Posted On January 13, 2012 by Print This Post

The Tricky Part by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

I’m thrilled to welcome back one of our favorite visiting professors, Laurie Schnebly Campbell, who gives us the lowdown on description and dialogue. Sit back and relax for another fantastic post from Laurie.

Welcome, Laurie!

We all tend to be better at one of the Double D’s — dynamic description, or delicious dialogue. But if you ask a bunch of bestselling authors which they’re better at, they can’t always tell you…because they’ve worked on both to the point where now each comes easily.

Most of us aren’t at that point yet, though. We’ve all had the experience of re-reading a page we just wrote and thinking “aaack, I SUCK at [dialogue or description].”

Sounds uncomfortably familiar, right?

STRENGTH & WEAKNESS

I personally suck at description, and whenever readers asked what my characters looked like I’d tell ‘em “like the picture on the cover.”

But for some reason, drat it, that didn’t quite seem to satisfy ‘em. You want to know what my characters FEEL like, or what they do or think or say, no problem…but what they LOOK like? Or worse yet, what their house / dog / clothes look like? Shoot, I dunno!

Yet other writers have that same problem with dialogue. “I have no idea what these people would say.” “All my characters talk the same way.” “I wish I could do the kind of snappy dialogue you see with (fill in author).” “Why can’t I just SHOW what happens instead of having them TALK about it?”

On the positive side, when we’re bad at one of those jobs, we tend to be a lot better at the other one. No idea why, but most writers I’ve talked to about the Double D’s feel like they have a much easier time with either description or dialogue.

If you’re not sure where your strength lies, read these excerpts by two enormously popular authors and keep an eye out for what skills catch your attention:

BY JANE AUSTEN

(From PRIDE & PREJUDICE)

“A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!” / “How so? How can it affect them?” / “My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.” / “Is that his design in settling here?” / “Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

BY J.K. ROWLING

(From HARRY POTTER & THE SORCERER’S STONE)

“You could just leave me here,” Harry put in hopefully (he’d be able to watch what he wanted on television for a change and maybe even have a go on Dudley’s computer).
/ “And come back and find the house in ruins?” she snarled.
/
”I won’t blow up the house,” said Harry, but they weren’t listening.
/
”I suppose we could take him to the zoo,” said Aunt Petunia slowly, “…and leave him in the car….”
/
”That car’s new, he’s not sitting in it alone….”

It was a very sunny Saturday and the zoo was crowded with families. The Dursleys bought Dudley and Piers large chocolate ice creams at the entrance and then, because the smiling lady in the van had asked Harry what he wanted before they could hurry him away, they bought him a cheap lemon ice pop. It wasn’t bad, either, Harry thought, licking it as they watched a gorilla scratching its head who looked remarkably like Dudley, except that it wasn’t blond.

NOTICE YOUR RESPONSE

 No need to list which elements from those excerpts jump out at you — but notice how you reacted to each example of description and each example of dialogue.

Chances are that whatever had you reacting from the standpoint of a professional (“hmm, I wonder how the author did that” or “hmm, I would’ve handled this differently”) rather than the standpoint of a consumer (“sounds intriguing” or “mneh, yawn”) is likely to be the one you’re better at.

Of course, you might not even need such a test-question to know which you’re better at…most writers can usually say pretty quickly whether their greater strength is in dialogue or description.

THE GOOD NEWS

No matter which you’re better at, either way you have a built-in advantage. Because the same strength you’ve already developed in doing what you’re good at — whether it’s  dialogue or  description — will ALSO help you with what you’re not so good at YET.

Why?

Because they both require the same basic tools.

 

That’s what next month’s Double D’s class is about, and free registration to that four-week workshop will be a prize for somebody who answers this next question:

PRIZE-DRAWING QUESTION

Which comes more easily for YOU, description or dialogue? And do you have any favorite tips for dialogue or description that I can pass along to the class? (If you’d rather I didn’t quote what you say, just mention that in your post — thanks!)

Laurie, who can’t wait to hear the answers.

***

RU Crew, to be included in the drawing, be sure to answer Laurie’s question on whether description or dialogue comes easier for you.

Thank you to Laurie for being here.

RU Crew, join us on Monday when New York Times bestselling author Teresa Medeiros puts your opening scene to the test.

Bio: Laurie Schnebly Campbell  gets a kick out of teaching writers about handy techniques — plotting, synopses, motivation, fatal flaws — and finding new areas to explore, like next month’s yahoogroups class on The Double D’s: Dynamic Description & Delicious Dialogue .

 

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Discussion

94 Responses to “The Tricky Part by Laurie Schnebly Campbell”

  1. Laurie: Dialogue is easier for me and I love writing it.

    My tip is twofold: When I’m checking to see if my dialogue “sounds right” I do two things – 1) I read it out loud to myself. That way I can feel the words roll off my tongue. See o=if they don’t flow correctly. 2) I have those parts read to me by a computer reading program. I sit and listen carefully and it points out the problem areas.

    Thanks for posting a great article!

    Robin

    Posted by Robin Covington | January 13, 2012, 5:28 am
    • Robin, the double-barreled approach is a great idea…not only reading it aloud yourself, but hearing the computer read it aloud as well!

      I’ve found the same thing helps with description; typos that flat-out escaped me when reading visually jump out a lot more visibly when I’m speaking the words.

