Description and Dialogue

The question of balancing description, dialogue, and narration in a novel is one I ask myself frequently, whether I’m drafting a manuscript or going back through and editing it.

My propensity is to write long, intricate paragraphs of description about physical locations, internal emotions, and feelings. I blame my steady diet of old books throughout most of my reading life. As a young teen, I distinctly remember reading books like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White for fun on vacation, and in college I was introduced to authors like Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. In grad school, I took whole classes on overlong genres such as gothic literature (Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer probably took the prize for “most in need of a contemporary editor”).

Since I typically write in speculative genres, I do think I get a little more leeway for being description heavy, given the need for world-building. Although to be honest, it’s been a hot minute since I’ve written strictly in a high fantasy world. My last couple of projects have been alternate history or closely modeled on real world times/places, but even so I think description is a key element for immersing readers in a setting that is very unlike their day-to-day world.

I tend to be less apologetic about describing internal emotions and feelings. I know the prevailing wisdom is “show, don’t tell” (which I generally agree with), and the dominance of film and TV has clearly affected how “cinematic” writing has become. (The visually spectacular magic systems of Brandon Sanderson come to mind.) However, the “space” and ability to plumb internal thoughts and feelings is a distinct advantage that writing has over film, and I think it would be a mistake to give up this advantage in an attempt to make books more like movies. For example, trying to make a film version of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves would necessarily have to leave out at least three-fourths of the book. Different media come with different strengths simply by means of how they work.

This same problem—which I think, boiled down, is a question of pacing—comes up for me when I’m writing narrative passages. Techniques like indirect dialogue or telling (instead of showing!) allow writers to quickly give a broad-strokes overview of someone’s backstory, or perhaps a summary of a conversation or a month in the protagonist’s life. It all depends on how well written the telling is, of course, but it seems like it would be a shame to try to accomplish the same work through dialogue or showing just because that would be “better” writing.

Speaking of dialogue, I think I’ve left it for last because, honestly, dialogue scares me most of the time. I usually feel like all of my characters sound exactly the same, and no one would talk like that anyway, and it’s all stilted, and clearly I know nothing about human psychology. It took me about 90,000 words into the current project I’m cowriting with my sister to feel confident about how the main characters talk to each other. Typically I feel more sure-footed about dialogue in the second or third draft, but I never feel as comfortable in dialogue as I do in description.

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