September 16th, 2013

THE TRICKY PART

“The Tricky Part” of writing is different for every author, but hardly anyone is good at both dialogue & description. Laurie Schnebly Campbell talks about the skills required for each, and how to discover where your strengths lie.

And, did we mention that there is a prize for a lucky commenter? That contest closes Thursday evening at 6 p.m. (PDT) and we’ll announce the winner this Friday. Read on!

 by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

LaurieCampbellWe all tend to be better at one of the Double D’s — dynamic description, or delicious dialogue. But if you ask a bunch of bestselling authors which they’re better at, they can’t always tell you…because they’ve worked on both to the point where now each comes easily.

Most of us aren’t at that point yet, though. We’ve all had the experience of re-reading a page we just wrote and thinking “aaack, I SUCK at [dialogue or description].”

Sounds uncomfortably familiar, right?

STRENGTH & WEAKNESS

I personally suck at description, and whenever readers asked what my characters looked like I’d tell ’em, “like the picture on the cover.”WrongTwinRightMan,jpg

But for some reason, drat it, that didn’t quite seem to satisfy ’em. You want to know what my characters FEEL like, or what they do or think or say, no problem…but what they LOOK like? Or worse yet, what their house / dog / clothes look like? Shoot, I dunno!

Yet other writers have that same problem with dialogue. “I have no idea what these people would say.” “All my characters talk the same way.” “I wish I could do the kind of snappy dialogue you see with (fill in author).” “Why can’t I just SHOW what happens instead of having them TALK about it?”

On the positive side, when we’re bad at one of those jobs, we tend to be a lot better at the other one. No idea why, but most writers I’ve talked to about the Double D’s feel like they have a much easier time with either description or dialogue.

If you’re not sure where your strength lies, read these excerpts by two enormously popular authors and keep an eye out for what skills catch your attention:

BY JANE AUSTEN

 

“A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”

“How so? How can it affect them?”

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”

“Is that his design in settling here?”

“Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

BY J.K. ROWLING

 “You could just leave me here,” Harry put in hopefully (he’d be able to watch what he wanted on television for a change and maybe even have a go on Dudley’s computer).

“And come back and find the house in ruins?” she snarled.

“I won’t blow up the house,” said Harry, but they weren’t listening.

“I suppose we could take him to the zoo,” said Aunt Petunia slowly, “…and leave him in the car….”

“That car’s new, he’s not sitting in it alone….”

It was a very sunny Saturday and the zoo was crowded with families. The Dursleys bought Dudley and Piers large chocolate ice creams at the entrance and then, because the smiling lady in the van had asked Harry what he wanted before they could hurry him away, they bought him a cheap lemon ice pop. It wasn’t bad, either, Harry thought, licking it as they watched a gorilla scratching its head who looked remarkably like Dudley, except that it wasn’t blond.

NOTICE YOUR RESPONSE

No need to list which elements from those excerpts jump out at you — but notice how you reacted to each example of description and each example of dialogue.

Chances are that whatever had you reacting from the standpoint of a professional (“hmm, I wonder how the author did that” or “hmm, I would’ve handled this differently”) rather than the standpoint of a consumer (“sounds intriguing” or “mneh, yawn”) is likely to be the one you’re better at.

Of course, you might not even such a test-question to know which you’re better at…most writers can usually say pretty quickly whether their greater strength is in dialogue or description.

THE GOOD NEWS

LeePaulLaughingNo matter which you’re better at, either way you have a built-in advantage. Because the same strength you’ve already developed in doing what you’re good at — whether it’s  dialogue or  description — will ALSO help you with what you’re not so good at YET.

Why?cactus

Because they both require the same basic tools.

That’s what next month’s Double D’s class is about, and free registration to that four-week workshop will be a prize for somebody who answers this next question:

PRIZE-DRAWING QUESTION

Which comes more easily for YOU, description or dialogue? And do you have any favorite tips for dialogue or description that I can pass along to the class? (If you’d rather I didn’t quote what you say, just mention that in your post — thanks!)

Laurie, who can’t wait to hear the answers.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell gets a kick out of teaching writers about handy techniques — plotting, synopses, motivation, fatal flaws — and finding new areas to explore, like next month’s yahoogroups class on The Double D’s: Dynamic Description & Delicious Dialogue.

A reminder about last week’s contest, courtesy of Chuck Sambuchino: On Wednesday we’ll announce the winning commenter from Chuck’s “launch” last Wednesday. If you haven’t commented yet, you’ve got until 6:00pm. (PDT) tomorrow.

154 comments to THE TRICKY PART

  • I find dialogue the easiest – my tip – keep to the point and keep it short and keep the character’s voice.

  • denise

    I need to work on both, but I can do both.

  • lorispielman

    Great post, Laurie. I much prefer writing dialogue, and must return again and again to add description to scenes and character. I once heard that when introducing a main character, the author should choose three descriptors (e.g. hair/height/eyes, or voice/smile/physique, etc). I have no idea if that’s adequate or overkill, but I have used it. Thanks so much!

    • Lori, I like that idea of three descriptors — seems like that’s used more frequently in mysteries, where there tend to be quite a few characters to keep straight. Maybe in a book with only a few main people, the description is woven through more of the story, but on meeting half a dozen suspects or witnesses in a single chapter, it’s handy to have an easy way of remembering each one!