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 7:46 am
  2. Hi Laurie,

    I agree with Robin, dialogue is easier for me. I write it and fill in the description later. Double D’s is a wonderful title for a class.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | January 13, 2012, 6:26 am
  3. Hi Laurie! This sounds like a wonderful class.

    Dialogue comes easier for me. Years ago, I spent time learning to write screenplays. That helped with my fiction dialogue, tremendously, because screenplays are almost all dialogue. But I do like description, too. PS Loved the excerpts!

    Posted by Cathryn Parry | January 13, 2012, 6:47 am
    • Wow, Cathryn, I hadn’t even thought about screenplays when wishing for more radio dramas — but you’re right, of course the dialogue in movies is crucial.

      Which I guess is why it’s usually easier to follow the story if the picture goes out rather than the sound. (Unless, of course, it’s one of those scenes where the hero is climbing up the side of a building…)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 7:51 am
  4. What an intriguing blog! I would say I’m considerably better at dialogue than description, but that’s mainly because I tend to focus on dialogue first, and often have to go back and fill in description when I revise the story.

    You’ve featured two books I love, so the excerpts were familiar. Funny how seeing them pulled out of the story like that made them seem fresh and new!

    I did have a “wonder how she did that” moment with the descriptive paragraph from PRIDE & PREJUDICE, but I’m afraid it was less of a professional response than a “Why can’t I write like that?”

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | January 13, 2012, 7:42 am
    • Oh, Becke, “why can’t I write like that?” is a HUGELY professional response! Leisurely readers who’ve never dreamed of creating a book would never have that reaction to dialogue or description — it shows you’ve got your author hat on.

      Although, shoot, I didn’t think to mention that in the blog itself and I should have, because of course we’re all going to envy authors who are good in areas we’re not. Drat.

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 7:54 am
      • It can be frustrating to an obsessive reader like myself – I want to bury myself in the story, but in the last few years (since I started attempting fiction) part of my mind is always taking notes. I’ll see a particularly tasty turn of phrase and wish I had a photographic memory. Probably just as well I don’t have one – it’s hard enough for an avid reader to avoid slipping into the style of other writers.

        It’s not such a problem for me now, although when I read really talented authors there’s gnashing of teeth that I can’t write like they do. I’ve reached the stage where I’ve accepted that I write how I write, but it’s hard to avoid moments of sheer envy!

        Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 13, 2012, 8:07 am
        • I hear you loud and clear, Becke. I’m the same way when I read. I read for craft and pleasure, but sometimes when I just want pleasure, the darn writer hat surfaces and starts analysing how the author did this or that.

          As for the two Ds and what I’m better at, I have no clue. LOL.

          Posted by Mercy | January 13, 2012, 9:16 am
          • Mercy – That’s one of the reasons I didn’t attempt fiction sooner. I was worried it would ruin reading for me. Instead, I’ve discovered lots of new authors to read!

            Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | January 13, 2012, 9:23 am
          • Mercy, I’m impressed you CAN turn off the writer side when reading for pleasure — seems like if you couldn’t do that, it’d be such a huge loss that even regular appearances at the top of the bestseller lists would never make up for the lack.

            And it could be you’re one of those rare writers who’s equally good at both description and dialogue…which means most of us envy you greatly!

            Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 10:43 am
  5. Dialogue is definitely easier for me. I’ve always been able to hear my characters talking in my head. It’s very annoying at times. Since I enjoy writing skits/plays, I’m less adept at writing descriptive passages.

    Posted by E. Newmeyer | January 13, 2012, 7:43 am
    • Hurray, an actual playwright on board — you’ve got the job I always WISHED I had, when faced with the need to write description.

      Although I’ll bet you do just fine with descriptive passages like how a character enters the scene…moving slowly, chattering non-stop, carrying a big bouquet to hide her face, etc. (Hmm, now I’m trying to envision a character doing all of those at once!)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 7:58 am
  6. I have been known to say I suck at description too! It’s so funny – I’ve never heard that people are usually good at one or the other, but I’m a total Dialogue Diva. It’s what everyone says is my strong point and it does come easily. The way I do it is to *not* censor the conversation in my head. I never worry about anything other than getting the words down.

    …and you know, I never thought about giving myself permission to do the same with description. It can all be edited later, right??

    Thanks for the great post!

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | January 13, 2012, 8:17 am
    • Kat, I love the term Dialogue Diva! And it’s amazing that everyone who’s posting this morning is stronger at dialogue…makes me wonder if all the people who are better at description might be Owls rather than Larks?

      In any case, good for you on identifying so clearly what gives your dialogue its zing — if I had a crystal ball, I’d be predicting that your description is going to flow more easily on the next project. :)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 8:35 am
  7. Hi Laurie!!!!! =)

    I suck at description. =) Plain and simple. I have to be forced to write it, and thank God for the CP’s who point it out – umm, Carrie, is she just sitting in the middle of nowhere naked? =) I like to think I’m much better at dialog, though sometimes my characters sound the same…something to work on most definitely. I do what Robin does as well, have the computer read it for me…and ALWAYS print out a copy of every chapter and read it rather than just off the computer…I catch SO much that way!

    Lovely to have you here!

    =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 13, 2012, 8:32 am
  8. Dialogue is definitely easier for me. I’m like you. I don’t ‘see’ what my characters, settings, or things look like so it’s hard to describe them.

    Posted by Vicki Reid | January 13, 2012, 8:34 am
    • Vicki, aren’t you amazed by people who DO ‘see’ what things look like? I remember when I first started writing, Robert Penn Warren advised that he wrote all his descriptions as if he were looking through an empty toilet-paper-roll cardboard tube.

