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Monday, 5 December 2016

Description vs. Dialogue - Part 1

This is it, the grudge match, the one in a million, the never-before-seen..... Let's face it, it's a debate that's been raging in an author's head ever since both description and dialogue became the common means of telling stories. It's an inevitable quandary that can halt the progress of a story by quite a bit: do you rely on dialogue segments to communicate information to the reader, or do you use prose descriptive. Or do you just not explain at all? In this two-part blog, I'll be looking at these two contrasting styles. This first part is dedicated to books.

Frankly, it depends on what kind of story you want to tell, what kind of narration you're using, and how you want the reader to be carried along. You can only carry either style so far before the reader begins to go glassy-eyed and wonder how much longer this is going on. It's a perpetual sin committed by Christopher Paolini in his works: while there's nothing wrong with being loquacious, but there must be a line drawn somewhere, lest mere loquacity give way to verbal diarrhea. It's part of the reason I stopped reading his work after finishing Eldest. His huge blocks of text, which sometimes resulted in one page sporting just three paragraphs, meant that anything in the story was quickly lost in the sluggish pace of the prose. It's more than likely that some key little plot point may be mired in twelve other lines of prose. He doesn't use dialogue as freely as some, which is a legitimate style of writing, but there's such as thing as being too descriptive.

Description used in a good way us exemplified in the work of Ursula le Guin, particularly her Earthsea novels, where she prefers to tell the story of her characters through actions and impressions rather than long reams of explanation. This approach helps communicate that it's a tale being told long after the fact, based on the famous exploits of Ged. Likewise, a good example of exemplifying dialogue is J. K Rowling's Harry Potter books use characters talking to each other to unfold crucial parts of lore. A use of dialogue that might drag slightly on some is His Dark Materials, in particular The Amber Spyglass, which has dialogue that spills over several pages. Still, I'm saying this from a distanced perspective - he is one of my own role models, and his books have sold in their millions. To be honest, I haven't come across many other examples of what might be called poor use of dialogue in books, but then I'm very choosy about that books I have in my shelf.

In contrast, the first-person narrative is a medium where excessive description can be used to further the development of a character, or it can just be an ingrained habit of the author. The former is seen in the first-person segments of Jonathan Stroud's Bartemaeus series, where the Djinn Bartemaeus' personality is portrayed to us through his self-confident and loquacious discussion of events, annotated by various amusing footnotes: his is a style where you joy in the detail because you see just how amusing and absorbing this cocky Djinn's view of the world has become after uncounted millennia. The latter, where description hampers the experience, is most clearly seen in the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft. From his longer works such as The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Shadows Out Of Time, to his short stories such as "Dagon" and "The Call of Cthulhu", use a style that revels in long words and extensive description like some thesis or scholarly dissertation. This likely stems from his own background and education, but it also means that going through his work is more than a chore to even the most patient of modern readers. A book I'd recommend as a good balance between description and dialogue in first person that I've experienced is Flashman by George MacDoland Fraser. While it's the first in a long series, it's still a good standalone item. And it's completely hilarious reading about Flashman's quest for a sinecure.

On the whole, the balance of description vs. dialogue is both a matter of personal choice and a matter of style and quality. Dialogue can help, and description can be key, but the real art is balancing the two out to tell a story that is both meaty and speedy.

Next week, we explore the pros and cons of description vs. dialogue as they've manifested in the visual arts, from film all the way to the modern interactive medium of video games.

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