I was sitting wondering what I should do, when I started thinking of one scene that my reader had pointed out was talking heads. And as I contemplated a few different things I could do in the scene, I hit upon the perfect THAD. How did I know? That surge of excitement. I wanted to leap from my chair, get to my computer and get working! All around me, my students were sweating their test, and I was so infused with enthusiasm that I felt guilty for not having more empathy with them at that moment. I haven't tackled the scene yet -- am still thinking it through, but still think it feels exactly right for the scene!
Want to know more about THADs? You'll have to buy the book. (It's published by Hodder & Stoughton and is highly recommended! After all, every teacher has to love a book that has a chapter titled "The value of bum glue" -- and, trust me, every writer needs a book with a chapter with that title.)