      “You can only focus on one small thing at a time, and you don’t move the tube away from your eye until you see what’s there.” Which, even though I haven’t actually tried that, has stayed with me for a long time!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 8:41 am
  9. Oh, it is hard to say! I was going to immediately say, “Oh, dialogue is easier!”, then started thinking about it. SOMETIMES, when I’m lucky, the description just flows. And I’ve gotten some judging comments back on sections I think description is pretty much AWOL that say, “Oh, and you did such a good job of a vivid description in such few words!” and I just think, “Thank God for the Muse…” Of course, there are other times where I’m the inverse of the writer above, and get the CP comment in a love scene saying, “You know, they never actually undressed…” Oh, right…details. *sigh*

    Posted by Robin L.L. Allen | January 13, 2012, 9:23 am
    • Robin, there’s a lot to be said for a love scene where they never actually undress…they’re just too eager, right?

      But what a treat to hear from somebody who (at least sometimes) actually has an easier time with description — I’m jealous of any writer who can show something vividly in a few words. :)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 9:39 am
  10. I guess I’m in the minority so far. I tend to be better at description than dialogue. Or at least that is more comfortable for me. I was scared of writing dialogue, so I took a course on it several years ago. I surprised myself by finding that I really could write dialogue once I got past the fear and am now comfortable with it. However, my tendency is to want to describe a scene fully and since I write mysteries, I have to watch how much description I use so I don’t slow down the plot. It’s helped me write the description tighter and more concisely.

    Thanks for a great post, Laurie.

    Posted by Barbara Heming | January 13, 2012, 9:30 am
    • Barbara, thanks for giving us a minority perspective here — I couldn’t believe there were NO writers who find description easier.

      And good for you on taking steps to get over your fear of dialogue. Not to mention tightening the description so the story keeps moving…especially when readers are dying to solve the mystery!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 9:43 am
  11. I’m joining the unanimous ranks of writers for whom dialogue comes easier. I watch a lot of movies, and when I read, I tend to skip the description in favor of the next set of quote marks I can find. When I’m drafting, my writing is dialogue-heavy to the point that I’m considering writing screenplays instead of novels. (Oh, and I’m an owl, forced to get up early to get kids to school. :D)

    I’m not sure I have any tips for dialogue, because it sort of just happens. I picture the scene in my mind, focus in on the character, and they start talking. My job is to type it as fast as I can. When I go back through, I will read it aloud, to make sure.

    I think I might try that empty tube idea to help because I hate describing scenes. Since it bores me in books a lot, I make the assumption it bores everyone, and walking that fine line of just enough description is frustrating.

    Posted by Noelle Pierce | January 13, 2012, 9:33 am
    • Noelle, you’re so right about finding that “just enough” balance — a friend who’s gifted at description (and whose reviews praise her lyrical passages) said she cringes whenever someone says they never read it.

      And yet I’ve heard other readers say they tend to skim over the dialogue because “there’s nothing happening.” So maybe it’s all a question of what resonates with us….

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 9:47 am
  12. Oops. While I was writing my post, it became not-unanimous. Oh, well. :D

    Posted by Noelle Pierce | January 13, 2012, 9:37 am
  13. Hi Laurie-
    Dialogue comes easiest to me. And even though I can see the room, the boat or the backyard clearly in my mind, getting on paper is tricky. I often write my dialogue first. I think doing that helps becuase as you write the dialogue you “see” the scenery around you from a different POV- your characters! Thanks for another wonderful post!

    Posted by Donna Marie Del Grosso | January 13, 2012, 9:48 am
    • Donna, great point about “see”ing the scenery from your characters’ viewpoint — it’s so cool to envision a scene from (for instance) the hero’s perspective and then two minutes later from the heroine’s.

      Which seems to happen in real life, too…ever notice how wives and husbands will describe the same event from totally different perspectives? Go figure.

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 10:17 am
  14. I’m stronger on description, I think. My dialogue tends to be a bit stilted if I’m not being careful. (That’s true in real life, too. You know that bit of writing advice? “Write like you talk.” Yeah, well, unfortunately I talk like I write.)

    Describing a setting can be hard, though – how much detail is enough? How much is too much?

    Give me an action scene, though, and the description comes easily. (For example…

    Posted by Michael Mock | January 13, 2012, 10:51 am
    • Michael, I’ve gotta tell my husband he might be right — he was insisting that men are better at description (“think of Tom Clancy”) and women are better at dialogue (“because they’re more into relationships”).

      Which immediately had me thinking of all the exceptions, but it’s intriguing that our first example of description is from the man’s POV!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 11:21 am
  15. I like dialogue best, since it seems to be what I write first with just enough description or action that I can fill in the scene later. Dialogue can show so much of the scene and the characters that sometimes I forget not everyone is “seeing” what I see. So, I read a book, From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. He talked about the cinema of the mind. So before I call a scene finished, I try to view it like I would a movie and describe the nuances and other things one would see on a film. I have to use a checklist – can I smell, see, hear, feel, taste my scene? Does the setting cause emotions? If so, does my dialogue reflect that? Since I had to research and practice description, I probably now need to do the same for dialogue. Just like ice cream, there is always room for improvement.

    Posted by Sally Kirkpatrick | January 13, 2012, 11:02 am
    • Sally, good for you on researching and practicing BOTH arts — you’re right about how “good enough” doesn’t necessarily stay good enough, and I love the ice cream analogy!

