How To Balance Dialogue and Description

by Sarah Baughman

Arm, man, portrait, sea

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman.

I often read about the importance of spicing writing up with dialogue or description: a little show-don’t-tell language, a heated argument relayed with fast-paced exclamation points, a vivid image, an exchange whose subtext reveals more than the words themselves.

“Absolutely!” I always say. “I need to include more of that in my writing.” The only question is—when? How can I gauge when to give way to rich description, and when to let my characters speak for themselves?

Certainly part of the decision depends on balance. If we rely only on dialogue or description, challenging ourselves to develop the other at some point will surely benefit our writing. But assuming we strive to incorporate both in appropriate measures, are there any indicators available to help us see in which instances one might serve more purpose than the other?

Choosing Dialogue

Dialogue reads easily; it’s familiar, and its structure mimics regular conversations. It’s by nature colloquial and comfortable. Consider inserting dialogue when you want to:

1. Establish mystery or create tension between what’s said and what’s meant.

Readers can be just as taken with what isn’t said as with what is; suspense grows from reading between the lines. The following excerpt from Sara Gruen’s Like Water for Elephants (pg. 187) recounts an exchange between the protagonist and antagonist, and the fact that the characters don’t tell the whole story suggests a lot about their relationship as well as how the plot might develop.

“I need to arrange to get a doctor out here.”
“Why?”
I hesitate. “I’d rather not say.”
“Ah,” he says, winking at me. “I understand.”
“What?” I say, horrified. “No. It’s nothing like that.” I glance at Marlena, who turns quickly toward the window. “It’s for a friend of mine.”
“Yes, of course it is,” says August, smiling.
“No, it really is. And it’s not…Look, I just wondered if you knew of anyone. Never mind. I’ll walk into town and see what I can find.”

2. Accentuate a character’s voice or personality.

Think about the key relationships in your life and the extent to which conversation fuels them. Can’t we determine a lot about someone from the way they speak—their tone, vocabulary, syntax, use of humor or sarcasm?

In the following excerpt from She’s Come Undone (pg. 220), Wally Lamb expertly illustrates in just a few sentences of dialogue the differences between two characters. Marcia’s proper chiding, her quaint, chaste expression (“fry ice!”) contrasts perfectly with Naomi’s blunt, crass response, efficiently setting the two women at odds.

“Now you just watch your language and I mean it,” Marcia said.
“Oh yeah, your virgin ears,” Naomi laughed. “That’s probably your trouble, Marcia. Virgnity.”
A tremor passed over Marcia’s face. “You know, Naomi, I try hard to love a little something about every gal in this dormitory. But you can just go fry ice!”

3. Step back from interpretation; let characters reveal relationships.

In description, writers choose key details; they create metaphors that carry subtle connotations and paint images that might guide readers to a certain feeling about the subject being described.

Bare-bones dialogue leaves interpretation to the reader; it’s a pure form of characterization. In fiction, characters often take on lives of their own, ones the author might not have predicted at the beginning. In creative non-fiction, relaying a conversation ensures objectivity.

Consider how, in the following excerpt from A Thousand Splendid Suns (pg. 209), Khaled Hosseini creates an argument between two characters whose stark dialogue, unaffected by description, refrains from judgment:

“Where did you put it?” she said, wheeling around to face Laila.
“Me?” Laila said. “I didn’t take it. I hardly come in here.”
“I’ve noticed.”
“Is that an accusation? It’s how you wanted it, remember. You said you would make the meals. But if you want to switch–”
“So you’re saying it grew little legs and walked out…”

Choosing Description

Rich description brings readers into the world we’ve created, making fictional settings and characters undoubtedly real. Consider inserting description when you want to:

1. Explore the significance of setting.

Writers know that characters, like people, are influenced by their environments. Using vivid description to linger on aspects of setting especially important to plot or character development is an excellent strategy.

In Snow Falling on Cedars (pg. 5), David Guterson assigns human qualities (optimistic, implacable) to his setting:

A few wind-whipped and decrepit Victorian mansions, remnants of a lost era of seagoing optimism, loomed out of the snowfall on the town’s sporadic hills. Beyond them, cedars wove a steep mat of still green. The snow blurred from vision the clean contours of these cedar hills. The sea wind drove snowflakes steadily inland, hurling them against the fragrant trees, and the snow began to settle on the highest branches with a gentle implacability. 

2. Create a close study of one character’s private thoughts.

We can carefully script and edit what we actually say out loud, but our thoughts run wild. Description reveals truths about a character that might seem unrealistically revealing or even disingenuous if spoken in conversation.

In this excerpt from The Snow Child (pg. 3), Eowyn Ivey uses imagery to plumb her main character’s disappointment with a depth Mabel certainly could not bring herself to reveal through dialogue:

Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point, after all. No infants cooing or wailing. No neighbor children playfully hollering downy he lane. No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations, or clackety-clack of toys along the kitchen floor. All those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence. 

3. Move plot forward quickly, using shifts in time.

Vivid description can quickly layer different plotlines to create an unconventional narrative structure. In Cold Mountain (pgs. 4-5), Charles Frazier uses an element of setting–a window–to trigger a character’s memory and build backstory:

Inman suspected that after such long examination, the grey window had finally said about all it had to say. That morning, though, it surprised him, for it brought to mind a lost memory of sitting in school, a similar tall window beside him framing a scene of pastures and low green ridges terracing up to the vast hump of Cold Mountain…The memory passed on as the light from the window rose toward day. 

How do dialogue and description complement one another? How do you determine whether to develop one or the other in a particular part of your manuscript?

Previous post:

Next post: