Have you ever tried to write a story? Of course you have. And, if you have, you’ve most certainly come across the frustrating and ceaseless question of description vs. dialogue.
It can either be so right, or so wrong. My rule of thumb is a 50/50 attempt – if you can say it in dialogue, then say it. If you can’t – go for the description. But, as with anything else, I always fall back on my descriptive ramblings. I am a fantastic info-dumper. You know that chapter in Lord of the Rings that has nothing but conversation? Well, think the opposite. I can wax lyrical for hours about rubbish.
I blame my pictorial imagination. It’s because I see everything so clearly that I feel the need to describe it in minute detail so that everyone can see it as I do. Which, of course, is completely the wrong thing to do. Part of the beauty of books (I think) is the interpretation and images you draw from it, not what the author necessarily had in mind, but something that makes it familiar to you.
The problem is just as bad with dialogue – because if you fall into the trap of trying to describe everything by dialogue, you’re going to fall into the “yeah right” territory; you’re going to write dialogue that doesn’t flow and simply isn’t realistic. The “no one says that” pickle.
Show and not tell, right? You should have your reader immerse themselves in your story, to believe it completely and totally the whole time they are reading it. You don’t want to write anything that will pull them out of the text and make them realise they’re just reading a story. It has to be real to them. So you can’t patronise, you have to be natural, you have to be engaging and entertaining and most of all, believable. This is no more so than when you’re writing fantasy, because you’re already dancing that line between total immersion and “yeah right”. So how do authors do it?
My rule of 50/50 usually disappears once I start writing and I just try to write as naturally as I can. If it feels like dialogue, it goes in as dialogue, if it feels like description, it goes in as description. But I still have some clangers that are frankly more comical than anything else – and definitely cringeworthy. And when I’ve just written two and a half pages of description, I quite often go back and do a bit of heartless culling. Because not even Tolkien got away with a whole chapter of one or the other – not completely anyway (as someone who reads Lord of the Rings every Christmas, I now skip that guilty chapter).
As a reader, what do you prefer? And is there one thing that pulls you out of the story more than anything else?