      Which, come to think of it, qualifies as description that appeals to the senses…yum. :)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 11:22 am
  16. I’m better at dialogue. Description is tricky as rather than a straight forward description of what something or someone loks like it’s the POV character’s reaction to the setting or thing being described that’s important. Donald Maas writes about this in his Fire In Fiction.

    A dialogue tip: For contemporary dialogue watch the soaps — the speech patterns will seep into your subconscious ready to come out as dialogue when you write your own stuff.

    Posted by Janet ch | January 13, 2012, 11:24 am
    • Janet, what an intriguing idea about letting the style of speech seep into your subconscious. I remember, after working all day in the room where my son and his friends were playing, coming away with a slightly different style of speech that lasted for another few hours.

      Same as picking up a trace of the local accent when visiting a foreign country…there’s a lot to be said for immersion. It’s just a question of where you want to immerse yourself — for romance novelists, I don’t recommend a room full of adolescent boys!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 11:55 am
  17. Wow. Here I am, late to the party and it’s rocking! Yay.

    Dialogue is definitely easier for me. I tend to just let it fly without editing. Then I’ll let it sit for a day and come back to it for editing. I find some fairly outrageous things when I come back! LOL.

    Description is always tough for me because I tend to write “lean.” I usually think I don’t have enough description so I load up on it and my editor winds up asking me to take it all out. I’m still figuring out what the balance is.:)

    I’m looking forward to taking your class, Laurie!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 13, 2012, 11:51 am
    • Oh, Adrienne, what a vivid image of loading up on description to avoid running short and winding up with too much — that’s a tricky balancing act, drat it.

      And I’ll bet the proportions are always changing, because otherwise you could do it like a simple formula: 1/3 dialogue, 2/3 description (or whatever). Hmm, wouldn’t life be easy if there really WERE a formula? :)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 11:57 am
  18. I get around the double D dilemma by hiding most descriptions in dialogue. Get into trouble too with no nos like burying abundant back story in dialogue. Too much of a good thing, right?

    Got me thinking again, Laurie!

    Pet

    Posted by Pet Aubol | January 13, 2012, 12:00 pm
    • Pet, that’s a very craft approach to combining both Ds in one — I’ll bet at least one character in each of your books is FABULOUS at noticing things!

      Although you’re right about the risk of burying too much backstory, which is another “tricky part” of the whole D & D business. (Oops, that makes me flash on Dungeons & Dragons…wrong story.)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 12:11 pm
  19. It’s funny you ask. When I started writing again, a friend offered me the opportunity to work with her. She was writing a romance short story. I told her I’d be happy to help as long as she wrote the dialogue because I couldn’t do it, which was true, at first. It wasn’t long before we had a running joke about my inability to write dialogue because it came so easily to me. I also didn’t think I could right historical romance. I was wrong, again, in a great way. With description, I attempt to follow Tolkien’s example. He created his world using extensive descriptions drawing from generalizations anyone would recognize by drawing on their personal experiences. Many writers describe the scene from their point of view, i.e., the bush is on the right, and the trees are on the left. Whereas Tolkien described the towering trees blanketed in golden leaves rustling in the breeze. By the way, I read about Tolkien’s technique in an article, though I’m sorry I’m able to site it.

    I loved Wrong Twin, Right Man!

    Posted by Judy | January 13, 2012, 12:04 pm
    • Judy, it’s so cool hearing where writers get their inspiration — sounds like the Tolkien article resonated with you in just the right way.

      And don’t you love the thought that someday another writer will be saying “can you believe, my favorite author used to have a problem with dialogue? Now I know there’s hope for me!”

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 12:13 pm
  20. Description for me, all the way all the time. I stand in wonder of people who can make someone say something that wasn’t actually heard.
    I can unreel yards of description, just picturing whatever it is…but the spectre of description bars me forever from the novelist’s world.

    Posted by Lisa Heidinger | January 13, 2012, 12:06 pm
    • Lisa, you’re a rare commodity here — I can envision lots of other writers banging down your door asking to trade services: “I’ll do your dialogue if you’ll do my description!”

      And it’s a relief to know there ARE successful authors who struggle with dialogue, after so many are reporting their struggles with description…we definitely need a giant blender where we can all pick up the skills we want most. :)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 12:16 pm
  21. I hate writing descriptions. I sweat and fret over them every time. Dialogue is a different matter. I love writing dialogue. I just picture the two people speaking. Once it is written down, I speak it aloud exactly how the characters would adding the emotion. At that point it is much easier to catch anything that sounds fake or corny.

    Posted by Faith Thomas | January 13, 2012, 1:14 pm
    • Faith, you’re sure not alone in the “sweat and fret” camp — seems like a lot more writers here today are much bigger fans of dialogue than description!

      And it might be for that very reason; you can hear in your head exactly how the characters would sound. Which raises the question of what it takes to SEE in your head exactly how the characters would look…

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 1:26 pm
  22. Oh Laurie, what I wouldn’t give for Double D’s! Um… your double D class, that is. ;-)

    I have a very hard time with dialogue. Oh, I can get my characters to say what needs to be said, I just don’t like that they’d all say it the same way. :-/

    As for description, that’s my favorite. The tip I would give about writing description is to think deeper than the appearance of something or someone. Think about the emotional impact that appearance has, or provide a sensory detail related to that which you’re describing… something to connect the description to the story rather than have it be a paragraph of ‘tell’.