  • Oh Laurie, what I wouldn’t give for Double D’s! Um… your double D class, that is. 😉

    I have a very hard time with dialogue. Oh, I can get my characters to say what needs to be said, I just don’t like that they’d all say it the same way. :-/

    As for description, that’s my favorite. The tip I would give about writing description is to think deeper than the appearance of something or someone. Think about the emotional impact that appearance has, or provide a sensory detail related to that which you’re describing… something to connect the description to the story rather than have it be a paragraph of ‘tell’.

    Great post, Laurie – but then, your posts always are.

    • Debbie, I hear you on the wishing they wouldn’t all talk the same way — that’s how I feel about my descriptions; wishing everything wouldn’t sound the same way. So your tip on including the sensory detail or emotional aspect of something is a great one; thanks!

  • Dialogue seems to come easier to me, though it hasn’t always. My first ever attempt at dialogue had my mother keeling over with laughter. It was cheesy, at best, and didn’t sound anything close to what a real person might say. Thank goodness I’ve improved. (I think.)

  • I must be better at dialogue because I don’t even think about it. I just write whatever the character says in my head :-} I enjoy writing description and don’t have a problem with it . . . when I remember to do it. Since I see everything in my head, I forget the reader isn’t in there with me :-} My tip for dialogue is know your characters inside and out. Once you have that, they will speak how they speak and you can just transcribe

    • Lexi, I like the idea of transcribing dialogue…and also the danger of forgetting the reader isn’t in the same room seeing the same things, because when they’re so vivid to you it’s hard to imagine they might NOT be equally vivid to everyone else!

  • I find I don’t have a problem with either/or… is there something wrong with me? I was blessed with gifts for singing/art/writing, which obviously go a long way toward alleviating some of the frustrations of “creating”. However, when readers comment on how they love the ways I express my characters or describe things in ways that leave them feeling “there” and ask me, “How do you do that?” then I have a problem. This question is therefore one I’ve given quite some thought to, and I think I can best answer it this way. When I’m writing dialogue OR describing a setting/scene/character I put my SELF there: what does it look, feel, sound, taste like to ME; how would I act/react in this or that particular scenario if I had to deal with it; what would MY response be to what was just said by him/her if I were this particular character being addressed? Hope this is a little helpful 🙂

    • booklaurie

      Roxanne, it’s a wonderful thing to be good at both — and your experience of not being able to explain HOW you do something which just comes naturally is something that other gifted people encounter as well: “I don’t know, I just DO it.” So it’s great that you’ve figured out an explanation that’ll help other people; thanks for sharing!

      • Thanks a million Laurie, and may I add I’m so enjoying reading everyone’s input, but in particular YOUR responses to them… especially because you’re so talented at pulling out the positive to point out and because you exhibit such great ability at being encouraging, inspiring and supportive. That is soooooooo very important. I began writing, singing, painting/drawing at a very young age. (e.g. in my sophomore yr of high school my English teacher wanted to help me get a novel I’d written published.) Unfortunately I had a parent who put down everything I did, and so I became easily discouraged. It’s been an uphill battle finding my way back into accepting the creative me, but I’m doing it now… and it’s appreciative & supportive people like you who are ensuring people like me can do that. So thank you from the bottom of my heart <3

        • Oh, Roxanne, you’re VERY welcome! I love chatting with other writers; I seriously think we’re the best people in the world. (Just don’t tell my optician husband and engineer son I said that.) It wasn’t until I’d published six books that I saw the bumper sticker which changed my life: “Those who can, do. Those who believe others can ALSO do, teach.” So it’s always a treat running into people who want to learn!

        • Laurie….I promise I won’t tell 🙂 As long as you promise not to tell my college communications prof I could not gather the confidence to teach what she believed I could/should… “teaching” has never been my “thing” being the perpetual student of life I am… our private “treats in experience” through which we experience life I suppose 🙂

  • When drafting, I write “hot,” listening only to the “voices” in my head. (Writers, psychotic? Umm, methinks, yes.) Editing, I go into a “re-envisioning” state, where I am the POV, speaking, seeing where “I” am, describing. The first draft gives me gut level, instinctual material. The subsequent edits deepen the focus, staying “in character.” And by being in character, like an actor, it’s no longer a matter of getting from A to B. It’s very in the moment and hopefully the same for the reader.

    • Morgyn, isn’t it bizarre thinking what writers must seem like to NON-writers? Kind of scary! And it’s great having your first gut-level draft refined in the editing process, while staying in character AS the character…sounds like a good way of working.

  • jamiebeck

    Neither comes easily to me! LOL Ultimately, I guess I’m a bit better at description (only because I tend to revise my dialogue passages more times than the descriptive ones). I’m always envious of those who can write crisp dialogue, especially when they also write with a snappy dry wit. It takes me a few tries before I can whittle out the “clunk” in my dialogue.

    Thanks for the helpful post.

    • Jamie, good for you on figuring out what it takes to make your dialogue un-clunky! The fact that description comes more easily means you can use the skill you’ve already GOT there for crisping up the dialogue…and you’ve sure got some sweet phrases, there.

  • LeAnne Benfield Martin

    I picture everything in my head and can describe most of it, but I have a hard time making it interesting. I wonder if just more time spent on crafting and choosing the right words would help. I prefer dialogue, because it can be fresh and fun. My tip? I like dialogue that moves quickly–with shortened sentences and phrases, occasional stops and starts, blunders–whatever makes a character and a conversation sound natural. Early on, I learned to shorten the dialogue to keep the pace of the piece moving. Long passages of dialogue can quickly kill the energy of a piece and end up sounding trite, formal, or boring. And no one wants that!

