First off, allow me a moment for a shameless plug: After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar, a new anthology from Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray will be released tomorrow, March 1, by DAW. The anthology includes the very first D.B. Jackson publication, a short story called “The Tavern Fire.” The story is set in the Thieftaker universe — in other words, 1760s Boston — and even includes a character from the Thieftaker novels, although not my lead character. It takes place on the night of the Great Boston Fire of 1760 and offers one possible explanation for the fire’s origins. After Hours also includes stories from Laura Anne Gilman, Jennifer Dunne, Juliet E. McKenna, Anton Strout, S.C. Butler, and many others. Check it out. And while you’re at it, check out the newly launched D.B. Jackson website.
Before taking time out last week to mark the Presidents’ Day holiday, I had written three posts on descriptive passages, focusing on setting, character, and action. In these I wrote of Vernor’s Law — which tells us that all our scenes should accomplish at least two and preferably all three of the following: advance narrative, deepen character, and fill in backstory. My plan had been to write these three posts and then move on to something new. But a question from one of our readers relating to description in scenes with dialogue has made me reconsider and visit the subject of description one more time.
In my third post, I pointed out that, unlike other passages, action sequences needed to be very much in the moment, and that the descriptive sections of these passages were the exception to Vernor’s Law — they could be completely focused on narrative. The commenter (Laura) asked whether scenes that depended heavily on dialogue were similar to action sequences in this way. As she put it, “I’ve heard it said that dialogue is action, too. That’s the part where I’m having trouble inserting details and description—it just feels like it bogs down the dialogue. Any recommendations?”
It’s an excellent question, one that I feel I didn’t answer adequately in my response in the comments section. I agree with the idea that dialogue is a form of action. Scenes with lots of conversation tend to move swiftly, to draw the reader along just as action scenes should. People like to listen to other people’s conversations — human nature. And so those scenes in which we bring together key characters and have them interact tend to be the ones that fascinate our readers most.
But passages laden with dialogue also tend to be the ones that offer us the best opportunities to deepen our character development AND fill in backstory AND advance plot. In other words, unlike action scenes, which often stand outside of Vernor’s Law, the dialogue passages are perfectly suited to it. When I write description into scenes with lots of conversation, I tend to use it enhance what is said. Sure, I might give some sense of what a character looks like and is wearing, or I might describe the setting for the encounter. But most of what I do is geared toward reinforcing the gist of the conversation. As such, most of my description in these scenes focuses on gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, and the tiny details of human behavior that can be so illustrative of personality and emotional state — balling up the paper from a straw wrapper, pealing the label from a beer bottle, sitting perfectly still save for the constant, frenzied bouncing of one leg, etc. Descriptions become a barometer of comfort, of candor, of anger, of affection, of interest in what’s being said, of patience. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
As with previous posts on this subject, let me offer a couple of examples. This first comes, once again, from Thieftaker. Ethan has gone to see another conjurer, a former slave named Tarijanna, who runs a small tavern:
“Kaille,” she said, scowling at the sight of him. “Thought you was a customer.”
Her expression didn’t change but she waved him toward the bar. “Well, you here, so you might as well sit an’ drink with me.”
He waited while she poured him a cup of Madeira, and then followed her to the hearth, where a fire burned. They sat at a small table and Ethan sipped his wine, which Janna had watered quite a bit. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Given how much she drank, undiluted Madeira would have left her broke and soused.
“You come for a healin’ tonic?” she asked, sitting forward in her chair and eyeing his battered face.
Ethan chuckled. “No.”
“Who did that t’ you?”
“Who do you think?”
Her expression turned stony. “Sephira Pryce.”
Janna didn’t really like anybody. She tolerated Ethan because he was a conjurer, and she could be charming at times when her work demanded it. But she treated strangers with contempt, and wasn’t much nicer to people she knew. Aside from a scrawny black dog that occasionally came by her place, Ethan didn’t think she had any friends. Still, there was no one in the world she hated more than Sephira. That she and Ethan shared this probably explained why she spoke to him and helped him with his work, despite knowing there was little profit in it for her.
“She’s a wicked woman,” Janna said, shaking her head and sounding so bitter one might have thought that Sephira had beaten her.
