Thursday, July 26, 2012

Talking Heads

Week of July 22, 2012—Common Problems in Picture Book Manuscripts
Thursday, July 26—Talking Heads

Have you read a fourth grader's writing lately? Here’s what you often find:

            “He said that I said I did,” I said.
            “No, he didn’t!” she said.
            “Yes, he did!” I said.
            “He should not have said that,” she said.
            “You’re telling me,” I said.
            “Why would he say such a thing?” she said.
            “Because he always says stuff like that,” I said.
            “He should stop saying stuff like that,” she said.
            “You’re telling me,” I said.

That dialogue may be true to life (if you’re nine or ten), and it may sound funny, but it’s not a story. All we have is two people talking. I tell my students writing like that is chit-chat, not a story. I also teach students:

u Action tells a story, not dialogue.
v Dialogue is sprinkled into a manuscript to accomplish a purpose (to tell us more about a character, for instance).
w Dialogue can be used to propel the action of the story along, to speed it up, or to slow it down.
x Let one character speak and another character respond, then show some action.
y Continue to break up the dialogue with action throughout the story.

My students soon learn that they can fudge with my “rules”, but I hope they also learn that these rules are big, overarching guidelines that, when used, can make their writing stronger.

Editors and illustrators call the kind of writing shown above talking heads. (They probably also call it awful writing!) I had that problem with the early versions of Cowboy Christmas. I had the cowboys sitting around the campfire telling stories of their Christmas memories. Why would that be a problem? Because how many ways can you illustrate cowboys sitting around a campfire talking? The illustrator is telling the other half of the story, and talking heads don’t give much to tell or show via illustrations. (And talking heads aren't all that exciting or interesting to readers or listeners.)

After several revisions of Cowboy Christmas, I was able to add in the needed action and use my dialogue to paint a picture of the cowboys and their colorful personalities. The dialogue became something that anchored the action from scene to scene.

Many manuscripts I critique are suffering from chit-chatting talking heads. Here’s a simple strategy to see if you might have too much dialogue in your writing.

u Gather highlighters in two different colors.
v Go through your manuscript with one color and highlight every piece of dialogue.
w Use the second color to highlight the action in the story.
x If you have long blocks of dialogue, you may have chit-chatting talking heads.
y If you have more dialogue than action, you may have a problem.
z If you have a sprinkling of dialogue amidst lots of action, you probably have a good balance.

It’s Your Turn:
u Grab your highlighters and your manuscript and get to work!
v Type up the copy of one of your favorite picture books by one of your favorite authors. Then use the highlighter trick above to analyze the dialogue and action you find.


Penny Parker Klostermann said...

Rob~Just want you to know I read your blog frequently...even though I don't comment on every post, I find the information extremely useful.

Rob Sanders said...

So glad you're following along, Penny. Thanks for the encouraging words!

Lauri Meyers said...

I especially love the last tip about using highlighters. I am very visual too so I know that will be an opening experience!