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IWW Practice-W Exercise Archives
Exercise: Description within dialogue

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Gery Mitchell
Posted on: January 26, 2003
Reposted on: January 1, 2005

Description within dialogue can run the gamut from 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 next level, 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 waitress
   came for their drink order, and Gabe said, "I'll have
   a draft and a Reuben." He looked at Nell. "*Order.*"

   The waitress looked taken aback.

   "Black coffee," Nell said to her, smiling sweetly.

   "She'll have an omelet," Gabe said to the waitress.

   "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 began.

   "*I don't care,*" he said, and Nell shut up until
   the waitress was gone.

Here, the scene is well set. To add depth to the 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 Tommy
   remembered afterward. Then the man smiled.

   "Hello there," he said. His voice was soft and
   faintly accented.

   "Hello," said Tommy.

   "I've always wondered what they keep in those
   jars." The man pointed to the front window of the store,
   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
   couple times."

   "What did he say?"

   "That it's a mystery of his profession."

   The man nodded solemnly. "One we must respect."

   He reached into his pocket and took out a package of
   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 description of 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 write a 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! Submissions 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. There 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 place, presumably
   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 exercises here, like show vs. tell, and involving the senses, among many others. Writing well is something of a balancing act.

All in all, another great week of subs and crits!


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