Balancing Dialogue and Description in Your Story

balancing dialogue and description
By Quinn Dombrowski via Wikimedia Commons

Note from Jane: In today’s guest post, Alex Limberg discusses attaining the perfect balance between dialogue and description in your fiction.

To shape your dialogue scene into a compact and intriguing unit, dialogue and non-dialogue have to complement each other. If the equilibrium is off, one of two things will happen:

  1. If your scene contains too much dialogue (and not enough description), your reader might lose her orientation and sense for the characters’ surroundings. Also, your audience might feel like there is something missing. Whenever we talk to each other in real life, our minds are not just all dialogue. We usually do something else too while we are speaking, whether it’s sipping a coffee or doodling on a notepad during one of those long telephone conversations. At least we see or hear something else too. Our lines of dialogue never fill up our entire reality, and they shouldn’t fill up an entire scene in our reader’s reality either. In literature, readers are used to an interplay between dialogue and surroundings. They are conditioned to expect it.
  1. If your scene contains too much description (and not enough dialogue), on the other hand, chances are it will become boring. Your readers want to see character interaction.

Signs You Have Too Much Dialogue

Description is probably missing if the reader feels even the slightest confusion about who is speaking or how the characters are positioned toward each other.

But even if the attribution of dialogue and movement in your scene is perfectly clear, it could still lack description in another way. When you read your scene aloud, does the description give you a sense of the mood?

Great stories are not just all characters and conflict. They also use description and setting to create an intriguing atmosphere. Imagine an apparition on a busy street in broad daylight. It wouldn’t be as spooky as the very same apparition in an old, cobweb-draped castle with the creaky doors. Setting makes a big difference.

Can you feel the atmosphere of the place based on how you’ve written the scene, or are you rather just feeling the mood play out in your own head? If the mood is only in your head, your scene lacks description.

Finally, it’s possible you have concentrated so hard on crafting intriguing words for your characters to speak, that the form has just become one monotonous back-and-forth. It’s all dialogue. Even if your figures are giving the monologues of their lives, you’re still much better off accentuating the words with a brushstroke of surroundings every now and then.

Signs You Have Too Much Description

First, check if your description is moving your scene forward.

A character walking over to his liquor cabinet to pour himself a cognac can be a good idea and add an additional flavor (quite literally) to the scene. However, if you spend too many sentences or even paragraphs on the character looking for his slippers, feeding the cat and scratching his arm, the scene is at risk of falling into an unbearably slow pace. Your reader will use a different term, though. She will call it “boring.”

How can you recognize description that doesn’t move your scene forward?

Any new information that advances plot or character or creates a mood can help move a scene forward. But if there is description after description that doesn’t have a dual purpose, your scene will become static.

Keep in mind that pure entertainment can also be a way to advance a scene. But if you are describing a lot of detail about a character, a location, or an action, that’s a strong warning sign your dialogue scene is overloaded with too much description—unless you are purposefully slowing down the scene.

Test your dialogue: When you read a line, has the previous one fallen out of your immediate memory? In that case, the connection is broken and your description is suffocating your dialogue. Time to cut back the description.

6 Excellent Ways to Let Your Description Support Your Dialogue

So you know your scene needs a certain amount of description. But how can you ensure it creates a rich, vivid scene and compelling overall story?