    • LeAnne, you’re so right about long dialogue…no fun to read. Although for that matter, neither are long passages of description. So your technique of using shortened sentences and phrases looks like it’d apply nicely to both of the big D’s!

  • Like Alison (above), now that I have a handle on dialog, it is much easier for me. My first drafts come out like screenplays – just lines of dialog outlining the entire scene. I have a critique group partner who writes the most beautiful descriptions, so maybe we should collaborate!

    As for tips, I think just get down on paper whatever’s easiest for you. Then go back and work in the other. For me, I see the scene unfolding in my head like I’m watching a movie with a close-up on the characters, so I write what I hear them saying. Then I “make up” filler descriptions to go in between and flesh out the scene. Not sure this is a good way to do it, but it’s my current process.

  • Heather Miller

    I find dialog much easier to write. I have to make several more passes to add in description, and even then, I’m not completely satisfied with the results.

    • Heather, I’m right there with you — wouldn’t it be wonderful to jump into a blender with somebody like Suzanne’s gifted-at-description friend, and push the button? Well, except for the hassle of avoiding those choppy blades… 🙂

  • Hi Laurie. Dialogue comes pretty easy to me, description, not so much. I just hear my characters talk and I try to keep up. A couple dialogue tips that I use … Write dialogue where you don’t need tags, or can use as few as possible. The conversation should flow in such a way that the reader won’t need to be reminded constantly who is speaking. I also will write out all the words my characters are saying, back and forth like a ping pong game. Read it out loud to make sure it’s natural. Then I’ll go back and add in descriptions, actions and such.

  • Laurie – I don’t have TOO much problem with either (though I had to learn dialog – description came naturally.)

    My weakness is plotting!!!!

    • Laura, plotting is a WHOLE different ballgame — that’s where motivation comes in extremely handy. Matter of fact, I think that might be part of the LARA workshop next month? Or if not, it’ll be online next March. 🙂

  • A friend was writing a romance short story and offered me the opportunity to work with her. I told her I’d be happy to help as long as she wrote the dialogue because I couldn’t do it, which was true, at first. It wasn’t long before we had a running joke about my inability to write dialogue because it came so easily to me. I discovered one of my reader’s skips the description and only reads the dialogue. The contemporary I have coming out in December has more dialogue than any book I’ve ever written. We’ll see how it goes over.

    I also didn’t think I could right historical romance. I was wrong, again, in a great way. With description, I attempt to follow Tolkien’s example. He created his world using extensive descriptions drawing from generalizations anyone would recognize by drawing on their personal experiences. Many writers describe the scene from their point of view, i.e., the bush is on the right, and the trees are on the left. Whereas Tolkien described the towering trees blanketed in golden leaves rustling in the breeze. By the way, I read about Tolkien’s technique in an article, though I’m sorry I’m unable to site it.

    • Judy, good for you on diving into your former weak spot and coming out strong. And, wow, I love that advice from Tolkien…kind of feeds into the idea of keeping description sensory and emotional rather than (uhm) descriptive, huh?

      • His descriptions are exquisite, detailed and general at the same time. For example, he described the Shire so well that millions of people, including purists, recognized it immediately when it popped on the screen created by Peter Jackson’s movie. I re-read him periodically to help me remember how to write his way. 🙂

  • Evelyn Berry

    I guess I’m in the minority, because find description easier to write than dialogue. I feel like my dialogue sounds clunky and I’m supremely jealous of writers who write edgy/snarky and provocative dialogue (like Kresley Cole). With description, when I know which character is POV for the scene, I think what description they would notice. What stories do they tell themselves about what they’re seeing?

    • Evelyn, what a great idea putting yourself in the character’s head — it makes sense that one might notice the scent in the air while another might notice the location of the nearest fire extinguisher. And then taking that into the stories they tell themselves gives it a whole ‘nother layer of depth!

  • Hi Laurie – Great post!

    I spaced out on dearest Jane. Probably wouldn’t have if the bit been written from Mr. Bennett’s POV, as he watched his wife bustle off down the hall, frantically waving her arms over the next new item to grab her attention.

    When I read JK’s descriptive bit, I wanted to edit it.

    What does this say about me? (other than I’m probably certifiable)

    Best,
    Nina

    • Nina, I’d say you’re an editor at heart — no wonder you do such a great job of creating covers that reflect the book!

      • Thanks Laurie! I do enjoy designing covers, and writing copy, and making ebooks, and promoting ebooks, and sending royalty checks to my authors. Someday, I’ll finish the stories you and Sherrie Holmes helped me start. But for now…. 🙂

  • Hi! I enjoyed reading this post. I think I’m better at dialogue because I don’t do a ton of description when it comes to scenery and such. I give the reader a taste of what the surroundings look like but don’t delve too much into it. I think that’s because I don’t like reading numerous sentences describing what rooms and gardens look like so that’s how I write. I’m really working hard right now on my wip to make each person’s dialogue unique. What a job!

    • Patty, you’re so right about it being tricky to make every character sound like a completely different person when they’re talking…especially if, for instance, they’re brothers who’ve grown up in the same household / town / era. There are a couple of little techniques that make it easier, but it sure isn’t a piece of cake right off the bat.

  • I like dialog, that is how I am able to insert humor in to my novel. Kail

    • Kail, dialogue is a wonderful way of getting humor in — once in a while, I’ve laughed at a description but that’s extremely rare; whereas dialogue has all kinds of opportunities for humor. Fun stuff!

