The Writing Life

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Writing 101: Description Vs. Dialogue

How do you decide whether to illuminate something through description or through dialog? There is no one opinion on this, so I'm going to tell you my thinking on this subject. You may agree, you may disagree, both are fine. The point is to get you thinking about it , so you can make conscious choices.

Either way, the goal should be to write it well. Write good description or dialogue that serves your story, and communicates to the reader. That's where your focus should be.

NOTE: This W101 was adapted from a discussion held on a writing list, and is a bit repetitive in places. So why did I keep the redundant passages in? Because during that discussion, some people had a very difficult time understanding the point. Due to this, I have retained much of the information, hoping that if one section doesn't make sense, another will. Eventually, in that discussion, understanding was reached, so I'm hoping that will happen here, as well.


I tend not to be very descriptive in my writing. The reason for this is simple: I tend not to like much description when I'm reading. Since I write stuff that I'd like to read, that pretty much explains things.

That said, sometimes description is absolutely necessary. To me, it depends on why it's there, and how it's written. If it's important to set up a mood or to let the reader visualize something, then by all means, go for it. A brief set-up paragraph describing the environment, or the edgy fear of a small town, or the utopian feel of a hidden valley, etc. can be a great shortcut to setting up the readers' expectations, enhancing their knowledge, etc. If done well, it's fantastic stuff.

However, I find that when I read I'm pretty good at 'seeing' things without too many details. So if, for instance, you are going to describe a room in page upon page of minute detail, I really want there to be a good reason for it. Does the tattered sofa with a 3/4" tear by the fourth leg, a small spaghetti stain on the backside of the second cushion and the slightly faded imprint of a rhododendron play a significant role, or are you throwing details at me to dazzle? Are you trying to tell me that the person owning the sofa has limited means and that's why the furniture is in this condition, or does it play no role in your story, but you saw a couch like this once, and you wanted to describe it? Are you focused in your descriptions? And by focus, I mean do you have the story's well-being at heart or are you in love with your own voice? As a reader, I can pretty much tell, you see. And I'm not happy when my enjoyment of the story is suddenly thrust into second place behind the author's enjoyment of her thesaurus.

For example: Let's say your characters pause for a picnic in the Alps. Do you then spend the next ten pages describing, in loving detail and florid word pictures, the view? Why do you feel this is what I, as a reader, want on the page? Would a simple snapshot have told me everything you said and more, i.e. are you merely reporting environmental details using fancy language? What does the view mean to the characters and if it is significant, why aren't you telling me of that significance, instead of describing yet another snowy peak? Sometimes, the view is exactly what needs to be described. And in those cases, I'll hang on every word just like everyone else. But if I start to detect the odor of "I'm so in love with the way I write that you'd best wear sunglasses in this chapter because I'm about to shiiiiine" then I tune out. I'll skim until we get back to the important stuff -- or I'll stop reading altogether, because you've wasted my time. And what is the important stuff to me as a reader? The characters. The plot. The emotions. The interactions. The story. I can order National Geographic if I want photos. What I want from fiction is fiction.

So do I hate description? No way. You give me a powerful, compact description of a new character, and in that description set off fireworks in my brain from the brilliance of your choices, then I will bow before you. There is nothing so wonderful as succinct, telling, brilliant descriptions that communicate in exactly the amount of words it takes to do so.

This is a good place to remember the lesson on economy. Good description is not judged by the number of words, it's based on the mind picture it paints, or the information it gets across. You could spend pages noting every detail about a new character, or you could find some telling things -- things that are important to the character and the story, and that draw an interesting portrait -- and you'll have created a better picture in a short time than all that paint-by-numbers stuff.

And it's not about finding fancy words, or using tons of adjectives. Overuse of adjectives is the hobgoblin of beginning writers. They're a sure sign of someone insecure with her ability to paint a telling portrait or landscape.

For example, you could say a new character has "beautiful, azure eyes, their glowing cobalt staring with haunted warmth." Oy! What a load of verbiage but what have you really established? She has blue eyes. Okay, what else? Well, "haunted warmth" doesn't make much sense, too incongruent, so they sort of cancel each out. Is she warm? I'm not sure, because she's also haunted, and that doesn't sound too warm to me. I think her eyes are blue. Yup, that's what I figured out. Really blue.

"She had blue eyes" establishes the same thing, without all the confusion. But it's not 'pretty' in the starkness of the telling. No dazzle. Do you need dazzle or do you want communication? Both? Greedy, aren't you.

