The Dialogue & Detail Blend
Well-done dialogue brings characters to life. Well-done exposition brings a scene to life. Creatively blended, these two ingredients can add to and enhance the quality of your overall narrative by giving it life.
When you think about it, if your characters are not in dialogue, the reader is left with description of some sort. Explanation is a form of description.
Describing a character passing through a scene or who is merely there to serve as a foil can be handled cursorily, the writer slipping in only those details that keep the action moving forward and not make the reader stop or shift gears to acquire and assimilate new information. Each tidbit of narrative that adds some descriptive detail about a key character can be critical, not just to the character but to the story as a whole.
The highly detailed character, which we refer to as “round,” breathes life into a story, especially one that depends on the actions of its characters to come to life in the reader’s imagination. But, to stop the flow of a story just to interject a sidebar of pure description runs the risk of slamming on the brakes of a reader’s flow and sterilizing a story by giving it an overly objective lilt. It becomes more like reading a police report than a flowing plot. It can kill the mood and momentum of the story.
To avoid this, a writer can blend characterization and description and dialogue into a narrative description like the ingredients of a recipe. The ingredients can be individually identified, but their blending is what creates the tasty batter.
When the description of a scene and the characterization of the protagonist or antagonist are artfully blended together, they become part of a portrait and give the reader a sense of being there. They paint a picture that presents or confirms the intended flavor of a story or a character that pulls the reader into the pages. Separately presenting these elements can make the flow of the story jerky, and rather than paint a scene, the reader is left with a paint-by-number collection of fragments.
So when our character Jake Harrison approaches the Tarbender Tap saloon, a single word—“seedy”—might adequately describe the scene, but a smattering of details about its sagging steps up to the weathered gray siding where deterioration has won the war over once prosperous white paint, and the dilapidated, mismatched swinging doors no longer swing freely announce the character of the place, maybe its management, and perhaps the town of Sidewinder.
In a few lines, the writer paints a mental picture for the reader that would take hours for an artist to adequately capture on canvas. When the physical details of a scene are blended into the human activity of the story’s characters, the scene comes to life and so does the story overall. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. You could say Frankenstein comes to life, but you want life with the grace of a ballerina, not the discordance of a beast at the edge of imbalance.
The distinction is important. Take away the dialogue of a story and you are left pretty much with description. Even the ever-present “he said” or “she said” is description—which character is talking. But if you present dialogue then shift to narrative description, and bounce back and forth between the two, things get boring pretty fast. The trick is finding the proper blend and maintaining a rhythm that becomes neither discordant nor boringly repetitive in style.
“Jake walked into the saloon,” is description. Bare bones as it is, changing the word “saloon” to “bar” has a substantive impact. Remember, it’s about the words and words are ALWAYS important.
Let’s add more detail:
“Jake Harrison walked into the saloon for the first time after the sheriff pinned the deputy’s badge onto his shirt. The discordant banging of the swinging doors turned heads, but the color of his skin, wrapped around his six-foot four frame, brought the place to silence. / “I th . . . th . . . think we’ll be seein’ fewer gunfights fights,” said Harvey Smith, the town drunk, in a whisper everybody could easily hear.”
This paragraph is loaded with description and also opens the file on Jake Harrison’s characterization.
If you had Jake step over to the bar and nod to the bartender, you could add even more detail and characterization—spice to the soup.
Jake Harrison extended a ham-size fist across the bar. “You’d be James Taylor, the owner of this place?” he said in a voice that sounded like coarse sandpaper on wood. Taylor, a slight man under gray thinning hair, reached his hand up to the new deputy, and when the deputy gave it a hearty shake he practically pulled Taylor off his feet. There were a few gasps of wonderment from close by patrons. As slightly-built as Taylor was, he owned a pair of famously large hands with long spidery fingers, perfect for playing the honkytonk piano on Saturday nights. Taylor seemed as surprised as his patrons to see his hand consumed by the deputy’s, like a big bass swallowing a small worm as he looked up at the black man. “Welcome to Sidewinder deputy, and to the Tarbender’s Tap.”
This interchange introduces two characters and adds character traits for both without sounding like a police report. The dialogue and the narrative descriptions blend and flow into observations that the reader sees and hears through the dialogue. It’s obvious that we’re in the “Old West” so we don’t necessarily need to spend too much time writing a detailed description of the saloon’s interior. TV and movie westerns have supplied that. The interchange merely tapped into the reader’s “learned” memories, i.e. stereotypes. If for some reason there was need to make the saloon not so stereotypical we could easily interject additional information into the dialogue. For example, Deputy Harrison might scan the place and note the padded chairs and well-finished tables:
“Sheriff said I might be surprised by the quality of the furnishings,” said the deputy with a friendly smile filled with perfectly straight white teeth. / ”Small town. We do double duty here,” said Taylor. “The Methodists use the place Sunday mornings. We open at noon.” / The deputy looked at the well-stock shelves behind the bar. / “We have a curtain we put up to cover all that up,” said Taylor, “and I close the lid on the piano and put a couple horse blankets on top so it won’t sound too tinny when the preacher’s wife is ‘Bringin in the Sheaves.”
