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.”
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?

  • khaula mazhar

    This was helpful, I get stuck with this a lot, I find myself either writing too much description and then I have to go back and think about where to add dialogue, at other times it ends up just the opposite. But these tips are useful, thanks.

    • Sarah Baughman

      I’m glad they were helpful, Khaula. I’m often too description-heavy and have to make an effort to add dialogue. But I find I need to think carefully about where to put it, as opposed to just tossing it in.

  • Guilie

    Great post, Sarah–thank you! Super helpful. I’m printing it out to keep on my desktop–going on a round of dialogue revision soon, and this is a great guideline to follow. Thank you so much!

  • LorRae

    This was some very helpful, I also get stuck in this area when writing.:) Cool, thanks

    • Sarah Baughman

      Guilie and LorRae–I’m so glad the post was helpful! Happy writing.

  • Carl D’Agostino

    I used to give my 11th grade students 3 paragraph writing prompts based on an interesting pic from mags. What’s going on? how did this come about, how will it end? They then would come up one at a time for word for word edit mostly spelling and mechanics. They wrote dialogue within paragraphs and I tried to show them how do do dialogue as you illustrate here. They looked at me like I was nuts about new paragraph thing. Then I printed I page copies of dialogue from novels to again illustrate form and they still looked at me like I was nuts.

    • Sarah Baughman

      Carl, you made me laugh out loud. My students have certainly spent a fair amount of time looking at me like I’m nuts. Maybe I am…but I do think we both have some good ideas about dialogue and description. :) I like your assignment–always good to blend the visual with the verbal.

    • Susan Bearman

      I love this exercise, Carl. I think it would be great to do one as pure description and one as pure dialogue and see what’s different. Then apply Sarah’s suggestions here to create a balance.

  • Christelle Hobby

    Dialogue can be so tough. What I’ve found helpful is trying to write an entire scene using just dialogue. In all likelihood you will scrap half of it and replace it with description or subtext, but it helps you fully express the characters’ states of mind and get comfortable with how they speak. Obviously, it’s a time consuming exercise so you likely wouldn’t use it throughout an entire novel, but it’s good for the beginning of a story because it really forces you to get inside the mind of your characters. Thanks for the post!

    • Sarah Baughman

      What a great idea, Christelle. I’m going to need to try that, especially since I tend to err on the side of too little dialogue. It really does seem like the best way to establish a character’s voice and get into his/her state of mind.

  • Fiona Druce

    Absolutely wonderful! Love it! I tend to sort of “fly through” narrative when I’m reading, skimming through for pertinent info and focusing on dialogue, unless I feel I need more of a visual. Unfortunately, that habit means I skimp out on narrative when I write! Which, then, leads to overcompensation and way too little “White Space”. Finding that balance has been really difficult for me. My sincere thanks for this; I’ve saved it in as many forms as I can so that I have a copy on hand, everywhere I write!

    • Sarah Baughman

      Fiona, I’m so glad the post was helpful. I think it’s really easy to slip into the “comfort zone” when writing, whether that means overdoing dialogue or description. And you bring up a good point– we don’t always write as we read, or perhaps we try to overcompensate. Thank goodness for the editing process, right?

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  • KimGreenAtlanta

    Very helpful – love the specific examples!

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  • Sharon Settle

    It is very important when balancing description and dialogue to know your target audience. Certain types of readers will need more dialogue to keep them engaged than others. Children and young adults for example need a more personal and relatable connection with the characters while adults may need more information described to them about setting and background to hook them into the plot. With that in mind it is still very important to balance the two and not bog down your readers and plot with too much of one or the other.

    • Sarah Baughman

      This is a great point, Sharon. Without a grasp of the audience, our best efforts can certainly fall flat.

  • Susan Bearman

    Sarah, I think you’re so right about creating balance. Pacing is key to successful writing, and dialogue can definitely help pick up the pace. I seem to stand alone here among the writers as one who relies more heavily on dialogue than description. I think I have a good ear for dialogue and am less visually oriented, so description comes with more difficulty for me. Great post.

    • Sarah Baughman

      Susan, I’m jealous that dialogue comes easily for you! It’s a challenge for me, but with practice I think I’ve gotten better. Either way, it’s certainly easy to fall back on one or the other, harder to balance both.

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