  • I am so much better with dialogue. I like to read what I wrote out loud in “character.” That helps me mostly.

    • Jen, if you ever get tired of writing or just want to branch out, you’d be wonderful as a voiceover talent! I’m always so impressed with people who can read in character…to me, that’s the hardest part of narrating at Recording For The Blind, making everybody sound different. So having it come naturally is a real gift.

  • Dialogue comes naturally to me. After my first few rounds of editing, I have to deliberately go in and add areas of description. I can describe the sounds and smells okay, but I’m horrible at describing things like what the interior of a house looks like. On the flipside, my critique group says my dialogue is my strength. When I’m writing I picture my characters speaking as if watching them on a movie screen. In later edits I will fix inconsistencies in their voices.

    • Kelly, it’s impressive that (even while being better at dialogue) you can describe sounds and smells — I think most people are better at visual description, so a lot of them would love to tap into your skill-set!

  • I find that dialogue is easiest for me. I listen to what my characters say and I write it down. Often I will write a scene with dialog only and then add in the rest of the scene.

  • After reading this post, I’m completely bummed that I can’t win. The Double D class sounds marvelous, Laurie. Thanks for posting with us here at WITS!

    • Jenny, I’m bummed that you can’t win, too…not even if random-dot-org spits out your number from the lineup of everyone who answered? But if you want to get into the class anyway, you still can over at WriterUniv dot com — it’d be fun to see you there!

      • Nope. WITS founders can’t win, which bums us out often. And I will go check out the class. Thanks, Laurie! I haven’t seen you since I coordinated The Charlotte (formerly known as the Orange Rose contest).

        • Oh, wow, I’ll bet there’s a GREAT story behind the name change…although it caught me by surprise because I’d just been emailing a friend named Charlotte and wondered how on earth she got involved in the Orange Rose contest! Um, never mind. 🙂

  • I love writing dialogue and hate doing descriptions. My first drafts are usually lines of untagged dialogue. I sometimes feel like I’m just transcribing what I hear in my head and I love it when a character just blurts out something and surprises me. 🙂

    I’m having trouble writing some action sequences in my current romantic suspense. One of my critique partners suggested having my characters tell me what happened since I am so good at dialogue. Then go back and turn dialogue into descriptive passages. Have to say, I am tempted to try it. 🙂

  • Thanks, Laurie!
    Description is much easier for me. To brush up on my dialogue skills, I read lots of plays and tried to do scenes with just dialogue first, then put in emotions and descriptions.

    • Debbie, all the dialogue-easier people would love to trade places with you. 🙂 And it’s intriguing, hearing that BOTH those who find description easier and those who find it harder meet with success when typing the dialogue first — who would’ve guessed?

  • When I first began writing I went to pick blueberries at a public blueberry patch. Standing between rows in the blistering sun, I began to hear different conversations between the pickers. A mother trying to corral her kids and keep them interested in the task at hand. Two women cussing and discussing the struggles of single living after being dumped for another woman. An older couple as they talked about their grandchildren. My ears received a rebirth that day. I tell my students to go to a coffee shop and write what they hear. It’s a great way to learn dialogue.
    As for the visual description, I pretend I’m the movie camera’s lense. I let my reader see only what i want them to see and hear. The rest is not important.

    • Sally, wow, two great tips! I’m impressed with how vividly you described the blueberry-picking scene; it sure sounds like an excerpt from a book that leaves me wanting to know more about these people. And the camera lens is a great idea; I remember some teacher saying he told his students that all they needed was an empty toilet paper roll…all they had to describe was what they could see through it.

  • Great post Laurie! Thanks!
    Writing dialogue is my favorite.
    I find it especially entertaining to read dialogue where the characters intentionally avoid saying what they mean. Gotta love tricky dialogue. Equally entertaining is dialogue that reveals character and plot as in your WONDERFUL Rowling example.
    I tend to go was too poetic on my descriptive passages. Read too much Dickens as a kid. That’s where I need to put in some study.
    Thank you for the stimulating post.

    • Kathleen, what a cool insight on having your descriptive style influenced by Dickens — I’ll bet there aren’t many authors who can say that! Although if tastes ever swing back toward his side of the pendulum, you’ll have an enormous advantage right from the start.

  • Janet Ch.

    a great post that really made me think.
    I’m better at dialogue. Description is tricky (as rather than a straight forward description of what something or someone or a place looks like it’s the POV character’s emotional reaction to the setting or person object being described that’s important –at least that’s what Donald Maas tells us in “Fire In Fiction”.
    For contemporary dialogue i find it helpful to watch the soaps — the speech patterns tend seep into your subconscious ready to come out as dialogue when you write your own stuff 🙂

    • Janet, what fun to have a reason for watching soaps other than just daytime entertainment — it sounds like a kick to sit there with a cup of tea and announce grandly to anyone who wanders past, “I’m extremely busy doing my research.” 🙂

  • Jessica S.

    I think I’d say that I am more comfortable with dialog. Don’t get me wrong, I love to write description but I worry over just how much information is too much? I fight to find the balance of what is important or interesting, not to mention relevant, without dragging down the pacing or losing the reader in minutiae. In that way, creating the conversation between characters feels a little easier but it does have its challenges too – making the dialog believable and the voice unique to each character is a skill in its own right. I so admire the people who are adept at both!

