56 More than a Timeline…Adding Description and Dialog

Dr. Karen Palmer

Once you have the basics of your story down–you know who your audience is, you know what your purpose is, and you have chosen the scenes that will make up your narrative, it’s time to add the details that will allow your readers to relive this experience with you. These details include strong descriptions and dialog.

Descriptive Writing

When an author writes in a descriptive style, they are painting a picture in words of a person, place, or thing for their audience. The author might employ metaphor or other literary devices in order to describe the author’s impressions via their five senses (what they hear, see, smell, taste, or touch). But the author is not trying to convince the audience of anything or explain the scene – merely describe things as they are. This is often referred to as showing, instead of telling.

Descriptive writing isn’t only used in narrative writing, but across many genres and fields. Technicians must include descriptive details when composing work orders. Nurses keep detailed reports when providing patient care. Police officers rely on description to clearly and accurately document incidents. Food critics write reviews rich with details of the cuisine and ambiance of restaurants. The list goes on. Descriptive writing can help strengthen the presentation of your ideas by helping the audience experience the subject.

Examples of Descriptive Writing

  • Poetry
  • Journal/diary writing
  • Descriptions of Nature
  • Fictional novels or plays
  • Ad Analysis!
  • Travel Writing
  • Food blogs

Creating Rich Experiences with Words

Filmmakers make their movie worlds come alive through images, motion, sound, and special effects. Writers need to think like filmmakers and make their story worlds come alive through description.

Rich description allows readers to imaginatively experience the subject by providing details that describe what something looks like and even how it sounds, smells, feels, and tastes. These sensory details give readers a rich experience, much like a movie.

 

Sample Sensory Descriptions

Sense Example(s).
Sight The sea of golden wheat swayed, almost danced in the breeze.

The majestic Glacier Park lodge sat proudly at the end of the long-manicured lawn.

I gazed at the endless night sky afire with glittering stars.

Sound The heavy door creaked open revealing a dim interior.

In the distance, the fireworks sizzled and boomed, announcing another year.

The ominous beat of helicopter blades cutting through the air put us all on edge.

Taste She sipped the bitter coffee wishing for cream.

As the boy bit into the crisp Granny Smith apple, his face puckered at the unexpected tartness.

A metallic tang filled my mouth as blood began to pool under my tongue.

Touch I shivered uncontrollably even though I was zipped in my down sleeping bag.

With every step, my pack rubbed my hips and shoulders raw, leaving sores screaming for me to stop.

Tessa’s soft fur felt like silk against my skin.

Smell As we walked into the bakery, my senses were assaulted with sweet confections–buttery caramel, rich chocolate, yeasty dough, and burnt sugar.

  1. I felt of tickle of dust at the back of my throat as I walked down the aisles of musty books.

When to Use Description in Narrative

Setting

Each scene or chapter should answer: Where, When, Who. These scenes are the drivers of the plot. It will be up to you as the writer how to arrange and order scenes; it’s important to keep the story moving and keeping the reader interested. It’s useful to alternate between fast action and slow action. When you start to edit, you’ll decide then what scenes are needed and which are useless.

“How to Describe Setting in a Story” includes some great tips for writing descriptively about the setting.

Characters

A character’s appearance is probably the most basic technique of characterization and individualization: what a person looks like reveals a great deal about who that person is, his attitude, perhaps even his mental state, his economic and social status, and so on. We form our initial attitude about a person based on his appearance and we either like or dislike him; we either take him seriously or we dismiss him.

The author should know his character’s external aspects even if none of these will make it into the story, even if the plot will not rely on them. When the author does include external aspects of character in the story, he must make sure that every aspect mentioned serves a purpose. No aspect should be brought up unless it has story consequences. External aspects of character matter: they are the significant details that reveal character nature and past, they affect the formation of character, they can create a need, have thematic significance, serve as motifs, limit and create opportunities for action, and be consistent or contrast with the character’s story function.

The most obvious external factors of a character that influence his formation as a person are sex, race, and physical appearance. This is because sex, race, and physical appearance influence the formative experiences a person will go through, experiences that determine who he becomes and affects his way of seeing the world as well as himself.

Characters are what they do on the page, so you’ll need to justify the behavior of characters (show their fears, hopes, loves, hates, motivations and how these led to action). Good writers show who their characters are instead of telling the reader.

  • Instead of telling the reader a character is kind, they narrate a scene where the character is being kind to another character, etc.
  • The way people dress is often reflective of their attitude. A lot of good authors use this technique of describing a person’s clothes and thereby reflecting their characters’ personality.

What readers need to know about a character is typically less than writers think!

Multidimensionality: What do they hate? What is their favorite color? Are they obsessive about something, and if so what? What are their favorite expressions and exclamations? What are they afraid of?

Please watch “How to Write a Character Description” for some great tips for describing your characters.

Dialog

Dialog is another way to bring life to your narrative. Dialog is conversation or people speaking in your story. Engaging dialog goes beyond what is simply being said to include description of non-verbal communication (facial expressions, body movement, changes in tone and speed of speech) and characterization. The way people speak and interact while talking reveals much about them and the situation. Writing natural sounding dialogue is not easy. Effective dialogue must serve more than one purpose – it should:

  • Drive the plot forward,
  • Reveal information about the characters, and
  • Build tension or introduce conflict.

