How to Make Dialogue Sound Natural–Tip #4: Don’t Overdo the Description

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One of the things that surprised me when my agent and I first started editing my manuscript together was how much description she cut from my dialogue. She would circle big chunks of description and draw an arrow to the top of the page.

What she was trying to tell me was this: dialogue flows best when it’s not cluttered by excess description.

This is a problem I only see in advanced, adult writers, almost never in my middle school students. Somewhere along the way, the writer has learned to swap dialogue tags for lines of description. This has the added benefit of blending setting with character development.

However too much description can be distracting. We get lost in the description and forget what the characters have said between one paragraph and another.

“Why do we have to wear green on March 17th?” Elizabeth stood at the entrance to the dance, wearing a frilly satin dress. Its knee-length skirt fluttered as she walked. She scanned the room, searching for the boy whom she’d seen in the park the night before, but he was nowhere to be found.

“That was the day Christianity came to Ireland, my dear.” St. Patrick’s ghostly form wafted right through the other the other partiers, making them gasp as they felt the cold chill that had shocked Elizabeth so many times since she’d met him. One girl who wore glittering shamrock head-boppers spun around to glare at Elizabeth, as if she had something to do with the chill in the air.

“Why green, though? Why not orange or purple?” Elizabeth didn’t actually look at St. Patrick’s ghost as she spoke, although unlike the other people in the room, she could both hear and see him. She craned her neck over the crowd. A glittering disco ball spun overhead. Teenagers gyrated on the huge dance floor to Justin Bieber’s “Heartbreaker,” in a sea of green shirts and dresses.

“Ireland is called ‘The Emerald Isle,'” St. Patrick said as a woman Elizabeth recognized as her mother approached. Boys always took an interest in her mother, who was so pretty she’d make a gunny sack look good. But tonight she wore a black pencil skirt and white blouse with a little gem-encrusted shamrock pinned to the front of it. “And an emerald is a green stone.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth groaned, fearing the worst. She didn’t exactly have permission to attend this dance. But what was her mother doing here?

Can you see the problem? Description is a good thing, but according to my literary agent, you should try to bundle it at either end of the dialog, sort of like this:

While she searched the dance floor for the boy she’d met at the park the night before, Elizabeth peppered the ghost of St. Patrick with questions. Like her mother, he hadn’t wanted her to come tonight, but she didn’t care. Maybe if she distracted him with idiotic questions, he’d quit begging her to turn around and go back home.

“Why do we have to wear green on March 17th?” She cocked her head, feigning interest.

“That was the day Christianity came to Ireland, my dear,” St. Patrick said.

“Why green, though? Why not orange or purple?”

“Ireland is called ‘The Emerald Isle,’ and an emerald is a green stone.”

Elizabeth craned her neck to scan the dance floor. Her eyes came to rest on her mother, who strode toward her through the dancers, hands on hips. “Oh,” she groaned.

Clumping most of the description at one end of the dialog allows us to experience a book the way we do a movie. First the camera pans across the scene. Then the camera zooms in to the speakers. They have a conversation. Then the camera backs up–once the conversation is over–to show us the scene again as elements of the scenery change significantly.

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