    • Jessica, good point about how much is too much — that question could apply both to dialogue and description, because you’re right about how tricky it can be to split the difference between What’s Important and What’s Minutieae. Either way, that’s a fine line to walk!

  • What a great question! Dialogue comes first, with my characters being, basically, talking heads in a white room. It’s the way I get into the scene. The way I latch onto their emotions. I used to think there was something in-artful about the way I wrote, but I’ve come to understand that each of us has our process. So I write dialogue, sometimes using tags, more often not.

    • Terrel, you’re sure not alone in using those talking heads in a white room — which is a fabulous phrase; I love it. And I’ll bet all the writers who find description a lot easier than dialogue are already thinking as they read that process of getting into the scene, “wow, what an artful way to work.”

  • I definitely struggle with dialogue. Sometimes looking back over conversations I’ve constructed for my characters reminds me of the children’s book “Fun with Dick and Jane”. “See spot run?” Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I’m sure your get the idea.

    Thanks for another great post! 🙂

    • Wendy, I see what makes you better at description — that whole idea of reading a conversation out of Dick and Jane is wonderfully vivid! Come to think of it, those of us who struggle with description would probably envision ours in that same book: “Dick and Jane lived in a house. It was blue.”

  • I’m actually fine at both–but I can only do one at a time. I’ll generally write all the dialogue for a scene, then go back and put in the description. Or I’ll write the narrative I need to set up a scene, then switch. But doing both–it’s worse than trying to pat your head and rub your stomach!

    • Good thought, Shannon — I like your pat-head-rub-stomach comparison, and never thought about it in relation to doing description & dialogue both at the same time. Which makes it all the more impressive when somebody not only does ’em both well, but does ’em both at once!

  • A year ago I would have said description. I worked on a story for several years and it was quite descriptive. I think I’ll go with dialogue because I’m starting to become stronger in that area. I feel a book with great delicious dialogue compels me to keep reading.

    • And, shoot, I should’ve kept reading before responding a couple posts ago — but good for you on strengthening your dialogue skills when you’ve already gotten experience with description. Probably every reader has different preferences for dialogue or description, but I’m with you in preferring dialogue…well, except when I read some fabulous description. 🙂

  • Louis

    I find description easier because it’s all in one voice, mine. With dialogue it has to be varied based on which character speaks the lines but description can be (and should be) consistent all the way through.

  • Hi Laurie! Dialogue comes easier for me, probably because of the time I spent learning to write screenplays. But I do enjoy writing description, too. PS This sounds like a wonderful class!

    • Cathryn, writing screenplays seems like the perfect background for dialogue — even though there’s SOME description there, you sure don’t need as much as for a book. But your books have plenty of good description, too, so go figure. 🙂

  • I am much better at dialogue, although Margie’s class on Visceral responses has my description. So when I write dialogue, it’s like having a conversation in my head:)

    • Anna, a conversation in your head makes perfect sense — what’s not to love about chatting with yourself? Because all the characters really ARE us in some way, right? Even (although I hate to admit it) some element of the dastardly villain…

  • Heather Jackson

    Interesting exercise because, as usual, I’m backwards. I noticed the setting more, though I’m hands down better at writing dialogue. Two fellow writers in my critique group write such beautiful description, it’s amazing. One I’d actually describe as poetic. Which of course makes me notice the lack of such in my writing even more. I think I do okay with description – when I remember to put it in. Going back later and trying to add it is largely a bust for me because it’s hard to find a place to put description in where it won’t feel contrived. Part of my problem is that I write in first person, so if my character isn’t the type to notice their surroundings much, I feel like a fake putting much in because it doesn’t seem real. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that one of my two viewpoint characters notices her environment much more, so I try to content myself with what occurs in her chapters and not worry about it so much. I figure whether a reader likes description, dialogue or both, it’s on a spectrum, so as long as I don’t get somebody way on the setting side, hopefully my story is strong enough to pull them along anyway.

    My advice on writing dialogue is to really know your character. That way, even if you mess up on the first draft, you’ll catch it on the edit because it won’t sound right.

    • Heather, I like your idea of fitting any descriptions in while you’re writing from the viewpoint of a character who DOES tend to notice such things. I remember making one hero a photographer, figuring he’d have to be aware of how things looked…but, drat it, for some reason I never even thought of pitching a series where every hero was a photographer. Hmph.

  • I tend to be better at description than dialogue. Or at least that is more comfortable for me. I was scared of writing dialogue, so I took a course on it several years ago. I surprised myself by finding that I really could write dialogue once I got past the fear and am now comfortable with it. However, my tendency is to want to describe a scene fully and since I write mysteries, I have to watch how much description I use so I don’t slow down the plot. It’s helped me write the description tighter and more concisely.

    • Barbara, your description is downright lyrical — I see why you have to keep an eye on it when making sure the plot doesn’t slow down, but it’s lucky for your readers that the mysteries are set in such intriguing places!

  • Riley

    I don’t really think about either, they kind of just come out of my fingers. So I don’t really know which one I’m better at. Though I always know exactly what my characters look like.

    • Riley, I’m just gonna hazard a guess here that, even though they both feel comfortable, the fact that you always know what your characters look like means you’re a visual type of person. (You know how they talk about people who learn visually, aurally or kinesthetically?) Being able to see things with no special effort is VERY handy for description, and being able to do dialgue easily as well is a lovely bonus.

