Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dialogue vs Description

What's a good balance between dialogue and description in novels? (Note: Description here refers to all non-dialogue.) One of my insecurities as a writer is that I write too much dialogue and am light on description. I have a cut-to-the-chase style of writing. I picked it up from writing screenplays before transitioning to books. In scripts, it's suggested that you never have more than 3 lines of description at a time. It's a well-known fact that people in Hollywood don't like to read. Blocks of description turns them off. Also, scripts are used more as a blueprint for the director and actor. Description tells them what's happening, but they will use their own interpretation to create the tone and feel.

I am incapable of writing long passages of description. That's why I like YA. Kids like having a good mix of white space on the page. They feel they aren't reading a textbook that way. Do you ever cringe when you turn a page and it's a block of description? I sometimes do. When I read, I want description that's long enough to just give me a sense of what's going on. I don't need painstaking detail about physical description, a play-by-play of the characters' thoughts, or a journalistic recounting of backstory. Make it succinct; my mind will fill in the rest. I always think to that scene in Pleasantville when the kids discover blank books. Reese Witherspoon vaguely describes what a book is about, and the pages fill in with text. I would rather reveal information via dialogue.

On the same token, I don't like dialogue that goes on and on. Writing dialogue is fun, but it also needs to have a point. It must move the story along. I tire of scenes with dialogue that goes nowhere. Pulp Fiction is a famously talky script, but it's all leading somewhere. Characters don't talk just for the sake of talking. Long stretches of dialogue reveal character and explore the movie's theme: what does it take to be a righteous man?

Recently, I read The Giver by Lois Lowry and loved it. I devoured it in two days. It's an award-winning book, and I was surprised at how dialogue-driven it was. Most of the description are action lines. As I kept reading, I realized that the writing style echoed the colorless, emotionless world of the story. Still, I got a very clear sense of the main character and place. When Lowry does switch to more description in the end, they are short and sweet. They tell us where we are and what Jonas is doing. She did an amazing job at conveying so much in a few lines.

Which do you tend to write more of: dialogue or description/action?


  1. I tend to be pretty dialogue heavy in my writing.

  2. I love it when an author can use these things in such a purposeful way that really enhances the story and themes! I tend to have short quippy dialogue, but then some of my characters are more verbose than others. :)

  3. Hi Phil, I have a hard time writing a lot of description too. Neither do I like to read it. I pretty much skim over it when I read, looking for important stuff, trying to get back to the dialogue.

    But I've gotten better at it. It takes a lot of practice.

    Also, The Giver is one of my all-time favorites. You might also like the companion novels Gathering Blue and Messenger. Some Lois Lowry fans didn't like the companion books, but I loved them as much as I loved The Giver. :)

  4. Great post. I think an excess of either can be problematic, but it also depends how well it's handled by the writer. Poor execution of either can be a chore to read. Although if I do start skimming a book it's the dialogue I'll stop to read properly.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

  5. I rarely write much (any!) description in my first drafts. I have to go back and add it in afterwards.

    And, off topic, I love Pleasantville :-)

  6. I used to be extremely heavy on dialogue when I'd first started writing, but the further along I got polishing and practicing my writing skills, I discovered that description is my stronger suit.

    So now a lot of my stories leans very strongly towards description than dialogue.