Prepared by: Gery Mitchell
Posted on: January 26, 2003
Reposted on: January 1, 2005
Description within dialogue can run the
none, to mere scene-setting, to adding depth to the
characters that are speaking, depending on the kind
of story. These different methods get progressively
difficult to write. Once the dialogue itself is
written, the easiest course to take is straight he-said/she-said,
without any accompanying description.
After that, simple scene setting is the
where the description mostly limits itself to the
scene rather than character depth. For example
(Jennifer Crusie, "Fast Women," 2001, p. 116):
...[Nell] twisted around
to look at the place--
lots of dark wood and Tiffany ceiling lights and old
advertising prints on the walls--and then the
came for their drink order, and Gabe said, "I'll have
a draft and a Reuben." He looked at Nell. "*Order.*"
The waitress looked
"Black coffee," Nell
said to her, smiling sweetly.
"She'll have an omelet,"
Gabe said to the
"Four eggs, plenty of
ham and cheese."
"I don't want an
omelet," Nell said. "I'm not--"
"Do you really want to
have this argument with me
*right now*?" Gabe said, and the waitress took a step
"I'll have a Caesar
salad," Nell said.
"Good." Gabe looked up
at the waitress. "Put a
double order of grilled chicken on it, and bring her
a double order of fries."
"I don't want--" Nell
"*I don't care,*" he
said, and Nell shut up until
the waitress was gone.
Here, the scene is well set. To add depth
characters, Gabe's actions could be described to
reveal more about him, as could the thoughts or
feelings of the POV character, Nell. For example
(Michael Chabon, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier
and Clay," 2000, p. 504):
When the man realized
that Tommy was staring at
him, he gave up his pretense. For one instant he hung
there, shoulders hunched, red-faced. He looked as if
he were planning to flee; that was another thing
remembered afterward. Then the man smiled.
"Hello there," he said.
His voice was soft and
"Hello," said Tommy.
"I've always wondered
what they keep in those
jars." The man pointed to the front window of the
where two glass vessels, baroque beakers with onion-
dome lids, contained their perpetual gallons of clear
fluid, tinted respectively pink and blue. The late-
afternoon sun cut through them, casting the rippling
pair of pastel shadows on the back wall.
"I asked Mr. Spiegelman
that," Tommy said. "A
"What did he say?"
"That it's a mystery of
The man nodded solemnly.
"One we must respect."
He reached into his
pocket and took out a package
Old Gold cigarettes. He lit one with a snap of his
lighter and inhaled slowly, his eyes on Tommy, his
expression troubled, as Tommy somehow expected it to
"I'm your cousin," the
man said. "Josef Kavalier."
In this example, we not only get some
the store they're in, but a much better sense of both characters -
through the description of how Josef looks and sounds, and what Tommy
remembers and had expected.
The exercise is, in 300 words or less, to
dialogue between two people where the interspersed
description tells as much or more about the characters
as the dialogue itself.
Gery Mitchell's wrap-up
Posted on: February 1, 2003
First off, great work everyone!
for this exercise were wonderful to read.
It's somewhat of a juggling act to write a
dialogue where the interspersed description
reveals as much or more about each of the
characters involved, so this was not an easy
thing to pull off. It's almost natural to fall
into a pattern of too much dialogue and not
much description, or vice versa (depending on
one's strengths as a writer), and of course
there's always the challenge of doing either
thing well in and of itself. Also at times
it's hard, in the description part, to deepen
focus on the characters rather than story
narrative or drama. Lastly, there's the
tendency to focus on one character over the
other, which lessens the opportunity for
richness in dialogue--it's ideal if both
characters are equally full of themselves,
so to speak :)
The submissions reflect the challenge.
were some that, while great pieces of writing,
didn't quite achieve the practice goals. In
this case, I certainly don't think that's a
failure--I wrote the exercise initially to
challenge myself, and when I tried it, I didn't
do so well either ;)
Hopefully the lesson learned here is (as
always) a way to enrich how we write, a way to
see more clearly that there's a difference
between (for an example made up on the spot):
"You're crazy," Betty
said, as she
stuffed another French fry into her
Betty looked around the
to see if anybody was watching. Nobody was.
So when she said, "You're crazy," she said
it loud enough so everybody would hear,
and then she popped another French fry
into her mouth, looking very satisfied
when the other patrons of the restaurant
turned their attention to our table.
In many ways, this figures into earlier
here, like show vs. tell, and involving the senses,
among many others. Writing well is something of a
All in all, another great week of subs and
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