Descriptive Writing in Dialogue
Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post helping writers understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics for April:
- What is Descriptive Writing (4/4)
- Descriptive Writing in Dialogue (4/12)
- Descriptive Writing to World Build (4/19)
- Descriptive Writing Action (4/26)
If you read last week’s post, you know what descriptive writing is and how to use it in your stories. For the rest of the month, I want to dig deeper into different ways you can use descriptive writing. We’ll explore how to use it in your dialogue, world-building, and actions. Because too often, we rely on exposition or narration to carry out our descriptive writing, but by using, let’s say, dialogue instead, we open up the reader to deeper aspects of our stories.
“Brad took the trash out back, spotting his neighbor. ‘Beautiful night. Ain’t it?'”
The above is a fine line. Nothing wrong with it at all. But it’s not too descriptive, is it? Using descriptive writing in your dialogue gives the reader added details about your world, characters, and the conflict happening in the story. You can also use it to provide information to the reader without directly stating it.
“Brad took the trash out back, spotting his neighbor. ‘Those supernovas are getting closer, but they sure are a dream to look at—like one of them Van Gogh’s.'”
“Brad took the trash out back, spotting his neighbor. ‘Ever seen the sky look so purple in the evening? Makes me think of spilled paint. But you’d know better than me.'”
“Brad took the trash out back, spotting his neighbor. ‘What do you think they’re doing up there in those fancy flying machines?'”
Each of the three dialogue examples above shows something different to the reader. Instead of simply placing the information and descriptions outside the dialogue, these examples create dynamic lines and dialogue engaging the readers. And that’s what it comes down to when writers use descriptive writing in a variety of ways—they’re trying to engage the reader and create a writing style that pulls them through the story by offering unique insights and descriptions of the world, events, and characters.
“I told you not to touch it, you asshole. I just cleaned all of them, and now your nasty fingers and beard have contaminated the whole baggie. I’m going to have to clean them all over again.”
Rod stroked his beard and swung open the refrigerator door. “Is that where my soap went, you washing guitar picks? I thought it was canned cat food you needed to wash because of some stupid virus you think is gonna kill you.” Rod turned around and spit on his hand and demonstratively rubbed it up and down the refrigerator handle. “Now you can clean this too.”
“Why the hell did you come over here, just to piss me off?” Hank felt his stomach swirl with nervousness.
Lynne T. Pickett ‘Pick a Side’
Let’s get into it more below!
Just as a quick refresher, when we talk about descriptive writing, it is a blend of showing and telling that conveys information to the reader about your story.
Descriptive writing: In the sun heat, Sally sits down, smearing grass all over her yellow jean overalls.
Not descriptive writing: Sally sits down.
Showing: In the sun heat, smearing grass
Telling: Sally sits down, yellow jean overalls
The same rules apply when we want to put descriptive writing into our dialogue, except we have different tricks we can use to do this. Character voice is the most common use of descriptive writing in dialogue. Writers can show a whole world, describe conflict, and trick the reader just by fine-tuning a character’s voice to make it sing. How someone chooses to express their emotions, surroundings, and the situations they get into can convey way more to the reader in a more engaging way than simply stating it.
My favorite use of descriptive writing in dialogue is using specific words or phrases unique to the story’s world. For instance, instead of saying, “Oh, my god,” maybe the characters in your world say something more unique like, “Oh, Holy Seven Saints,” where there is a group within your world with the name or a link to the seven saints. This paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind that your story is specific and your characters are deep-rooted in a well-developed culture, possibly different from ours. You can use this technique to give richer back history, nods to the reader about important players or factions, and more.
One of the simplest ways to implement descriptive writing in your dialogue is by switching to a noun-heavy writing style to give clear images and descriptors of your world. So instead of “My dog is sick,” you’d write, “My six-week-old labrador has pica.” For me, this is the easiest to implement because it just calls for you to go through your lines of dialogue and replace all the vague nouns with concrete ones.
One of my favorite dialogue exercises to do is to write a scene entirely in dialogue. The trick with this exercise is that while you’re writing your dialogue scene, I want you to convey sensory information to your reader, truly, through the voice of your characters. Use slang words they’d use to describe maybe a street they were walking down or a nickname they have for another character.
Instead of focusing on giving the reader story information, try and show the readers your world through characters talking. How does each see the world they occupy? Are there specific words that are unfamiliar to the other characters that one character uses to describe a commonplace item? Dig past basic statements like “It’s really hot out,” or “How are you doing?” to paint the reader a clear and engaging picture.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics from March:
- Finding Our Characters’ Voices (3/7)
- Developing Our Characters’ Voices (3/16)
- Dialogue as Exposition (3/21)
- Inner Voice (3/28)
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Please don’t forget to leave a comment and tell me your thoughts on using descriptive writing in your dialogue or your struggle areas with it in your writing! I’d also love to know how you made out with the exercise. Catch you next week for our Write Better, Right Now post on descriptive writing to world build.
10 thoughts on “Write Better, Right Now: Descriptive Writing in Dialogue”
Lovely tips here! I always love your posts, as they go beyond the typical ‘use less adjectives’ type of advice. And this topic reminds me of how Pratchett does his descriptions, by peppering them into dialogue and character interactions. Keep em coming, because I’m learning a ton!
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Thank you for reading and your kind words. Pratchett is an author I’ve studied during a reading workshop before. He uses many techniques to relay information to his reader, but his most known way is with wit and humor, and I love that!