Bonus! Descriptive Passages, part IV: Dialogue


After Hours: Tales From the Ur-Bar, edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia BrayFirst 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.”
“Sorry, Janna.”
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

20 comments to Bonus! Descriptive Passages, part IV: Dialogue

  • Mikaela

    Here is a snippet from The Raven Mocker. It is longer than 100 words, but the shortest I could find :).

    “Can I help you with something?” he asked.
    I glanced at the neatly labelled jars. Mummy powder, bat wings. Thank God I don’t use them. I stifled a shudder.
    A small basket filled with onyx amulets drew my attention. Come, pick me up. They beckoned me.
    “ Those are charms, to give you a long life,” he explained.
    My hand hovered over the basket, my fingers almost touching the amulets. I forced my hand away. I didn’t want them.

    “ I am not here to buy anything. I would like to talk with the owner,” I said, desperate to pull my brain from the baskets.
    The boy gnawed at his lip. I could see the curiosity blazing in his eyes. Feining calm, I waited for him to give me an answer
    “ I am sorry but the boss is out of town.” His words were barely audible, yet they echoed in the empty store.
    Why am I not surprised? I choked down a groan

  • I agree 100% about the importance of dialogue. It brings readers into a story like no other prose can and is one of my favorite things to write. But no fair teasing us with snippets from Book 2!!! We still have a year to wait for Book 1. Sheesh! Anyway, thanks for adding in this addendum to a great series of posts.

  • Great stuff, David, Makes me really want to read the first Thieftaker.

  • I had never heard/thought of dialogue as action, but I can see the logic behind that thinking. However, I have to agree with your statement, “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.” I think that says it all, and the rest is just the details of figuring out how best to accomplish the needs of the tale at the moment.

    Great post.

  • Cool! Thanks, David. I’m so glad I could help inspire a post.

    For context, here’s where I heard “dialogue = action”: It was a writers’ conference workshop. Actor/writer Chris Humphries was giving a class on action, and listed dialogue as a type of action.

    These are great examples. I agree with A.J. – I definitely can’t wait to read Thieftaker!

    Here’s my snippet (sorry, just a bit longer than 100 words).

    [Context: Janni is stuck walking with Brennant on her journey. Much to Janni’s chagrin, Brennant likes to talk.]

    “She’s in Bandia, you know.”


    “The princess. She must have been rescued by her relations there. How else could she still be alive?” He nods at his own conclusion. “Perhaps Queen Remeena herself has raised her.”

    I roll my eyes at his false assumptions, and swallow my discomfort. Even if it is for different reasons, his thoughts dance too close to my own.

    “I wonder if Ilyra has waited for her majority,” Brennant continues. “Surely she has been preparing to take the throne back from her uncle.”

    His guess is so ridiculous that I laugh despite myself. “What makes you think that this princess of yours will even want to be queen?”

    “She’s your princess, too!”

    “No, she is not.” I glance up at the Shadows, which gleam red in the morning sunlight. With the upperclassman walking beside me, I find it easier not to look at him. “The Ilyra you speak of is a construct of your imagination. You have not met her. You know nothing of what she has become.”

    Brennant halts on the path. “And you do know?”

    His gaze is so cold, so quiet, that still I cannot look at his face. But this only prompts him further, and his voice drops to a murmur. “How could a landmaiden who has only been to Anem once understand the mind of the princess?”

    Bile sears my throat at his accusation. Once again, I have been too careless with my words. Now he suspects the truth.

  • David, dialogue has become my favorite part of writing only very recently, with the dialogue (internal and verbal) of the Jane Yellowrock books. I’ve always loved the textures of overlapping purpose one can play with in dialogue, like the amazing textures of cloth in the sewing shop my mother frequented when I was a girl. But as part of my writer’s journey, dialogue has only now taken over with such a force. And Thieftaker is brilliant with dialogue.

    “Yes,” she said, a small smile playing over her lips. “I’ve read Thieftaker.” Her brows arched, “You mean you haven’t? Odd. I thought you all were such good friends.”