    Posted by Debora Dale | January 13, 2012, 1:16 pm
    • Hurray, another description writer! (And with double-D initials, at that. :) )

      I like your tip of going beyond the appearance for a visceral connection to the story. Because there’s always that danger of telling too much, and yet finding the balance can be tricky. Which, come to think of it, is true for BOTH the D’s…hmm.

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 1:28 pm
  23. I am a dialoguist — I blame it on being an amateur thespian :-)

    As far as tips, the usual helps — reading things out loud, letting the work sit for a bit, etc.

    I also love just sitting and listening to people — you’d be amazed how much it can help with dialogue. However, you don’t actually even write dialogue the way people talk :-) For example, almost everyone has verbal tics — like um, you know, er, etc. I noticed that I add Well, Sure, OK, etc. to dialogue which is really what people probably say, but it reads poorly. And apparently my dialogue rambles :-)

    I will say something that I’ve been noticing recently in description are a lot of similes (he stunk like a pole cat run over and baking in the sun for a week) — and my guess (one of my writing verbal tics) that it has to do with writers not wanting to do straight description. They can work but one book I read, the similes made me want to yell at the writer: just describe what she/he sees!

    Posted by Heidi | January 13, 2012, 1:17 pm
    • Ouch, Heidi, your descriptions of “rambling dialogue” and “too many similes” are painfully vivid!

      Sounds like in both instances, it’s a case of not knowing exactly how much is too much. After all, in certain areas we’re encouraged to go over-the-top…while in others that’s way too far. Hmm, that’s probably true of acting as well, isn’t it?

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 1:31 pm
  24. I’ll say dialogue. I hear the conversations happening in my head, accents, dialect, slang and all. Especially when I’m writing fast. Description requires me to slow down and visualize, not something I specialize in (which is why I had a hard time with physics in college).

    Posted by PatriciaW | January 13, 2012, 1:17 pm
    • Oh, Patricia, I love that we’ve got physics into the conversation — now it’ll be easy to go home and say “oh, yes, spent the day chatting with other writers about lofty subjects.” (Er, loftier than Double D’s.)

      And, boy, I envy you getting to hear accents and dialects in your head…that’s an impressive gift, and one I wish I had!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 1:33 pm
  25. I must be better at dialogue because I don’t even think about it. I just write whatever the character says in my head :-} I enjoy writing description and don’t have a problem with it . . . when I remember to do it. Since I see everything in my head, I forget the reader isn’t in there with me :-} My tip for dialogue is know your characters inside and out. Once you have that, they will speak how they speak and you can just transcribe :-)

    Posted by alexiswalker | January 13, 2012, 1:21 pm
    • Alexis, what a great description of how when you see everything in your head, it’s easy to forget the reader isn’t in there too!

      Because really, when it comes right down to it, isn’t that what we want for our readers? To see the same fabulous (or horrendous) picture WE’RE seeing and feeling and hearing and experiencing? I know the gift of fiction is that every reader can bring their own experience to it, but it’s sure tempting to just grab ‘em by the hand and bring ‘em along on our own ride. :)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 1:35 pm
  26. Hey Laurie! As always, what an excellent post! I think I’d say that I am more comfortable with dialog. Don’t get me wrong, I love to write description but I worry over just how much information is too much? I fight to find the balance of what is important or interesting, not to mention relevant, without dragging down the pacing or losing the reader in minutiae. In that way, creating the conversation between characters feels a little easier but it does have its challenges too – making the dialog believable and the voice unique to each character is a skill in its own right. I so admire the people who are adept at both!

    Posted by Jessica S. | January 13, 2012, 1:41 pm
    • Jessica, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be equally good at both the D’s? Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling are so popular; I think of them as double-barreled writers.

      Although there are readers who say “I don’t care about description” or “I just skim over the dialogue” and choose writers who hit the balance they most enjoy…I wish we could all pair off with our own favorites!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 2:03 pm
  27. Hey Laurie! Great blog! Thanks for sharing your big brain!

    I have been told my dialogue is great, and at other times my descriptions are great. I think I’m better at descriptions. I really like to be in the place I’m writing about (in my head) and so can imagine how all of my senses are affected. But sometimes, that dialogue comes to me just right and I love writing it all down! Tips? hmmm…I think the description tip is that I really do try to put myself into my setting. For instance, sound travels differently in dry air than in moist air, and having lived in AZ and SC, I can really hear it. For dialogue I start with what kind of person the character is – straight forward, or, not so much (in addition to other things like age) , and then figure out their mood and motivations at that moment.

    Posted by charlotte raby | January 13, 2012, 2:09 pm
    • Charlotte, I’m amazed that there’s a difference between sound in dry air and moist air — who’d have thought?

      Well, obviously somebody who’s good at description. :) That’s a wonderful example, and while it’s vaguely sensory I don’t think it falls under any of the traditional Five Senses, so people who read it in a scene will come away feeling like they’re REALLY there…and they’ve learned something besides!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 2:36 pm
  28. Questions To Keep In Mind When Reviewing Scenes:

    (Keep in mind, this more of a conceptual list, so if anybody wants to offer additional suggestions, go for it!)

    1. What is this scene doing? (i.e. are we establishing character, setting up an interaction, filling in backstory, advancing the action, following up on something that just happened, or what?)