“You’ll get no argument from me.”
Janna shook her head a second time and leaned back in her chair. “So, no healin’ tonic. You finally gonna let me fix you a love tonic for that woman o’ yours?”
Ethan knew that she meant Elli. “No, thanks.”
“Wouldn’ take much. Where there’s a past, th’ love is easier t’ coax back.”
“I need information, Janna.”
She dismissed him with a wave of her slender hand. “You always need information. There’s no coin in that for me.”
Usually this was where Ethan pulled out a few shillings and put them on Janna’s table. Already she was casting furtive looks his way, as if expecting him to do just that. Ethan took another sip of wine and stared back at her.
“You’re right,” he said. “This time there’s no money. Maybe there will be if you’re able to help me, but I haven’t got any right now. Sephira took every coin I had.”
“Why she so mad at you all o’ sudden?”
“A rich man hired me, and she wanted the job for herself.”
Janna laughed delightedly, exposing sharp yellow teeth. “Good for you, Kaille!” She laughed some more, shaking her head slowly.
We get a lot of information about Janna in this passage, some of it from what she says, but much of it from her expressions and gestures. She is a prickly personality, a bit of an operator, and despite her gruff demeanor, a good friend to Ethan. The two of them have some history — without knowing the exact details (and despite the fat that I cut a couple of paragraphs to keep the passage at a manageable length) we still get a sense of it just through the way they behave, and through Ethan’s description of her actions. — Character and backstory, in a scene that also furthers plot.
A second passage from the second Thieftaker book reintroduces us to a character whose description I included in the “Character” post — Ethan’s friend Diver Jervis. Ethan and Diver have been working together on a job, but apparently Diver’s indiscretion has cost them dearly.
“Who have you told about this job?” Ethan asked.
“No one, Ethan! I swear it!” His eyes were wide, even fearful. He knew better than to think that Ethan would do anything to him. But they had been friends for a long time. Diver looked up to Ethan the way he might an older brother; the last thing he would have wanted was to fail Ethan on a job, particularly if it meant losing money to Sephira Pryce.
“A girl, maybe?” Ethan asked.
“No.” But Ethan could see the doubt in his friend’s dark eyes. With Diver, there was always a girl — a different one from fortnight to fortnight, but he was rarely alone. He was tall and handsome, with black curly hair and a smile that could have charmed the queen consort herself.
“What’s her name, Diver?”
“She wouldn’t have told Sephira,” he said, more to himself than to Ethan. “I know she wouldn’t.”
“Diver?” Ethan said, drawing the young man’s gaze once more. “Her name?”
His friend sighed. “Katharine,” he said. “Katharine Chambers. I met her outside Faneuil Hall maybe a month ago. She wouldn’t be working for Sephira, Ethan. She’s . . .” He shook his head, perhaps knowing better than to complete the thought aloud.
Ethan had never heard of the girl, but that didn’t mean much. “Have you told anyone else about Tanner?” he asked.
Diver shook his head, his expression bleak. “No, no one.” He met Ethan’s gaze. “You have my word.”
Ethan nodded and took a long pull of ale. “Well,” he said wiping his mouth with his hand, “there’s nothing to be done about it now. But I’d suggest you stay away from her.”
“So, we don’t get anything?” Diver asked.
“This is Sephira we’re talking about, Diver. It’s not like her to share with the other children.”
The young man closed his eyes and rubbed his brow with his thumb and forefinger. “I needed that money.”
Ethan didn’t bother asking why. When Diver said it that way, he usually meant, I’ve already spent that money.
Again, the dialogue keeps the narrative moving forward. The descriptive passages fill in backstory and character. The result is a scene that does all of what Vernor’s Law demands in a way that hopefully doesn’t read as data-dumpy.
Dialogue is probably my favorite thing to write, in part because I, too, love to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, in part because it’s something I actually do pretty well, but mostly because I find it is the single most effective tool we writers have for developing all aspects of our story. It helps a story flow while conveying huge amounts of information, not only through what is actually said, but also through attribution and our descriptions of how the words are spoken.
So, do you have a brief (100 words) snippet of dialogue/description to share?David B. Coe
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