  • Mikaela, I like that passage very much — the temptation of the objects in the shop interspersed with your dialogue and descriptions of the boy to show your MC’s preoccupation. Very nicely done.

    Stuart, thanks for the comment. I think the dialogue in the story we wrote together reflects the fact that both of us enjoy writing conversations so much. And yeah, Thieftaker II — it’s never too early to start pimping a book….

    Thanks, A.J.

    Edmund, I agree, of course, and I would argue that the attribution of dialogue (and the descriptions of expression, tone, gesture that attribution includes) is every bit as important as the words spoken by the various characters. Thanks.

    Laura, I’m grateful to you for inspiring the post, and for the nice words about Thieftaker. That’s a very nice passage — I like the blending of her thoughts and the spoken words, and really like your descriptions at the end of the upperclassman’s tone and expression. Good work.

  • Faith, you are an evil woman! My favorite parts of the Jane Yellowrock books (and there are many parts of them that I love) are the internal dialogues between Jane and Beast, which you handle brilliantly in terms of voice and motive. Just beautiful.

    And thank you. 🙂

  • Mikaela

    Thanks, David :). I really, really like the Raven Mocker. I feel it is the first WIP I remember description in the first draft. Plus the plot is solid too.

  • Unicorn

    I am addicted to the hundred thousand synonyms of the word “said”. My characters don’t say, they growl, snap, shout, whisper, mumble, murmur, chant, intone… you get the picture. The result: horrendous dialogue.
    I also have a habit of always making my characters do something while they’re talking. They’re never standing still and talking to each other; for me, it makes it feel very stiff and contrived. They’re usually busy with chores around the stables, brushing or saddling up horses, perhaps cleaning armour or oiling saddlery, or else chatting at the banqueting table or hurrying to their next class at knight school.
    How do you handle dialogue that really is action, such as an argument? Does Vernor’s Law still apply, or should it be treated as an action scene?
    Here is a snippet (sorry, longer than 100 words…) from “Sparrowhawk”. Since my heroes hardly ever exchange a word with the villains (they’re more likely to try and chop each other up), there seemed a bit of a gaping hole and Ekin, a beautiful but nasty knight-in-training, stepped into it. She’s an extreme irritation to Falcon (MC and POV character), Lioness (his big, booming, vaguely maternal sister) and Flavian Dragonrain (a best friend of Falcon’s; a real weirdo and Ekin’s favourite target, especially since he stopped studying to become a knight and moved to warlock school instead.) Her first remark refers to the knight appointed to keep an eye on Flavian after an attack on him inside the castle.

    “Heard you got a guard now, Dragonrain,” Ekin said, still smiling. “You should’ve stayed in knight school. Maybe you’d have been able to take care of yourself. Then again,” she added, tilting her head to one side in a pitying gesture, “I guess you couldn’t scrape the guts together to hold a sword by the right end.”
    “You just shut up, Ekin,” snapped Lioness, “or I’ll cut out your tongue with a blunt axe and eat it on my toast.”
    “How’re you going to defend your little friend with a blunt axe, Lioness? I guess even that could be better than what he has.”
    “Leave it, leave it,” growled Flavian in Lioness’s ear, grabbing her by the arm before she made good her promise. “She’s not worth it, Lioness.”
    “Get it under control, quick,” said Ekin, backing away, still smiling. “Drag it back to its stable.”
    This time Lioness threw an arm over Falcon’s chest to stop him from murdering Ekin. “Cool it,” she snapped. “Flavian’s right.”

    Not the most heated argument, but it sets up the later conflicts between Ekin and the others. I’m worried that it comes across as coarse and unintelligent.
    Thanks for the post. Still looking forward to Thieftaker…

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you very much for this post, and especially for the lovely examples. My usual thought when I think about dialogue is: Ugh, I’m horrible at dialogue. My characters are incapable of sounding like humans when they talk and nearly as bad at talking and doing something else at the same time, except thinking to themselves way to much. I think the real problem I have, though, is in setting up the flow of plot and story properly to allow good opportunities for interesting dialogue to occur naturally.

    Here’s a snippet from a scene I always think about with distress. The entire thing is MUCH longer, of course, way too info-dumpy, and filled with Jhohann thinking a lot and Drissen giving long speeches, but the important bit, really, is just in this snippet. Any thoughts would be appreciated, as well as advise on ways to write ABOUT a conversation without writing out the whole darned thing, AND how they met, AND how they parted ways.

    […] He felt deeply unsettled, but fear wasn’t the right word to describe it. Watchful, that was closer to it. Aloud he said, “I passed the Queen on my way from the tower in the great wall. She had one each of a Kingsman and a Queensman with her and I was wondering… What do you know about them?”

    “About the loyal-sworn?” Drissen rubbed at his chin as he considered the question. The gold bands clasped in his beard glinted in the firelight, their intricate patterning in sharp contrast to his rough soldier’s hands. “Well, they’re a bit of a strange lot, but more so because they keep so much to themselves. You’d do best to keep out of their way.”

    Jhohann quirked an eyebrow, and Drissen let out his breath in annoyance before continuing. “Romantic fanatics if you ask me, but don’t go saying that too loud. […]”

  • Intermittent internet today, because of storms. Sorry for the slow replies.

    Thanks, Unicorn. I like the idea of having characters doing other things while they talk. You’re right: there’s something far more natural about that approach. As to your question, I am of the opinion that an argument still qualifies as dialogue, and as such should have elements of character, plot, and backstory flowing through it. The dialogue should be sharper, more terse, and the descriptions should be of a similar quality. Don’t linger over them as you might in a slower scene. But I wouldn’t exempt it from the rules the way I would a full-blown action sequence. But that’s just me. Others might take a different approach. I like the dialogue in your sample, but think you could actually do more with the descriptive elements to give your readers a better sense of who everyone is and how they are connected to one another. Tell us a little more about the characters themselves, perhaps by giving us a sense of expression, voice tone, etc.

    Hep, I like this snippet very much. Lovely descriptions, and the dialogue sounds natural. Writing about a conversation is, I think, a fine way to dispense with the unnecessary stuff. The key is to remember point of view, by which I mean this: you don’t want to step out of your POV character’s head and summarize the parts of the dialogue that take place “off camera.” Rather, you want to keep in the POV of your character and have him or her glean what’s essential to your plot and his/her emotional response. So you wouldn’t necessarily say “She and Bob talked about work and family before saying goodbye.” Instead you might say, “Long after she and Bob said goodbye, she found herself thinking about the troubled look that had come into his eyes when he mentioned Mary,” or something of the sort. Do you get where I’m going with this?

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for your comments, and for your advice about POV. I’m definitely going to have to remember that and play with making it work. You’re example is really helpful.

  • Sarah

    Thanks, David! This is part of scene I wrote recently and I’m not sure if it’s clear or too heavy handed or what, so I’d love some critique on it.

    Carl settled beside the kitchen table, his feet stretched out in front of him, one arm resting on the table. “I thought I wasn’t allowed back in this house.”
    “The kids aren’t home.”
    “Right.” He accepted the mug of hot coffee from her with a bitter smile. “Never thought I’d be labeled a corrupter of children.”
    “Shut up and drink your coffee.” She settled on the other side of the table, shoving the milk jug at him, and pointed at the gauze on his forearm. “Broken bottle do that?”
    “Ice demon.”
    “This early? The ground isn’t even frozen yet.”
    “I know. I think we’re in for a bad winter.” He shoveled sugar into his coffee. He was as bad as Caleb with sweets. Not more than an ounce of fat on him though. What he didn’t work off in the garage, he burned in fistfights in bars and hunts along the Niagara River.
    She dripped milk into her own unsweetened coffee and pointed at his arm. “You should get a doctor to look at that. It probably needs stitches.”
    “I took care of it.”
    “I bet you didn’t.” She grabbed his wrist, dragging his arm across the table toward her, and peeled off the homemade bandage. “You’re going to have one hell of a scar there, dummy. Hold still.” She got the big first aid kit out from under the kitchen sink and pulled out a curved needle and silk thread. “You want something before I do this?”

