Friday, December 4, 2009

Dialogue vs Description

by Scott Rhoades

A recent thread on the Utah Childrens Writers mailing list touched on preferences between dialogue and description. Like the title of this post, the discussion was framed as if it's an either/or question. It's not, of course. Both are necessary.

However, some people go description-crazy. When I look at a book and see nothing but a solid mass of gray text, I assume the following:

* The book has a lot of description, which is almost always telling, not showing, no matter how good the descriptions are.
* The pace is slow.
* I'll get tired reading it because it'll be kind of thick and heavy.
* Focus is on plot or theme, not character.

On the other hand, if I see a lot of white space mixed in, it's a sure sign there will be plenty of dialogue. And so I assume the following:

* The book will pull me into the scenes by showing me the interaction between the characters.
* The pace is faster.
* My eyes will get less tired because there's white space and there are more breaks.
* Focus is on characters.

Three guesses which book I'm most likely to buy.

To be sure, there is such a thing as too much dialogue. Some non-spoken prose is necessary. A good writer strikes the right balance between descriptive text and dialogue, controlling the pacing and action like a conductor controls an orchestra.

Some people struggle with dialogue. It's not that hard to copy the way people talk, but good dialogue does much more than that. Good dialogue is action. It moves the story forward. Like any good fiction, it is driven by conflict and heightens the tension.

And here's the thing: good dialogue often includes lively description. I don't mean it is expository, like:


"Hi, Joan. That's a nice blue sweater."

"Thank ya, John. I bought it at Sweatuh Emporium foah $100. Ya know ah don't have a lotta money, so it was moah than I could affoahd. But I lak it."


I mean something more like:


"Nice sweater," John said. Joan never did look good in blue. Blue washed out her pale face and clashed with the phony purply-red of her hair.

"You know Sweater Emporium has always been my personal Disneyland," Joan said without looking at him.

Probably cost more than a book of E-Tickets. She obviously hadn't gotten any better at controlling her spending. Maybe if she had, they might have had a chance. Whatever it cost, it wasn't worth it.

"Yeah, well, it's nice," he said.


There's a lot more that can be said about dialogue, and I suspect that you'll read more about it here soon. You might also want to check out Dialogue by Gloria Kempton, from the Writer's Digest Books "Write Great Fiction" series.

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