23 July 2008

Elizabeth George's THADs

Have you ever been accused of writing dialogue that is just "talking heads"? I must confess my earliest fiction was probably guilty of this a lot of the time -- something an agent told me once before declining my book (and telling me she thought it would be published!). I think she was the first person who had pointed this out -- that my characters were just like disembodied voices chatting away. Sometimes things like this come as a giant wake-up call, and we wonder how it is we never saw this before. Or how it is that we weren't aware of this type of problem. We all have our own types of problems. For one of my friends, it is plotting -- something that has always come naturally to me. But she is brilliant at description and characterisation!

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.) 


ellen said...

I think I need to take you to Borders and get you to help me spend my money!

Tracey said...

lol. As long as you don't let me take my purse...