Dialog is a great way to show, rather than tell.

Basic Dialogue Rules

  1. Use a comma between the dialogue and the tag line.
    1. “I want to go to the beach,” she said.
  2. End punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.
    1. He asked, “Where’s the champagne?”
  3. When a tag line interrupts a sentence, it should be set off by commas.
    1. “That is,” Wesley said, “that neither you nor me is her boy.”
  4. Every time you switch to a different speaker, start a new paragraph.
    1. Even if the speaker says only one word, with no accompanying attribution or action, it is a separate paragraph.
  5. Start a new paragraph when you wish to draw the reader’s attention to a different character, even if that character doesn’t actually speak.
  6. For internal dialogue, italics are appropriate.

Sample Dialogue

“So, what was it really like?” I asked.

“I’ve told you. It was amazing.”

I shifted to my side so I could look at her. “You have to give me more than that,” I insisted, “and not the mom and dad version.”

Liv mirrored my move to her side and propped up her head with her arm. Her blue eyes searched my greens, looking for the right words. “I shouldn’t–”

We broke our gaze as we heard our mom call for us. Once again, I didn’t get the truth.

Sample

The most important thing to remember is that dialogue should sound natural – like the voice of the person speaking. Practice saying it out loud as if reading a script for an audition. The example below is a narrative memoir. Notice how the author uses both external and internal dialog.

I was standing in the middle of Dollar Tree, leaning on my cart, when I said, “What?” to my mom telling me about my little black cat, Baby, being found dead a few days earlier. “Baby’s dead, honey.” I couldn’t say anything. What could I say? I had been the one to take her to the farm thinking that she would adjust and be happier as a farm cat. Besides, I had too many cats, six actually, and Baby and Ginger had been the most logical choices to relocate. Both of them were unhappy living in such a small environment with four other cats. Baby suffered from anxiety problems and Ginger just wanted more territory. She was always so bitchy, hissing like she owned everything and everyone. Adorable, yes, but incredibly bitchy. Baby just wanted to be alone, or with me. The only way I could get her to come out of hiding is if I’d sing to her – any song with her name in it. Her favorite one was the one from the movie Dirty Dancing “Ba-byyy, ohh-ohhh ba-byyy, my sweet ba-byyy, you’re the one. . .” When I’d sing it to her, she’d roll ‘on the floor and rub against me as if to say, “I reeeaaallly love you!” I’ll never be able to listen to that song without missing her now.

“Honey, are you alright?” my mom asked quietly. No, I’m not alright. I knew something was wrong. I had a feeling several days ago – one of those feelings that tell you something is wrong, but I chose to ignore it. “How did she die?” I ask, trying to keep my emotions under control. It’s no use though, tears start streaking my face and Dollar Tree customers are beginning to stare. “They found her dead in the cabin,” mom said, her voice choking, “I’m so sorry, hon.” “She was still in the cabin?!” I practically shout into the phone. “I thought Laura picked her up to take her to her house.” Mom grew quiet. After a few moments she said, “They never could catch her. Dad said that they looked for her every day. They moved the furniture and everything, but they couldn’t find her. Now they think that maybe she might have climbed behind the fridge to hide.”

I was livid, but I knew it would just kill mom and dad if I blamed them for this. Despite this fact, I had to ask one last question, “Mom, why didn’t you guys call me and tell me that you were having problems with her? I could’ve come home to take care of her. I told you that I smelled natural gas or something on the day that we dropped her off at the cabin. Why didn’t someone call me?!” At this point, I was hysterical, and customers were steering their shopping carts way around me. When my mom finally answered her comforting voice was gone. Replacing it was one of defense and insensitivity. “We did the best we could! Dad’s been so depressed lately and this almost pushed him over the edge. He knows how much you love your cats and he’s blaming himself. It’s not his fault and it’s not yours either! Do you hear me?”

All I could do was cry. I didn’t want to hurt them, but I just couldn’t understand why they chose not to call me. And I do blame myself. I knew that something was wrong and knowing that she was alone in that cabin for two weeks, going through god knows what, thinking god knows what, well it just killed me inside. I was filled with guilt. I had rescued her as a baby, beaten and left for dead and now, seven years later I just pawn her off on someone else and she dies alone? I don’t even want to know how much pain she may have been in. How in the world will I deal with the guilt of knowing that all of this could’ve been avoided? How?

 “Basic Writing/Narrative and memoir.” Wikibooks, The Free Textbook Project. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

 

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Attributions:

“Descriptive Writing” from About Writing: A Guide by Robin Jeffrey. Licensed CC BY.

“Creating Rich Experiences with Words” adapted from Writing Unleashed. Licensed under CC BY NC SA.

“Dialog” adapted from Writing Unleashed. Licensed under CC BY NC SA.

“Setting” and “Characters” adapted from Write or Left by Sybil Priebe. Licensed under CC BY NC SA.

 

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More than a Timeline...Adding Description and Dialog Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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