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  • Writer's pictureT.J. Chamberlain

Dialogue and Description

One of the questions we always seem to get as writers is get is whether we're better at writing dialogue or...all that other stuff. For most of my life, my go-to answer was always description. I like writing it more than dialogue, and it was the thing I generally got the most praise for when I was still learning. But as time passed, I found that that’s not exactly true. See, dialogue and description are the two things that make up the whole story, but they typically can’t function on their own. Even in scripts, there are stage directions and set descriptions. Most would say that a novel without dialogue is, well, boring.

So, why do we pit them against each other?

They are two pieces of one whole. Therefore, sort of like puzzle pieces, it tracks that they should seamlessly fit together. It takes some readjusting sometimes, but you can always get there! Rather than seeing dialogue as “black” and description as “white,” I propose that we look at them both as “grey.” Here are some tips to get you used to that mindset, and some examples from my novel Of Storm and Ash that will hopefully convey those messages!

Drop the quotation marks

How do you tell when someone is speaking? Well, when there are quotation marks around the words, obviously. But there are so many instances where we don’t use them at all. Think about internal monologue, often shown through the use of italics. Or, there was one thing I really loved about The Handmaid’s Tale: the occasionally jarring changes in dialogue—often, there was dialogue written as normal, but the only thing missing was the quotation marks. It made those sections stick out more, in my opinion. These are just a couple hopefully familiar examples, but hopefully they’re showing that dialogue is not all about the punctuation.

So, rather than practicing it as if it is, the best way to improve is to get rid of those marks altogether.

You can write your characters’ thoughts out. You can just write dialogue as you normally would, only omitting the quotation marks. You can do letters passed between characters. But one thing all of these have in common is that rather than writing what you’re thinking, you’re focussing on how your character would say it. You have a voice in your writing, but this is your character’s voice. What makes them unique, especially around your other characters.

Hopefully what I’m showing in this example is clear! These words are, in this specific point, a memory of my narrator, but the tone shifts dramatically from the paragraph before the words themselves.

But it was a weak argument, and she knew it. What felt like a very long time ago, Poseidon had said something similar to what Ada was suggesting now. When the sky had still been drenched in its dreadful grey, before they had had any solid answer on how to restore it to its regular hue, he had said—
I just’s sort of sad, isn’t it?

Your voice vs. your character’s voice

Voice is unique to every single writer. It’s sort of like our writing fingerprint! But when you’re writing about people, your voice isn’t the only one that needs to come across. In my novel, my main character is very smart. She’s a total know-it-all, actually. Her companions often get annoyed with her, because she has a tendency to be condescending. When I speak to others, I’m fully conscious of how I come across to them, something Nerissa very much is not. So, while I know how I would say what she’s trying to get across, I have to instead consider how she would say it. Having this attention to those details—the specific words she would use, the lack of lazy pronunciations or the degree of formality she would hold in her words, etc.—is one thing that keeps my voice and hers separate. But, as she is my POV character, there are areas in the narration where her voice has to come through, too. So, we’re not vying for control of the story. Rather, we’re sharing it!

I chose these passages to hopefully show what I mean by this! Nerissa is my partner in telling this story, but, at the end of the day, I am the one truly telling it. The only time her words are genuinely, 100% her own is when they are caught between a set of quotation marks. Here I'm describing something she's seeing:

She ached to reach out and touch them. Though the statues had now been standing here for five hundred twenty-seven years, their stone shone brilliantly beneath the dull artificial lights hanging above the square. At their bases were golden plaques detailing their legacy, the impact they had had on this village.

But this is how she actually speaks about those things:

"Aren’t they beautiful?" Nerissa gushed, dragging a reluctant Emmet closer. "I feel like I know exactly what sort of people they were, just from this. It’s masterful, really. You know, Achté—the sand guy? His grandfather designed them. Isn’t that amazing?"

Her interest isn't on what they look like from an aesthetic sense. She's interested in their history, and how the way they've been carved translates that. It becomes my job, then, to fill in the gaps she doesn't care to herself. Because those aesthetic details will help the things she's saying make sense!

Dialogue tags

Everyone has heard it. Everyone. The worst writing advice, in my opinion, ever:

“Said is dead.”

Are there better alternatives to “said”? Absolutely. But when is it best to use that alternative, and best to not? Well, that’s totally up to you. It’s part of your style. I think it’s bad advice because it’s not objective in the slightest. Dialogue tags have a certain responsibility in your work. Speaking generally, they’re almost exclusively transitionary. Always prefaced or followed by a quotation mark and a comma. But, like all the words under your command, that’s your choice to make. Their function can be whatever you want it to be. It holds the weight of your character’s voice, and propels it into the following narration. Similarly, it identifies a speaker when perhaps the speech itself wouldn’t be enough to (though, when it comes to developing unique voices amongst your characters, a great trick is to write something like a script, without any tags to guide you as to who’s saying what!). As readers, we actually get a lot from dialogue tags! Tags aren’t always necessary to indicate these things, though. Tone will always carry through your words so long as the choices are deliberate.

Here, I chose a section that I feel emphasizes the different facets of one of my secondary characters, in a nice contrast to Nerissa. Her words, in my opinion, become less important than the way she speaks them and her own non-verbal responses.

Upon entering the infirmary, she was immediately greeted by Ada.'
"Good morning," she chirped. "You had breakfast, didn’t you?"
Nerissa raised an eyebrow at her. "Why does it matter?"
"Because I’m a healer, so it’s my job to make sure you’re healthy." Ada’s smile had fallen, and she was now watching Nerissa through narrowed eyes. "You look like you haven’t slept a wink."

The Takeaway?

Above all, my primary tip would be to just stopping considering dialogue and description as inherently separate. They work together—the same way you, the writer, work with your narrating character. It’s all to tell one, whole, seamless story.

There are thousands of other tips out there, I’m sure, about this very same topic. Everyone is different, and certain tricks will work better for some than it will for others!

Please feel free to share any of your own tips! And if you try these ones and feel they help, do let me know!

Thanks for reading!

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