  • Loved the blog Laurie. I think my weakness would be description. Dialogue comes more naturally. My descriptions aren’t bad when I’m done but they don’t just pop out at me. We had an actor at our OCC meeting once who helped a lot though. We watched her “show” character personalities by body languare, accents etc. So now I try to imagine how an actor would act out my character. Of course that doesn’t help much to describe scenery. Looking for the National Geographic now …. 🙂

    • LOL on the National Geographic — my grandfather used to save those magazines, and I regret not having kept them because it’d sure be fun to see what was in ’em. Somehow Google Earth doesn’t seem quite as wonderful, maybe because the photos don’t include an art director making everything look fascinating…

  • Laurie, I just pulled a few out of the spam filter, so you might want to start from the top one time to be sure you responded to everyone. Thanks so much! You’re a wonderful guest. 🙂

  • I think description is easier most of the time. However, I usually have to make a couple of revisions before I get all the “vomit draft” garbage out of the way. 🙂

    • Diana, anybody who can come up with phrases like “vomit draft” garbage has to be a MASTER of description! Or, well, I guess that’d be equally vivid in dialogue…but I think of writers who are especially good with The Perfect Illustration as being those who are best at description.

  • I love writing descriptions, especially about natural settings, but have a lot of fun with dialog as well. Dialog came relatively easily for me I believe because I’ve been a linguist/translator most of my career and have devoted a lot of time to listening to how people phrase things and the words they choose. “Eavesdropping” on conversations where ever you go is also great language research. It also helps to read your dialog out loud and ask yourself, “Do people really talk like that?”

    • Oh, wow, it’s hard to imagine a better background for dialogue than being a translator — talk about a perfect opportunity to not only listen to what people say, but how they say it! And eavesdropping is fun; even when it’s just one person chatting into their phone…who presumably doesn’t care that everyone in the vicinity can hear.

  • Varina M.

    I feel more comfortable with description than dialogue. If I’m not careful, all my characters speak the same. I have to work consciously at differentiating their speech, coming up with words they tend to lean on a lot, and with having them speak in sentences of different length and pacing, depending on their personality. I have an especially hard time including taciturn characters who answer little or nothing in words, when someone else tries talking with them. I do have one problem common to both double Ds, though, putting in too many words and having to cut them back.
    Sometimes my characters talk all over the place. Rereading, I get lost in rambling dialogue and wonder what to cut. I finally realized, when dealing with this problem in a scene last year, that I could clip some of the excess dialogue if I reminded myself not only of the characters’ main goals or scene goals but also of their big secrets that I may not have revealed to readers yet, and how those secrets, goals, etc. color their view of what has just happened and what they are talking about. That and keeping in mind the main source of conflict between the characters in a conversation helps me trim some and add some body language. Still, honing dialogue is harder work than describing my characters or some of the props. Also knowing when to have actual dialogue or when to summarize a conversation sometimes puzzles me, too, like knowing when to play out a full scene and when to gloss over what happened quickly, because the reader needs to know the gist of what happened or of what was said but doesn’t need to hear all those words or see every action.

    • Varina, what a great tip on keeping in mind the Scene Goal and the Character Secret — that’s a sure way to punch up the most important part of the dialogue. And you’re right about finding the balance between summarizing or actually showing a conversation…where, as with description, it all comes down to “how much depth does the reader NEED on this?” (Although sometimes it’s tempting to give ’em more than they need, especially if you’re not worried about length.)

  • Dialogue. Absolutely. I really suck at description. I thought about screenwriting for a while, because one of the advantages is that other people get to worry about sets and wardrobe and the like. My first drafts tend to be sans description. Kind of like Owen in “Throw Momma From The Train”: “The guy in the hat kills the other guy in the hat.”

  • Dialogue comes much easier to me than description, and my beta readers/critique partners/writers’ group peeps say I’m pretty good at it. Description is one of the most painful parts of writing for me. To make sure my dialogue sounds natural, I always read it out loud. If my tongue stumbles over it, it won’t sound natural to a reader, either.

    • Linda, I used to think reading dialogue aloud was misleading because while it SOUNDS fine to hear “Getting through the trough was tough, though” it LOOKS terrible to read. But ever since discovering how handy a read-aloud is for spotting typos, I’ve become a big fan!

  • Wow, I feel like a wuss heading off to bed this early — it’s only 8pm here in Phoenix, but it’s been a looooong (and very fun!) day. I’ll enjoy checking back over the next couple days, because you WITS readers are coming up with such fascinating material…I don’t want to miss any of it. 🙂

  • Hmmm…good question. I would probably go with description BUT…I’ve always been trained to view description with great suspicion. Show don’t tell, right? So I’ve trained myself over the years to make it happen rather then describe it; to have characters say it, rather than letting the narrator speak.

    But I can’t help it! Even where I have dialogue going on, I’m always adding the descriptive details. I try to keep them short and unobtrusive but they’re there nevertheless. That said, I’ve just realised my soon-to-be-published novel has very little describing my main character! I haven’t a clue what she looks like! Time for a quick re-write I think…

    • Ken, it’s all the more impressive being good at description when you can keep the details short and unobtrusive — that’s a real art! And, whew, good thing there’s time to go back and add a bit more about your main character…can you cheat by sneaking a peek at the book cover for an idea of what she looks like? 🙂

  • I’m late to the party! Sorry. Great post Laurie.
    I love writing both dialogue and description but dialogue is probably easier thanks to all those little voices chatting away. 🙂

  • leave the MS for six months: the stunted dialogue and cold description JUMP out: easy to cut and the additions are simple words, usually one at a time

    • Rodney, I’m always impressed with people who can leave a story alone for six months — even six weeks (or sometimes six days!) is impressive. But you’re so right about what a great perspective that provides; there’s nothing like a bit of distance.