Sometimes, you need to make choices. My best advice (and this is really the best thing you'll ever hear from me) is to err on the side of communication. Don't leave your readers wondering what the heck you just said. The dazzle will come naturally.

Fine, but what if you meant to communicate so much more than "she had blue eyes" with that sentence? Rethink it. First, figure out exactly what you want to say. What was it about her eyes that got you to that awkward "haunted warmth" description? Think it through and figure out a way to say it by concentrating less on words like 'azure' and 'cobalt' and more on the character's emotional state. "Her eyes were a deep blue, like the desert sky as it neared dusk -- still warm from the day's heat, yet losing the battle against the encroaching shadows of the night." Many readers will be familiar with the phenomenon of hot desert days giving way to cold, dark nights. By using this knowledge to aid your description of her eyes, it immediately sets up thoughts and pictures that far outreach the few words you used to describe her. Granted, some people won't like this description any better than the haunted warm azure description. But I personally like it better (though I think it could be improved), and because I'm the author, that's my choice. At least it wasn't just a jumble of words that sound pretty.

I like to call these "thinking descriptions". They're not built from reading a thesaurus, but from a writer thinking about how to communicate her intent in an interesting, yet understandable way. They also require the reader to think, as s/he fills in the image from his or her experiences and knowledge.

They don't have to be similes or metaphors. Overuse of these is as bad as overuse of adjectives. Actions can be descriptive of a character. Dialogue, too. In short, all the weapons in your writer's arsenal are there for you to use, when enhancing your descriptions. Don't rely simply on fancy words. Use interesting, communicative thoughts. If these thoughts include a fancy word or two, no problem. (And please note that it's not adjectives and adverbs as a whole that are bothersome, only their overuse.) The emphasis is still on the idea, not the language.


Characterization is extremely important, so descriptions that involve insights into character are necessary. But again, make it about the character and not your own brilliance. I tend to prefer writers who don't spend a lot of time telling me about a character, but rather put their energy into showing me who this character is by their dialogue and their actions. So traditional character description, IMO, should be kept short and necessary. Give me just enough to intrigue me and then spend your time giving me further clues in other ways.

For example, you could tell me that your character is well organized. Or you could have her do some little action that shows us this trait. Have her jot a note in her palm pilot to return a call at 3:07pm. Have her rearrange a meal served in a restaurant so that all dishes are equidistant from each participant. Give us small things that show her need for order, instead of just telling us that's one of her qualities. It'll stick in the readers' minds much more with a small bit of business than a random description.


This is one of those "I'm putting this passage here 'cause I want you to see what a furkin' good writer I am and it serves no purpose whatsoever in the story, but it's suuuccchhh a beautiful passage, don't you agree?"

It's probably obvious by now that to me this is one of the worst sins in writing. It is, IMO, an amateur, beginning writer error. When we first start writing, we tend to reach a point where we fall in love with language and our own ability to form a sentence. We fall in love with literary devices and those oh, so wondrous adjectives and adverbs. And in the blush of this new love, we go all out. It's such a trap. We want so desperately to sound like real writers that we go overboard in attempts to dazzle. And the result can be painful, comical, boring, ridiculous, and even, on rare occasions, brilliant. But that last one is by far the exception.

Gradually, we find our own voice, and from then on, things improve greatly. That voice may be rich with description, or it might be heavy on dialogue, or action-oriented, or filled with slow, quirky character insights, or whatever. That voice can be anything. But it is uniquely ours.

Putting in dazzling descriptive passages that have no purpose other than to show the brilliance of the writer is something I take as a bit of an insult, when I'm a reader. Am I supposed to be so stupid that I can't recognize what you're doing? That I can't tell this is meaningless? If you're trying to tell a story, then please tell me the story!

If you write something this brilliant and feel you simply have to include it to show everyone how great you are, it's best to save it for a time when it DOES have significance. Not this story, but maybe in another. Or maybe it can be turned into a poem. Or you can use in a letter to your Mom. Whatever. But include it in a story where it doesn't belong and you risk destroying your pacing. And man, wrecking good pacing is such a crime. Pacing is the thing that makes a reader turn a page. It's the engine that drives those eyes forward from sentence to sentence. It's the rhythm, the drumbeat, the energy of a piece. Is it really worth wrecking that just to show you can describe a tree?