The name of the town hints of its general character and reputation that appears to be fading, but the saloon serving as a church hints at some level or effort of advanced civility. Were we writing a TV script, it might well be Monday morning and the deputy would look suspiciously at the stack of hymnals on the corner of the bar. Barkeep Taylor could simply tell the deputy about the place serving as a church, but in books you paint pictures with words. For the big and little screen the process is reversed—pictures provide the narrative detail.
A writer needs to be sensitive and pay attention to how best to present and use detail in narrative description. By carefully blending description and dialogue, the scene is smoothly constructed and has a better chance of coming to life in the reader’s imagination. You want sentences that serve as brush strokes that blend into a picture. Like the Tarbender’s Tap, your sentences can serve double-duty—deliver both dialogue and description.
The quality of your descriptive exposition determines the credibility of your characters and the scenes into which you place them. The level of detail you give to a scene or character depends on how important either might be to your story. You can wax eloquent about the minutiae of the doctor’s office where your character is waiting for the receptionist to get off the phone, but absent some connection to the story or scene it can be a waste of time and distract from the flow of the story. Why not just write, Jill glanced at her watch and noted waiting to see the doctor had already eaten up fifteen minutes of her value investigative time. It felt more like an hour and she felt herself getting impatience and just a little perturbed.
If the important thing is for Jill to find the office that’s tucked away in some corner of the hospital, getting there is likely more important than what your character observes while waiting for the doctor. But if this is the office where the victim went missing, the reader will expect your character, Detective Jill Gormelly, to pay close attention and share her observations. If the important thing is to meet with the doctor, you’d be better advised to spend your descriptive time with the detective’s impatience and the evidence of a waiting room of fidgety people—victims perhaps of the doctor’s busyness or lack of concern for courtesies, or both. “It makes him a suspect,” Jill thought as she glanced at her watch for the fifth time.”
No matter how well you write detail, if the detail is not readily relevant to the story, then you’re wasting the reader’s time, and you detract from the impact of descriptive detail that is needed. Although it’s not nice to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, that is precisely what your descriptive narrative needs to do. “Listen up dear reader, this is or will be important!” If it proves otherwise, you will have let your reader down.
The theatrical adage applies: If there’s a shotgun over the fireplace in act one, it had better go off before the end of act two. In other words, everything needs to, in some way, advance the story. In a play, virtually all narrative description is achieved visually and/or through dialogue. By writing your story to give the reader a feeling of watching a play, you enhance the effectiveness of your efforts.
Unless there’s a legitimate reason to do otherwise, most descriptive narrative is better when woven into the fabric of the story. If Det. Gormelly steps into the scene of the murder, she is going to be very observant and share her observations with the reader. If she’s stopping by her new Captain’s office to give him a status report, the details might not be as important and the focus would be on the dialogue. But wait. Every encounter between characters offers an opportunity to interject some observable detail that provides insight into the characters as well as the story, like seasoning to that soup.
“In the corner there was a little shrine to the Captain’s bowling skills. Maybe past bowling skills would be a better description. Some of the shine had faded. When I turned to face the voice behind me, the Captain extended a chubby hand connected to the girth of the legendary detective Nero Wolf.” / “I didn’t throw strikes, I threw explosions,” he said with a slight smile.
Later this same man might surprise your character when he moves around a murder scene with the grace of a ballerina, warning a uniformed officer to be careful where he steps. “Don’t they teach you about the reverence of a crime scene at the academy?”
The quote contains hints of characterization, and all the little tidbits will ultimately and collectively create the captain’s character.
To try and explain the techniques of how to blend narrative detail and dialogue would require an endless volume of examples. They are a bit like fingerprints, infinitely variable. It’s knowing the impact of effectively blending these two elements that will, with practice, help you become a better writer. When you read, analyze how well the writer has blended narrative detail and dialogue and how and where s/he injected pure description. Your analysis will become your best teacher because you’ll discover not only the finer details of the techniques available but also how they are employed.
Just for a little nightcap, here’s a segment from Raymond Chandler’s 1958 “Playback” to give you more ideas. Here the main character, Marlowe, shares his observations (one of the benefits of writing in the first person). Chandler turns otherwise pure description into part of the scene and the patter Marlowe has with himself describes the scene for the reader:
“Hold it! Hold it right there!” There was a silence. Then in a steady voice that didn’t bluster any more: “I’ll call Washington the first thing in the morning, Marlowe. Excuse me if I sounded off. It begins to look as though I am entitled to a little more information about this project.”
“If you make contact again, call me here. At any hour. Any hour at all.”
“Good night, then.” He hung up.
I put the phone back on the hook and took a deep breath. My head still ached but the dizziness was gone. I breathed in the cool night air laced with sea fog. I pushed out of the booth and looked across the street. The old guy who had been in the taxi slot when I arrived was back again. I strolled across and asked him how to get to The Glass Room, which was where Mitchell had promised to take Miss Betty Mayfield to dinner—whether she liked it or not. He told me. I thanked him, recrossed the empty street and climbed into my rented car, and started back the way I had come.”
Just remember, you don’t write something because you can or to show off some talent, but to tell story as effectively and realistically as you can.
It was a dark and storming night in the city that never sleeps . . .