    2. Is the scene doing what it’s supposed to be doing?

    3. Does it fit with the rest of the story? (This kind of a two-part question, because I want to watch for issues of pacing – am I racing ahead? Is this interrupting the action? – but it also concerns issues of tone: did reading that Stephen King book last night switch me out of the mythic tone I was using and into something more colloquial?)

    4. (New, from Carrie Spencer’s comment above) Is she just sitting in the middle of nowhere naked? (Basically, does the scene include enough detail that the reader can picture it clearly and tell what’s happening?)

    Posted by Michael Mock | January 13, 2012, 2:27 pm
    • Michael, thanks for posting that whole list — I wondered after I’d replied to you under Carrie’s comment whether that’d even show up in your box, so I’m glad it did.

      And how handy to have a conceptual checklist to use during the writing process AND the revision process…I can see this working beautifully either way!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 2:38 pm
  29. How about neither. I don’t ‘see’ my characters and I struggle to figure out what they would say.

    But if I have to pick one, I’m good at description because I labor over dialogue.

    Posted by Beth Caudill | January 13, 2012, 2:33 pm
    • Beth, all the people who labor over description are going to wish they could swap skills with you!

      And the fact that you’ve completed as many books as you have while not feeling particularly good at either of the D’s is impressive…clearly you’re doing SOMETHING right. Maybe your strength lies more in plotting and characterization, because we can bet those are at the heart of every story way-deep-down. :)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 2:42 pm
  30. I tend to feel more comfortable with description than with dialogue. One of your quotes, about all my characters sounding the same, is often true for me. I have to work consciously at differentiating their speech, coming up with words they tend to lean on a lot, and with having them speak in sentences of different length and pacing, depending on their personality. I have an especially hard time including taciturn characters and having them answer little or nothing in words, when someone else tries talking with them. I do have one problem common to both double D’s, though, putting in too many words and having to cut them back, but I just noticed this problem in particular in a conversation my current wip’s characters recently had. They talked all over the place, so the dialogue seemed rambling, and I wondered how I’d know what to cut. I finally realized, after closing the scene and starting to move to the next, that I might be able to clip some of the dialogue if I reminded myself of my hero’s big secret, not to be revealed for some scenes yet, and how that colored his view of what just happened and what they were talking about. That and keeping in mind the main source of conflict between these characters helped me trim some and add some body language. Still, it was harder work than describing my characters or some of the props. Also knowing when to have actual dialogue and when to summarize a discussion sometimes puzzle me, too, like knowing when to play out a full scene and when to gloss over what happened quickly, because the reader doesn’t need to hear all those words or see every action.

    Posted by Varina M. | January 13, 2012, 3:58 pm
    • Varina, you make a really good point about the fine line of when to summarize and when to play it out on the page. We’re like brand new parents with their first baby, enamored with every single detail and sometimes unable to comprehend that not everyone finds this child as fascinating as we do.

      The thing is, sometimes readers DO — and then we don’t want them feeling cheated! But one way around that is to provide the extra information on your website. Fans who can’t get enough will love reading the discarded description & dialogue, because it’s still more information about the world they love.

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 4:06 pm
  31. Great topic and tips, Laurie! I’m a dialogue girl. I like reading it; I like writing it. I wrote screenplays before I tried novel-writing–and you often keep screenplay descriptions vague on purpose. We can’t assume Brad Pit will say yes to the role! :) Sometimes I blow right through description I’m reading–especially if there are huge, huge chunks of it–and later when I AM paying attention, I’m like, “Red hair? I thought she was a brunette!” Then I have to recreate the character in my imagination. Writing first drafts, I often assume the reader is plugged into the videos of my scenes playing in my imagination. Revision means hauling in a truckload of description!

    Posted by Nancy Kay Bowden | January 13, 2012, 4:23 pm
    • Oh, Nancy, I know what you mean about being startled by a character whose image I’ve envisioned differently than what the author said. It’s always startling to discover this person ISN’T what I’ve been picturing, and usually I just keep my original picture and think “typo” when I come to a contradiction.

      Which is kind of an encouraging thought for those of us who aren’t as strong at description — at least we DO have a mental picture sometimes!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 4:49 pm
  32. Oh you asked a doozy question. It must be dialogue that comes more easily since I end up with talking heads in my first drafts. No action, no setting, no anchors, just dialogue. And occasional tags: he said, she said.

    Posted by Terrel Hoffman | January 13, 2012, 5:10 pm
    • Terrel, it sounds like you’re one of the writers (apparently we’re legion) who could do a fabulous job with radio plays.

      But, heck, as long as it WORKS to start with a virtual script and then go back later to fill in the action, setting and anchors…that’s all that matters in the end!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 5:17 pm
  33. Hi there. I’m all about the description. I don’t know why but the dialogue that sounds so brilliant and witty in my head nearly always seems to be dull and boring on paper. I tend to find I have to go back and throw in some dialogue to avoid solid pages of description.
    My tip for description would be that hearing and smell are very powerful for invoking images. Close your eyes and really listen to the sounds and scents of the world. The smell of coffee puts you in mind of waking up. The sound of the coffee machine tells you someone else is already awake. Remember to ‘look’ with all your senses as you build your scene.

    Posted by Leonie Lucas | January 13, 2012, 5:19 pm
    • Leonie, what a great example of sensory description just using the coffee machine — I’m impressed with how vivid that is; you’ve got me wanting to run home right now so I can fall asleep and wake up to the realization that Pete’s made the coffee. :)

      Which shows why you’re good at description…the idea that hearing and smell are more powerful than taste and touch (seems like sight is a given) is fabulous!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 5:58 pm
    • Nice way of putting it! I’ve heard “remember to include all the senses”, which is harder to do than it sounds–but those re GREAT tips on ways–and reasons–to do it!