  • Laurie,

    As a screenwriter first before a novelist, my dialogue is better than my description. In screenwriting so much is left up to the director as to what he wants the environment to look like – and the actors don’t want to be told how to act.

    But I am currently working on a novel so the timing of your post is nice. It motivates me to work harder at my descriptions. Thank you.

    • Michael, I’ll bet a lot of novelists would jump at the chance to trade places with you — the idea of letting a director and actor handle those pesky descriptions is extremely tempting. But good for you on recognizing what’ll need a bit more work…who knows, maybe your novel will become a movie and the director will just have to live with the descriptions you used!

  • Laurie,

    My novel is an adaptation of a screenplay that some producers enjoyed, but it has a woman as the lead character and that can be tough to get funding for in a feature film. So I’m writing it as a novel and enjoying it much.

  • I really enjoy writing dialogue, and I’ve been told it’s my strongest point. When writing it, I can see the conversation in my mind. I try to make sure every character has a definitive voice.
    As for description, even though I can see it in my mind, I have trouble finding the words, or I just gloss over it. Thanks to my CPs who push and prod me into describing the scene better.

    • Ella, it makes sense that your strongest point is something you really enjoy doing — kind of a chicken-and-egg scenario; who knows which came first? And it’s great that you can see the settings / people / etc in your mind, even if the description is harder to write, because at least you’ve got something to draw on!

  • Anna Stein

    Hi Laurie!
    Description is one of the hardest things for me. As a reader, I find I’m prone to skim over long stretches of description – unless action and description are integrated or description carries subtext. As a writer, I haven’t a clue as to ‘how much is too much’. I am mortified by the ‘Who Cares?’ aspect. One trick that helps me is using verbs instead of piling up adjective after adjective when describing something… something like, ‘Her black hair curled and bounced around her shoulders’ instead of ‘She had long, black, curly, bouncy hair’.

    • Anna, you’ve got me wincing at the idea of “Who Cares?” — talk about horrifying! But I love your trick of using verbs in the description; that sounds so simple and yet it’s something that never occurred to me (or, I suspect, to a lot of other writers who have a tough time with description).

  • Sharon Levi

    I love reading descriptive prose. As long as the author made choices (she didn’t describe Everything) and she’s not simply showing off (which is easy to spot), then I’m all for description. I used it a lot in my first book, then someone in my critique group said, “Good grief! What a whole lot of stuff to ignore, I just want to get to the action.” It put me off so much the next book was all action and dialogue and no description. My editor wasn’t pleased. I guess a pleasant balance is the goal. The only trouble I have with writing dialogue is making sure not every character sounds the same.

    • Sharon, it’s impressive that you can do BOTH of the big D’s to the point where people say “that’s enough; I want more of the other.” Even though you might need to worry about striking a pleasant balance, at least you’ll never have to worry about acquiring the skill to do description or dialogue. 🙂

  • Abigail Shelley

    Laurie,
    I don’t write setting as easily as I write dialogue, at least not in the first draft. But whichever it is I am focusing on, it does help to know your characters inside-out. Ibsen used to say about writing plays, that in the first draft your characters are strangers. In the second draft they are friends, and by the third they are close family. What I try to do, for what it’s worth, is imagine the story through my character’s eyes, imagine their emotions tied to particular events and settings. Does the character prefer sunny days or rainy ones? How does the car (or the beach, or whatever) strike the character? That helps me do a better job with both dialogue and setting.

    • Abigal, what a wonderful piece of advice from Ibsen — and another one from you! (Okay, so how often in your career have you been praised in the same review as Ibsen?) For me, getting to know the characters intimately is the most enjoyable part of pre-writing…or I guess it could just as well be the best part of writing, depending on when it happens.

  • Paula Harvey

    I think good dialogue isn’t just about what the characters say. It’s also about what you write between their words. Without that, dialogue is like a tennis match—he said this, then she said that, then he said this—back and forth, back and forth, without giving the reader the benefit of contextual details. This is where it gets tough for me—using dialogue to convey descriptive details. Dialogues morph into info dumps. I attempt to get out of this by writing the story through dialogue first, then editing out all the superfluous chatter, replacing it with narrative and subtext.

    • Paula, what a great idea to take your “radio script” and then — instead of adding the narrative & subtext — use it to replace whatever chatter could just as well be cut. You’re right that without such a step, you could very well wind up with a tennis match…and while those are entertaining in bursts, a whole page would get pretty tiresome!

  • Lisa H

    Laurie,
    I get stuck with getting the balance right, 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. Between the two, I find dialogue easier to write.
    Most important dialogue tip I ever received was: Eavesdrop! In real life, people don’t tell one another things they both already know. If David says, “Bob, when are you leaving for work at the Aviva Life Insurance office?” and they both work there, it’s far more plausible that David would say, “When are you leaving for work?” Oh, and people in conversation rarely call one another by name (unless it’s your mom and then when you hear your full name you know you’re in deep trouble!).
    Many writers think that giving a character an accent or a drawl is a great way to make the character come to life—and it can be. But if done in a way that is too heavy handed it can turn your character into a stereotype or a joke. My last attempt at fiction: the story was fine, the plot and conflict more than adequate, but all the characters sounded like the Queen!
    Take Care,
    Lisa

    • Lisa, you’re SO right about how unrealistic it gets when characters repeatedly use each other’s name…I cringe whenever I see a conversation that includes more than one such usage. Well, unless it’s a group of people all chatting, in which case it makes sense to say “Ann, do you agree with Bob?” “Carl and Diane, what do you think?” but otherise — ugh.