If you feel like saying: "I'm not sure what writing for the sake of writing means. It sounds as though the writer is writing for herself rather than the reader. That sounds good to me." Then read this next section. Otherwise, skip it.

A better way to phrase it is that the writer is writing for ego, to the detriment of the story. In this case, the ego (or the "I'm so wonderful, you simply MUST admire me for this paragraph") gets in the way of the storytelling, the pacing, the characters, or whatever.

Let's say you have Vincent staring at a placid lake after having just been through a battle. You think to yourself, "Aha! This is a perfect spot to illuminate my character by showing the juxtaposition of the blood-soaked warrior who now stares at the serene beauty of this natural setting. I'll show it through his eyes and it will enhance his characterization and set a mood. Double duty. Perfect."

Then you write the passage, but your head soon leaves your goals and you get caught up in describing this beautiful lake. Florid prose full of adjectives, adverbs and wonderful descriptive, sensual words follow. Gosh, but you're doing this well. Look at how gorgeous that sentence is. And that one. It's almost poetry!

Later, you read through this chapter and you run head-on into this section. Instead of forwarding your character, or setting a mood, you've got a long, meandering description of a lake that no longer has anything to do with the story. Does that gorgeous juxtaposition of bloody warrior/placid lake happen? Nope. Do the flowing sentences seem to come from Vincent? I mean, it says right here that Vincent is thinking this. Yet it isn't in his 'voice' at all. Vincent would never in a billion years have these thoughts. It's not the way his mind works. But... the prose! It's so wonderful! I must keep it in so that the people reading it can admire my talent. Who cares if it doesn't fit, if it slows the pace to a crashing halt, if it contradicts everything I've written about my main character -- look at how well I used the word "irenic"!!!! That HAS to be worth something -- I'm keeping it!

And now you've just done something for ego, as opposed to story. That's what writing for writing's sake is about.

Time to move on.


Some writers use minimal description and rely heavily on dialogue to drive their scenes forward, to give you clues to character and setting, etc.

Guilty as charged. I'm positive there are people who absolutely hate my work because of this. And that's fine. I do it because to me, communication is fascinating. I adore listening to people speak. I love to hear conversations. I'm interested in the way people talk, the words they use, the sound of their voices, the unique idiosyncrasies, the dialects, the accents, the tone, etc.. My background is as a screenwriter, and in screenwriting, everything has to be conveyed in dialogue and action. There are no descriptions because that's the camera's job. There are no internals, just the actors' faces and bodies. The writer's job is to tell an entire story with dialogue and action. Period. A whole mess of people (the director, the actors, the producer, the techies and so on) are gonna fudge around with everything else. The only thing that really survives from the screenwriter is what was on paper. He said, she said, they did this. And it's a thing of beauty when it survives and you see it on screen and it works because you wrote the right words.

So my tendency, when writing prose, is to go heavy on dialogue (I just love to hear my characters talk) and use that dialogue to give you whole bunches of clues about character, culture, setting, intrigue, romance, plot, pacing, relationships, status, emotions -- in short, lotsa stuff, baby. I'll put in brief descriptions to set mood, or elucidate character, etc. But the bulk is going to be found in dialogue and action.

I would guess that most readers prefer a story that falls somewhere in between an emphasis on dialogue or an emphasis on descriptive prose. It's a continuum and you, as a writer or a reader, fall somewhere on that line. Just because I fall closer to the dialogue end, doesn't mean that's "right". It just means it's right for me. (That, and it makes me feel irenic.)

Not that I haven't played with lots of the points on the continuum. I've written short stories without a single line of dialogue. I've written others that are probably 90% dialogue. So experiment. Find your comfort level. Find your strengths as a writer. Not everyone will like what you do. It's impossible to please every reader. But those who share your viewpoint will love you. And if you do it well, then your range will increase accordingly.


  • Thanks for the writing tips. I'll definitely find a use from it, but still, please allow me to remark on the irony of this post without interpreting it as me being ungrateful. Your major qualm is that you don't want a descriptive writer so full of their own ego that you must suffer through overwrought prose, but this entire passage is full of redundant examples, full of overwrought derisiveness. Your original justification that you left the redundancies in so that one of them might reach the reader felt more like an excuse to not proofread, because there really isn't that much of a difference between the passages.

    Anyways, in writing short messages like this, tone is never communicated. I don't mean this as berating or to take away from the point of your post. I just thought the irony might be something you'd identify with -- since you don't like reading others drone on either.

    By Blogger Blaisem, at 6:22 AM  

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