      Posted by Robin L.L.Allen | January 13, 2012, 9:16 pm
  34. Description is much easier for me. I tend to speak a bit more formally and when I have teenagers in my story I have to forcibly dumb them down. I’m not a big talker normally, so my characters tend to be on the quieter side as well.

    Posted by Samantha | January 13, 2012, 5:29 pm
    • Samantha, I like the mental picture of your forcibly dumbing-down teenagers — you’ve got me curious how you go about doing that, especially because it seems like a GREAT dialogue skill to have in your toolbox!

      And you might’ve identified what makes some writers better with one of the double D’s: maybe our top pick reflects how talkative we are in everyday life. Hmm, intriguing thought…

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 6:01 pm
  35. Dialogue is easier for me, even though I’ve never had a character talk to me or through me in my life. I put their words in their mouths and that comes more quickly than descriptions of them and/or their surroundings.

    Especially when doing armchair research of a city or location within a city, I find it challenging to entice readers’ senses.

    I think it was Lee Child who said you have to not only have the reader experience New York with all their senses, but also have them experience the nuance of each street corner in New York your character passes through.

    That’s a huge challenge and a bar I set for myself. Google Maps street level helps with some of the senses, and you go with your gut for descriptions of what your other senses are picking up.

    And hope that no one who actually lives there sends you an email pointing out how you’ve missed the mark by this leetle bitty bit.

    Posted by Karen Tintori | January 13, 2012, 5:41 pm
    • Karen, wow, what a great idea to use Google Maps — that sure seems like the next best thing to being there! And you can do it anytime, right? without waiting for the corner shopkeeper to open up?

      That’s a wonderfully handy tool, and perfect for writers working in real-life settings. As for those creating fantasy worlds, well, at least they’ll never have to worry about emails from readers pointing out leetle-bitty-bit misses. :)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 6:05 pm
      • Agree–that’s a great way to get descriptions from places you can’t go to. Just remember, there’s a hefty lag time on Google Maps! Last winter, I told a former neighbor “her” childhood house was being torn down and renovated, and she rushed to Google Map to see what it looked like–only to find it there in all its glory with a crepe myrtle blooming in front. We realized those trees bloom August-ish here, so the “current photo” was at least six months old.

        Posted by Robin L.L.Allen | January 13, 2012, 9:19 pm
  36. Love THIS dialogue and seeing some familiar names in the postings.

    I prefer reading dialogue more than description, but don’t yet know which comes easier and which needs more work. And that’s why I’ll be in your class, Laurie – looking forward to learning ways to improve both areas.

    I do know that when I write descriptions involving a character’s posture, I sometimes ‘practice’ it ahead of time. It helps me better visualize what I want the reader to see and/or focus on in a scene. (The science brain inside needs to analyze to understand before I can show it to the reader :grins:.

    Thanks, once again, for a terrific info-packed blog, Laurie.
    Kathleen

    Posted by Kathleen | January 13, 2012, 5:58 pm
    • Kathleen, I love the idea of “practicing” a character’s posture — it’s easy to envision watching in the mirror to see exactly what they look like. Not feel like, I guess, because presumably their muscles are better used to that position, but it’s sure a good way of spotting what anyone looking at them will see!

      And with a science brain inside, my guess is that you’re more facile with description because you’ve got the skill of observation already well in place…although for that matter, observation would apply equally well to dialogue. Hmm…

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 6:09 pm
  37. Laurie,

    I have issues with description at times because I pay too much attention to make sure that I’m not telling, than actually focusing on telling the story… I tend to relax when it comes to dialogue, because that’s how the character speaks to me…

    Posted by Liz Munoz | January 13, 2012, 7:58 pm
    • Oh, Liz, I know what you mean about getting so enmeshed in the show-don’t-tell rule that the story kind of vanishes amidst the turmoil. That’s a tough thing to overcome, and you’re smart to avoid any such issue with dialogue.

      Just getting the words down, without any “am I doing it right” worries, is a wonderful way to work…good for you on having already nailed that with half your double D’s!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 8:40 pm
  38. Wow, I’m relieved at not having missed a whole lot of posts during the long drive home from work (long because it involved stopping at the 60th-anniversary party of a local recording studio).

    But I kept thinking “can’t go home and fall into bed until you do the random-number prize drawing,” and was tickled at seeing 36 people who qualified!

    Quick commercial first: if you’re interested in more information on how to use your strength at EITHER of the D’s to improve the other one, you can get it during next month’s Dynamic Description & Delicious Dialogue class…just email me (Book Laurie at gmail) for the scoop.

    And congratulations to our winners — #21 and #12, which is nicely symmetrical — and which translates into Faith and Noelle! Both of you, just let me know offlist if you’d like the Double D’s class for yourself or a friend and I’ll get that set up. :)

    Laurie, with one more THANKS to everyone who posted today…it’s always a treat chatting with writers!

    Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 13, 2012, 9:08 pm
  39. Hi Laurie!

    So sorry to be late to this wonderful Double-D party! Thanks for the invite.

    Read the two samples and…

    I spaced out on dearest Jane’s descriptive paragraph. Probably wouldn’t have if the bit been written from Mr. Bennett’s POV as he watched his wife bustle off down the hall, frantically waving her arms over the next new item to grab her attention.