  • Amber Sullivan

    I personally worry that my characters talk too much but it seems to be the way I show their personalities and such. About 75% dialogue, 25% description. To be honest, I’m way better at the former than I am at the latter, as you can clearly tell. The banter is my favorite because that’s where strong characterization really pays off.

    • Amber, it makes sense to use your strongest skill to deliver the characterization. I’m always amazed by writers who can deliver it through EITHER description or dialogue, but those are few and far between…most of us are a lot better at one than the other!

  • Evelyn Burns

    I guess it’s easier for me to write description than dialogue. I have to write out the description first, and then go back and figure out how to change a lot of it into dialogue. If I didn’t do it that way I’d get stuck, and never get anything done.

  • Connie Strickland

    I don’t like having big chunks of description at all, although if I do have to provide information, I try to relay it through dialogue just because I feel more comfortable writing dialogue than not. Usually I avoid great chunks altogether. I like Hemingway’s iceberg theory — give the reader one tenth of what they need to know and let them figure the rest out for themselves. I think weaving descriptions and information together with thoughts, feelings, actions, etc. is the best way to go, especially because a lot of that information can be harvested from said thoughts, feelings, actions etc. For example, instead of describing something as frightening, show the character crapping their pants in terror.

    • Connie, that Hemingway iceberg theory is wonderful — I’m impressed whenever I see that done in a movie, and never thought about how it can work equally well in a book. I’ve always loved author Kris Kennedy’s observation, “The reader isn’t stupid,” and love it when a writer trusts me to figure out the other 90% by presenting the first 10.

  • Gianna Boyd

    Dialogue!! My first draft is practically a screenplay. Then I go back and add the texturing. For me, the ideal scenario is when the dialogue does all three: describes an aspect of the scene and the character and moves the story along emotionally as well.

    • Gianna, isn’t it a treat when the dialogue delivers on all three fronts? Usually when I’m reading it, I don’t even stop to notice the exquisite skill because the author has me SO engrossed in the story, but looking at it later (after seeing how the story turns out) it’s a marvel…like one of those amazing machines that do 48 things in perfect sequence. 🙂

  • Melanie Crawford

    I am such a sensory person. I love incorporating senses into my books. Describing things is one of the greatest delights of writing. It is also my biggest whammy. Sometimes I end up with such long strings of adjectives to cover all the sensual bases, it gets in the way of letting the image form naturally in the reader’s mind. My CP says my writing sometimes sounds like a travel brochure !!!

    • Melanie, you might want to set up a sideline career as a travel writer — that’s always sounded like such a fun job! And your awareness of sensory detail is a real gift when it comes to description, although it’s always tough cutting material out of ANY area that gets too long. Still, I think of cutting as easier than padding. 🙂

  • Hi Laurie, great post 🙂 I’ve been told that both my dialogue and descriptions are good, and I have fun with each. My trick to dialogue is to try to really focus and stay in that character’s head while I’m writing. My trick to descriptions is to write only about half of what I’m tempted to put down 🙂

    • Varina M.

      Amen, Ruthie and others. Balance appears to be the key here. The comments which seem to imply that description was bad or superfluous, or which confused vague statements about abstractions (like “She was happy,”) with description, bothered me. Bad description is bad, but description itself isn’t. (Describing the setting isn’t telling rather than showing, IMHO, and even if it is, you can carry “Show, don’t tell,” too far; there’s a time to tell.)
      Forgive me if this appeared in an early comment that I missed, but when Laurie gave her Double-D presentation once as a one-hour workshop, a participant said that her critique partner responded to her lack of description amid dialogue with the question, “Are your characters sitting naked in the middle of nowhere?” You can’t fit all description (and I’m iffy about whether you can fit most of it) in dialogue without the dialogue maybe becoming odd and unreal–unless you’re amazingly skilled. If both characters see something, they won’t describe it a lot to each other, and I remember a writing magazine article contrasting dialogue where a man told a woman he loved the way the evening light played on her blond hair and made it shine versus a semi-articulate–more realistic for most men I know–statement from the same man. I want to see and feel and hear and smell and taste your setting. Yes, an over-long passage of description with nothing happening can grow dull, but I want enough. I don’t want it left *too much* to my imagination. And I can’t rely on the cover of the book, because talking books and most Braille books have no cover pictures, and if they did, I wouldn’t see them. Give my imagination enough to build on–and give me lively dialogue too.

    • Ruthie, what a great trick for a writer who’s good at description — putting about half is a brilliant way to keep it about right. And I suspect that could be true for those of us who tend to rely too heavily on dialogue, as well!

  • […] now, for the winner of last Friday’s THE TRICKY PART contest: Congratulations to Evelyn Berry, the winner of Laurie Schnebly Campbell‘s writing […]

  • Scot. McArthur

    Thanx for a great post n the many comments : I recently read a good article dealing with description n more- It suggested editing; taking out or shortening adjectives n adverbs, then building dialogue for characters that put across some of the same or similar action(s) through building of dialogue – I’m new at truly getting going but I am going to give that a try . . .
    Thank you again . . .