Monday, June 13, 2016

How to Weave Description Into Dialogue

Hey guys! It’s actually me, Faith, again! Sorry it’s been so long.

Too often, I open these blog posts by bashing my lack of experience in writing. (Today I’m bashing the frequency of my bashes.) So today, I’m going to talk about something a friend of mine recently complimented me on -- weaving description into dialogue!

Dialogue is my baby. My chosen child. My firstborn...okay, never mind. You get the point -- I love it. The best stories are character driven, and what better way for characters to drive a story than by speaking? Plays make full use of this -- after all, the characters aren’t doing anything BUT speaking. Of course, they’re also acting on a stage with a set, and that’s where the description comes in. A writer’s job is to make the reader feel as if he or she is right there with your characters. What better way to do that than painting a picture of the character’s surroundings as he argues, compliments, or soliloquizes?

Tip #1 - Forget Dialogue Tags
Oh, the age-old argument comes back to bite us. Use said! Never use said! Only use said! Use adverbs! No, never use them willingly! Use exclaimed! That’s cheesy! Oh my goodness, just STOP ARGUING, guys. In my humble opinion, dialogue reads a lot more naturally when tags are hardly there at all. For example, you could write an exchange like this:

“Bill!” Martha exclaimed. She dropped the keys on the table. “Did you buy bananas?”
“No,” Bill grumbled. “I was busy.”
“But the neighbors’ pet monkey is starving! It wants to eat my dog!” Martha yelled.

Or you could write it like this:

“Bill!” Martha dropped the keys on the table. “Did you buy bananas?”
“No.” Bill hardly glanced up from the stack of junk mail advertising Justin Bieber's new single. “I was busy.”
“But the neighbors’ pet monkey is starving!” Martha swept the envelopes off the table, enveloping Bill in a flurry of pubescent faces. She planted her nose an inch from her husband’s moustache. “It wants to eat my dog!”

...Okay, I might have gotten a little carried away there. Point is, the dialogue tags in the first example don’t add anything to the story. We know Martha exclaimed -- after all, there’s an exclamation point within the quotes! Bill grumbling and Martha yelling both accurately describe their actions, but don’t give us any clues about the setting. Now we know that Bill and Martha are married and receive atrocious amounts of Bieber-related junk mail. Much more interesting.

Tip #2 - Use Active Verbs
I’ll give this tip in basically any circumstance. “What can I do to improve this action scene?” Use active verbs. “How can I make my story more vivid?” Use active verbs. “My house is on fire and the phone line is down!” Use active verbs.

I am not liable for any damages that occur as a result of following my advice.

In all seriousness, active verbs make stories much more engaging. Nothing irritates me more than an author interrupting a fight scene with “his spleen was ruptured by the orc’s foul blade.” No! Just say “the orc’s foul blade ruptured his spleen”! (Of course, now we’re confused as to whether the orc is rupturing his opponent’s spleen or his own spleen. Either is interesting. But you should probably name the spleen’s owner in this case.)

Tip #3 - Use Mood to Your Advantage
Great stories are character-driven, right? (Note that character-driven is an adjective in this case, so I am not using passive tense right after it was bashed by me.) So use your character-driven dialogue to set the mood. For example, you could describe a suburban home objectively, like so:

Jane’s house was located between two rows of hedges, which served as fences in the surrounded neighborhood. Children’s toys were scattered across the lawn and a golden labrador lay on the front porch. The door was blue and slightly faded.

Now let’s add some dialogue as angry teenage Jane faces off with her mother on the sidewalk.

“Why can’t I go anywhere?” Jane glared at her mother, who crossed her arms in front of the prickly hedges that fenced in the yard.
Mrs. Doe narrowed her eyes. “You knew I needed you to babysit tonight.”
Jane glanced scathingly at the garish children’s toys scattered carelessly across the lawn. “Get a babysitter, then!”
“You are the babysitter, Jane!” Mrs. Doe pointed to the door. “Now get inside.”
Jane stormed onto the front porch, stepping over the golden lab, Sheila. The dog whimpered, rubbing her electric collar against her neck. Jane jerked open the door, causing flakes of faded blue paint to flutter to the ground. “I won’t be around to take care of your children much longer, you know!” She turned her back on her mother and slammed the door.

In this example, I’ve used words like “prickly,” “fenced,” “garish,” “carelessly,” and “faded” to express Jane’s feelings of confinement. I also described Sheila’s electric collar to illustrate the same thing. If you’re writing in first person or deep third, you can get even more up-close-and-personal with the surroundings, including the character’s thoughts about the setting.

Whatever you do, don’t confuse the character’s opinion about the setting with your own opinion. If you want readers to think that the king’s castle is evil, at least make your character think so. If he’s a country boy who’s always dreamed of meeting royalty, there’s no reason to describe the castle as evil. Foreboding might do you better service. Or better yet, describe the castle in a totally positive light, and whang your reader across the head with a betrayal later.

Tip #4 - Chekov, Get Your Gun
Chekov’s Gun is a widely-known rule that if you mention a gun on the wall in the beginning of your story, someone must fire it by the end. Of course, rules are made to be broken, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing an apparently harmless piece of scenery come into crucial play. J.K. Rowling is a master at this. You never know where crucial information is going to show up -- in the library, during a feast, on a chocolate frog card -- and as a result, her readers are constantly searching for clues. Be like Rowling -- don’t disappoint them.

Dialogue is the perfect place to put foreshadowing, because the conflict distracts your reader. In the examples above, the Justin Bieber flyers may be a clue leading to a sinister killer...or Sheila’s collar might allow her to escape when the power goes out.

Hopefully you’ll find these tips helpful. Feel free to leave any questions or suggestions in the comments section. I’ll see you next time!


  1. Great job! You did your job simply by keeping me entertained as I read this. :) Thanks for the advice!