  • Glad to help, Hep. Thanks again for sharing your passage and for the question.

    Sarah, I think that scene works very nicely. Not heavy-handed. I might change “I bet you didn’t.” to “Yeah, I’ll bet,” or something of the sort — sarcasm would work better there, I think. And I would also change the corrupter of children line — that’s the one line that felt a bit heavy to me; maybe make it a bit less explicit. Hinting at it might make it work better. Otherwise, I like it.

  • Thanks, David. This post and the comments also helped me with more rewrites on my lunch break. Especially “The dialogue should be sharper, more terse, and the descriptions should be of a similar quality. Don’t linger over them as you might in a slower scene. But I wouldn’t exempt it from the rules the way I would a full-blown action sequence.” I was wondering about that, too.

  • Late to the game, but here’s mine!

    Right before this happens, Mary repeats the first few lines of the Hail Mary. “Hail Mary full of grace…”
    Some of the formatting got lost, but the Hellifre talks inside her head, and so it is in italics.

    “Christ,” Thomas muttered. “You’re some kind of religious freak.”
    Blasphemy? The hellfire whispered.
    Shut up. She thought back at it. It’s just a turn of phrase.
    She dropped her feet to the floor and stood. She leaned across the table, resting her weight on her hands, making sure he could see the flames in her eyes. “In about twenty minutes, a demon will walk through that door and, unless I stop it, it will take your soul.”
    Thomas cringed back. “Please don’t hurt me,” he whimpered. “I’ve got credit-cards, cash. I’ve got a Jag, you can have the keys.”
    Mary crossed her arms over her chest. “I am here to save you, Thomas. I swear.” Truth or simplicity? Simplicity. “Look, long story short: about a year ago, I had a confrontation with a demon and I killed it with a firepoker. It had the hellfire power and that power came to me.”
    “What had the demon done to you?” Thomas asked.
    “Being a demon isn’t enough?” No one had asked that question before. “My brother was convinced that his wife was a demon, and when no one believed him—even me—he took his own life. Gunshot to the chest.”

  • Razziecat

    I hate coming in so late. Darn day job

    This piece is from a bit of backstory, but I work hard on these, for the practice. Khalyr is a magic-gifted, troublesome 12 year old boy about to be sold to a temple:

    “This is the boy, lord,” Talna said. “Whole and healthy, just as promised.”
    “Your brother’s child, you said?” The man’s voice was deep and melodic. Khalyr met his eyes, too intrigued to be cowed.
    “Yes, lord. By a mistress. Nine years ago.” Hearing the lie, Khalyr bit his lip. If the man knew she was lying, he said nothing about it.
    “And where is the boy’s mother?”
    “Dead, lord. She and my brother both.” Her smug tone roiled Khalyr’s empty belly, but Talna ignored his black scowl. “I’ve had the raising of him since, but no longer.” She passed a small leather purse into the man’s hand. “Here is the fee. Take him and welcome.”

  • Razziecat

    I’m going to toss in an additional comment. Isolating a specific scene, whether descriptive passage, dialog or action, and separating it from the rest of the story helps me see what works and what needs fixing. It’s teaching me to spot the places where action, dialog and descriptive passages blend nicely vs. where they clash or get hung up. This is great!

  • Great, Laura. Glad to have helped. Thanks.

    Emily, this scene works nicely. I like the dialogue, the voice in her head. I think that even a bit more description of reactions and expressions could make the characters, particularly Thomas, come through more clearly. But nicely done.

    Razz, thanks — glad that this approach is helping in some way. Very nice work on Khalyr’s responses — particularly that first one. I love the image of the man’s voice overmastering the boy’s fear. I might tone down the descripters in the third one (“smug tone” is fine; “black scowl” might be too much — “scowl” alone says it, I think), but overall I like this.