Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Writing Dialogue: 4 Ways to Avoid Floating Head Syndrome!

By Bryn Donovan, @BrynDonovan

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Dialogue is wonderful, but it can be an area that readers can get lost in if not done well. White rooms, talking heads, confusing speakers--and to help clear up those fuzzy, yet chatty, areas, Bryn Donovan takes the podium to share some tips on floating head syndrome.

Bryn is the author of two novels and the reference book Master Lists for Writers. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, and she blogs at bryndonovan.com.

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Take it away Bryn...

What’s Floating Head Syndrome? It’s when your story has line after line of dialogue, and the reader can’t visualize the scene. My early stories suffered from this terrible affliction, and I’m not going to share excerpts from them, because it’s too embarrassing. But basically, Floating Head Syndrome looks like this:
“We need to talk about Noah,” Mark said.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” she replied curtly.
“You don’t think we need to discuss the fact that our son turns invisible?”
“You’re exaggerating,” she said. “He’s just really good at hiding.”
“Jennifer, we both saw him disappear in the outfield,” he insisted. “There was nowhere to hide.”
“Okay, fine. So what?”
“I think we should home school him,” Mark said.
“That’s ridiculous!”
He said, “The other kids are going to figure out he’s different.”
“I know kids made fun of your lizard tail,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they won’t like Noah!”

You can see the two problems here (besides the fact that it’s silly.) Not only do we get no mental picture of the scene, but we also have a lot of he said, she said (and synonyms like “insisted” don’t really make it better.)

It’s fine for a first draft, especially when you’re just getting things out. Here are four ways to fix it in revision!

1. Facial expressions.

If you describe what your character’s face is doing before his line of dialogue, we can visualize him, and you don’t need a she said. You may also give a reader a hint about her tone of voice. Yay!

Before: “There’s nothing to talk about,” she replied curtly.

After: Her jaw clenched. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

2. Body language and gestures.

This works the same way as above.

Before: “You’re exaggerating,” she said.

After: She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “You’re exaggerating.”

Because I used to have trouble thinking of facial expressions, body language, and gestures again, I’ve made long lists of both. They’re in my book coming out on October 26, Master Lists for Writers.

But if you must have a very long conversation, even dialogue tags like facial expressions and gestures can get tiresome. Your characters can start to come off as grimacing, fidgeting messes. Now what?

3. Use the setting.

If Mark and Jennifer are discussing this in the living room, things could be happening around them. Maybe their dog barks at the mail carrier, or through the window they hear someone mowing his lawn. Describing little things like this can introduce short breaks in the dialogue.

You might also consider moving them to a livelier location. For instance, maybe Mark and Jennifer can discuss their occasionally invisible son while they’re still at the Little League game. If everyone else around them is having a good time, this provides a contrast to their serious conversation.
She sighed. “Okay, fine. So what?”
Around them on the bleachers, other parents burst into cheers.
Mark didn’t even look over to the field. “I think we should home school him.”

And there’s one more thing you can do.

4. Give your characters something to do when they talk.

Instead of Mark and Jennifer sitting in the living room, put them in the kitchen. One of them could be in the middle of cooking dinner or emptying the dishwasher.
“Okay, fine.” She kept stirring the pot. “So what?”
Mark leaned against the kitchen counter and folded his arms over his chest. “I think we should home school him.”
She set the ladle down hard, splattering chili on the stovetop. “That’s ridiculous!”

I like to make lists, so if you want 50 ideas of things your characters could be doing while they talk, you can check it out on my blog!

Do you have any other ideas about avoiding Floating Head Syndrome, or writing effective dialogue in general? Please share them in the comments. Happy writing!

About Master Lists for Writers

Get inspired...stay inspired.

Write faster...write more!

MASTER LISTS FOR WRITERS makes “show, don’t tell” much easier and helps you figure out your story more quickly. In this book, you’ll find:
  • lists of phrases for describing facial expressions, body language, gestures, physical appearance, and emotions 
  • 175 master plot ideas, including romance, high-stakes, family, and workplace stories 
  • lists of words for writing action scenes and love scenes 
  • inspiration for figuring out character traits and quirks, backstories, occupations, motivations, and goals 
  • lists for describing settings and writing dialogue 
  • lists of good character names for contemporary stories...plus medieval England, Regency England, Wild West, and WWII settings 
  • and more! 
Whether you’re writing novels or short fiction, screenwriting, or any other kind of storytelling, MASTER LISTS FOR WRITERS is a rich source of inspiration you’ll turn to again and again.

This book contains adult language.


  1. I'm glad you pointed out that listing gestures over and over get tiresome too! And then gave alternatives. Thanks.

    Bryn, is you book going to be available in print as well (or one ebook)?

    1. Hi Southpaw! Thanks! Actually, although the official launch date isn't till the 26th, the paperback is available as of this morning :) http://www.amazon.com/Master-Lists-Writers-Thesauruses-Character/dp/0996715215/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1445354850&sr=8-1&keywords=Master+Lists+for+Writers+paperback

    2. Bought the kindle book -- I love it already --now will buy a print copy so I will always have it with me wherever I go

  2. Great post! It came through my feed at the perfect time and I love having the examples. It really drives home the point how expressions gestures and setting can punch up dialog. :D

  3. Oh thank you, Angel! So glad it was helpful :)

  4. Some great suggestions here. I especially like the tip to give characters more action during dialog, which leads to better scenes in general as well as just livening up the dialog.
    Much appreciated!

  5. Thanks for giving my characters life.