  1. Advancing Plot. Obviously, you will use description when you have plot to develop: Brian finally dares to kiss Claire or punches Gregory in the face. Often, your dialogue will build up to that pivotal moment. When the climax finally arrives, make the description of the action short and spend more time on the characters’ psychology: we want to see the drama unfold, that’s what we tuned in for. It’s also a good idea to cut the scene not too long after its high point. Describing unnecessary ordinariness will be a big turn-off for the reader at that point.
  1. Orientation. It’s absolutely essential that, during the entire dialogue, your reader is clear about who is speaking. If you just have characters A and B talking and they consistently alternate A-B-A-B, it’s not that tricky. An occasional dialogue tag with the speaker’s name attached will do. On the other hand, if there are several characters talking and/or they talk in irregular succession of speech, then you need to be careful. Mention the speaker every now and then in dialogue tags, or describe an action with his name attached. Your characters should also be individually recognizable simply for what they say and how they say it. In case your characters’ positions within the scene’s location matter, make sure the reader is clear about whereabouts and movements too. Don’t describe Henry as next to the door and whispering to Lady Chatterbee, who is sitting at the other end of the hallway. It’s what filmmakers call “blocking”—the sequence of character movement throughout the scene. You can convey a message very subtly by how a character moves and by his body language. Imagine Desmond turning away while confessing an awkward truth or Mary moving slowly closer to Clark throughout a scene as a sign of her attraction.
  1. Information. For each piece of information you give your reader during a dialogue scene, you have two options: including the information in your dialogue or in your description. Dialogue will often be the easier and more obvious choice, because people can talk about literally anything. Sometimes your setting will offer information quite generously or your characters display information in a very natural way. Think of microscopes and vials standing around or a first-prize ribbon for an acrobatic riding competition hanging on the wall. If a character used to travel by bike and suddenly a new Ferrari is parked in the driveway, what might have happened?
  1. Characterization. The little side actions we perform while we are speaking don’t lie. Whether your character is nervously fumbling with his pen or mischievously rubbing his hands over victory, he delivers a statement about himself. If he is watering his plants, we now know he likes plants (or at least owns some). If she is stopping in front of the shop window to look at a baby stroller, she might secretly (or not so secretly) desire a baby. Be smart about it and you can use even the smallest movement or action of your character to tell your readers a bit more about her.
  1. Atmosphere. We already talked a bit about atmosphere earlier. Any description is a great chance to let some moody details slip in: the huge, noisy washing machine, a warm breeze in the air, the alien’s breakfast spoon lying around. Don’t overdo it, though. Sow your details sparsely, because most of them will likely be static. Only when the big picture becomes clear during the scene will your investments in mood and vibe pay off, and your carefully woven atmosphere will creep up on the reader.
  1. Entertainment and Variety. Don’t forget what your story is there for in the first place: to entertain your reader. For screenwriters, it’s almost mandatory to give each scene its very own source of entertainment, but novelists will profit from that mindset as well. Say a story is about a guy named Gary fighting a legal battle against a huge construction company. When Gary enters his attorney’s office for the first time, he finds the guy hanging upside down from the ceiling, practicing a new, modern form of yoga during the entire consultation. While the attorney’s surprising and ridiculous posture has nothing to do with the overall plot, it’s an additional small element the writer can use within a single scene. It’s fun for the reader.

Great descriptions can fulfill several of these functions at once. Like with any part of your story (e.g., character and plot), the functions don’t just stand side by side, but are deeply interconnected and have a strong effect on one another.

How Much Description Is Just Enough?

There is no hard rule to follow. Great writers have written scenes consisting almost entirely of dialogue and made them work. William Gaddis’s novel J R is a magnificent piece, and it’s composed almost completely of unattributed dialogue!

Even though there is no mathematical way to calculate it, there is one indicator that can serve as the bottom line. It requires experience, it’s something you need to develop a strong inner sense for, and it’s something that’s impossible to explain within the scope of a post. I’m referring to rhythm.

Every scene, just like any sentence and the entire overall plot, has a certain rhythm to it. In every dialogue scene, the interplay between direct speech and description automatically establishes a certain rhythm.

After a certain amount of direct speech, the reader just expects a countermotion by a descriptive part. After some description, he expects direct speech again. It simply satisfies our urge for ebb and flow, for music to our inner ear. It sounds good.

As you gain writing experience, you develop a sensible ear for what sounds great and what doesn’t. You start to clearly recognize which parts lack dialogue and which parts could use a little more description.

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