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Monday, 12 December 2016

Description vs. Dialogue - Part 2

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. The first part looked at books, now this second part is dedicated to the visual arts - films, television and video games.

Now with books, the scenes and actions are described through prose. With the visual arts, it's all done... visually. No need for words, it's all action. But even then action must be balanced with explanation. But where should one end and the other begin? Anime and other similar Asian genres such as Wuxia is notorious for explanations scattered here and there between eclectic action scenes, while many Western genres rely far more on action over explanation. This makes the two interesting to both contrast and parallel; on the one hand you don't want to listen to twenty minutes of dialogue, but on the other you don't want to be left in the dark as (in an unfortunate majority) burly men beef it out against each other. This is why I'm very choosy about what I add to my DVD shelf.

Now, not explaining is a thorny issue in the visual arts, such as film and video games, where most viewers (in the opinion of executives and possibly some programme makers) need everything explaining to them in some way. That's why there's a lot of what may feel like needless exposition in things like television series or during scenes in films. It becomes the duty of dialogue to fill in the reader, which can lead to unlikely scenarios such as a villainous monologue or a pre-fight exchange or even some kind of internal contemplation on the part of the protagonist. There's also the technique of the information dump at the beginning of something, which was sent up with vicious regularity in 'Allo 'Allo. But then, considering how convoluted 'Allo 'Allo became even before David Croft left and the writing skewed away from previous events, the info dump was perhaps the only way anyone could keep up with the story in any conceivable way.

Comics and their like have far more leeway to do this as the only way they can properly convey the action is through dialogue, as all images included are static. Descriptions and explanations are two a penny, ranging from the perfectly natural to the utterly ridiculous. This is where classic anime gets a lot of its fluff, as it draws from manga which use this explanation-heavy approach. Sometimes this explanation is justified (try understanding Steins;Gate without all that description from the characters) and other times it just comes off as goofy in the wrong way (many non-comedy focused comic series internationally post 1980s when the taste for grit came in). You can get a taste of that kind of explanation in its original amusing form with the 1960s Batman television series, whose style was lifted directly from the titular comics of the time.

Video games is where this disconnect between explanation and action is most apparent. Games were once not methods for communicating stories, and have been included as a narrative medium over forty-plus years of advancing hardware and changing tastes. There are too many contrasting examples to name, so I'll just select two: Metal Gear and the Souls franchise. From its inception, Kojima's seminal Metal Gear series has had a penchant for lots of exposition, even if quite a bit of that prior to Metal Gear Solid was optional; battle sequences are punctuated by cutscenes that can sometimes last upwards of forty-five minutes, and dialogue can even creep into live gameplay. In direct contrast, the Souls franchise has its story tucked away in a very few cryptic dialogue segments and multiple notes in item descriptions and notes left about the world - its chosen style is one of atmosphere and player immersion over a complex storyline.

Of course, all of this very much depends on the style and genre you're wanting to use, whatever medium you're writing in. If your work is a slow-burning thriller or something like it, then dialogue trumps description. If it's action-based, then there's more of an emphasis on visual information. In gaming, this is best seen in the difference between visual novel derivatives and the majority of other games; while many games put story elements between segments of gameplay of varying kinds within an action-oriented or exploration-focused story, the visual novel family relies primarily on text and tells stories that revolve around subjects like crime or puzzles or deeper themes.

In conclusion, it's safe to say that the conflict between dialogue and description, or dialogue and action depending on which medium you're using, will always exist and will have champions on both sides. Don't drag out an argument. They'll be no winners.

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