    When I read JK’s descriptive bit, I thought it good, but I wanted to edit it.

    What does this say about me? (other than I’m probably certifiable)

    :-)
    Nina

    Posted by Nina Paules | January 13, 2012, 11:25 pm
    • Nina, it sounds to me like your strength is definitely in description — because with both Jane’s and JK’s material, you were thinking of how it could’ve been done better.

      As compared to the dialogue, which didn’t spark any thoughts regarding what worked and what needed improvement. The urge to pick up a pencil and get to work shows where your greatest attention goes!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 14, 2012, 4:46 am
  40. Hi Laurie. The Double D’s can be double trouble if you don’t get it right. No two characters should sound alike, and I find that working on unique traits for my main characters goes a long way in creating a distinct voice for them. Descriptions too are extremely important in a screenplay…especially if you’re trying to hook an A-list actor to play the part.
    Adite

    Posted by Adite Banerjie | January 14, 2012, 7:42 am
    • Wow, Adite, I never even thought about descriptions for actors — that must be especially tricky, phrasing it so the part could be played by any of several A-listers and make each one’s agent feel like “yep, this is is exactly the role my client was meant for.”

      And good thought on the unique traits for dialogue…I guess in screenplays, the actor gets paid to make it sound totally natural, like something this person would absolutely say in this situation. Kind of a cooperative effort, huh?

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 14, 2012, 11:17 am
  41. I’m a little late getting this in, but dialogue is much easier for me than description. I’m not sure why, other than I write sort of like I talk. And I tend to talk a lot. I also am a pretty good listener, so think that through the years, all the listening I’ve done has informed my writing.

    Great post, Laurie. Thanks!

    Posted by Mary | January 14, 2012, 12:29 pm
    • Mary, I like your theory that lots of talking and listening makes dialogue come easily — could be a very simple explanation for what gives different writers different skills.

      Now I wish we could get this whole group together and ask, “Everybody who’s better with dialogue, are you a big talker-listener?” and see if that’s true!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 14, 2012, 2:17 pm
  42. I really enjoy writing both. I myself like to know what the characters look like and their environment. I also like to develop them a bit. However not all of it belongs in your story. So to help me write I always create a Character file page for my books. I have each character listed and every time one is added minor or major I will add things on them. I keep it open and handy to glance back at. I read it and I will add if I feel anything is missing.

    This has been a great source of help. When I began I thought how can I keep it all straight and not mess something up in the middle. Something major that could be important. No we are not all perfect but we can try to be in writing.

    I just felt the details are important and painting the picture I see in my head if only for me some place else helped writing flow. Being an artist I like the details. I so find sometimes they will hold me up on writing dwelling on a dress color or something so unimportant and I have to remind myself what details are important to dwell on and when to move along.

    I do have to say I love to write dialog too. I think iteration of the characters is a natural occurrence and a way we get to know them. If there are people in the book they talk. I love to develop how they talk to accents or phrases they will say. I think as much detail to this is important you can help strengthen the characters with how and what they say.

    So I enjoy doing both

    Posted by Anonymous | January 14, 2012, 4:18 pm
    • Totally fine to enjoy doing both — heck, that’s what every fiction writer dreams of! (Otherwise we’d be writing radio commercials or catalogs, which actually some of us DO in our free time. Er, day-job time.)

      Interesting how the artist’s eye makes description easier with the flow, and harder because of the details. Which makes me wonder if the same thing is true for people who are gifted with dialogue…does the flow ever get interrupted by too many details? Seems like a pretty safe bet. :)

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 14, 2012, 5:13 pm
      • I am not saying descritption is easy. It can tend to be a big blockcade.Sometimes I find myself drifting to dwell on the perfect picture and not just the details of the story. I mean no one probaby cars what color the sofa was in the living room and if it had flowers or plaid print. However it could be important that there is a hard lump in the middle of it preventing Charlot from and harry from kissing.

        Before I can even get to that point I will drift on the sofa details and not the important character ones. this can be a huge road block.

        I can imagine dialog can go the same too. Getting lost in words that do not need to be exchanged. Does every conversations piece have to be put in and so on.

        Posted by Denise | January 14, 2012, 5:46 pm
        • Oh, Denise, I see what you’re saying…and you’re right that too many details can make the story grind to a halt.

          If you’re worried about that happening in your books, you might want to try speedwriting — just getting the bare bones onto the page and knowing you can fill in details later — or noticing whenever you’re flowing with details and asking “how come I’m not telling the story?”

          Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 14, 2012, 9:32 pm
  43. I’m REALLY late to the party, but at least I got to read all the posts in one go.

    I’m definitely better at description, but balance is a big issues when you’re targetting a line with a word count of 50,000 and your ‘skill’ is the part readers skip.

    My dialogue needs work. Lots of work. I’m in awe of people whose characters sound effortlessly different.

    Thanks, Laurie, for triggering this lively discussion!

    Cia

    Posted by Cia | January 16, 2012, 7:28 pm
    • Cia, wow, you’ve had a busy reading day. :) And I like your reference to Elmore Leonard saying he just leaves out the parts people skip…although who’s to say what those are?

      There are readers who get bored with dialogue but adore description, and others exactly the opposite — which I guess is good, because that means we’re all likely to delight SOME readers. Whew!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | January 16, 2012, 8:10 pm

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