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Kristina: Hello and welcome to The Writer’s Cookbook podcast. With me is spring onion growing extraordinary Ellie Betts.
Ellie: And she has killed every plant she’s owned. It’s Kristina Adams.
Kristina: I’m not quite that bad.
Ellie: Didn’t you say you’ve managed to kill off your succulent?
Kristina: The ones in the garden are okay.
Ellie: The ones that don’t have to rely on you.
Ellie: In this episode, we will be pitting dialogue against description in our very own writing Royale.
Kristina: Let the games begin.
Starting with dialogue
Ellie: A little bit of a story today. I was recently writing a script for my uni assignment. It was my first ever script. And I got some advice from Kristina here that was very interesting.
The advice was, I needed more description because I’d put a lot of dialogue in there.
Kristina: Yeah, I think there’s a misconception that if you’re writing a script, it needs to be completely dialogue. And I love dialogue. Most of my first drafts are about 90% dialogue and my books are dialogue heavy. But the description that you include, whether you are writing a script or fiction, or even a poem can make a massive difference.
Ellie: Exactly. But I was writing a script . So I just thought it needed to be like 99% dialogue. But obviously this is what happens when you’re new to something you learn very quickly.
Kristina: With scripts, you want to kind of holds the director’s hand and tell them exactly what you want to appear on screen and when to complement the dialogue.
And with fiction, it’s kind of the same. You want readers to really, and truly see what is going on in their mind’s eye. And the deeper your description, the more vividly your readers are going to see what’s going and go on.
And, you know, some people might even argue that that really vivid description is a significant part of what forms the deeper connection with characters and reader.
Ellie: That makes sense.
So what I needed, I had the scene in question was a big argument scene. One was a police officer. One was the person being interrogated. And it was an important scene because it showed a lot about the characters and the argument was obviously pivotal to the story, but I had no action in the scene, I had no description. So. How do dialogue and description work together, would you say?
Kristina: They really compliment each other and work together to bring the characters and the world and the story to life.
Ellie: Of course.
Adding in description
Ellie: So, in my scene, it’s basically dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, you know, he said something, she said something, he said something, and it served a purpose, it moved the story along, and did I think the actual dialogue wasn’t bad? It was good at telling you about the characters, and there was subtexts, et cetera, although not perfect, I think it was a good first attempt.
What you recommended, I add were descriptions of what they were doing. So for instance, when he was shouting, he slammed the files down on the table. When she was, she was kind of lying and trying to play the sympathy card, so she played with her tissue and then she looked down.
And then later on, when she got more serious, you recommended I use something like putting her hands on the table where you can see a clear action and she’s trying to hold on.
That’s why you made it like a million times better, but adding those little things, those tiny little actions, those tiny little descriptions, added so much steps to the scene. Without having to put all that much effort in at all, you got to see how the descriptions push the dialogue.
And they worked together and came out with something even more magical.
Kristina: I’m really glad that it helped. I don’t remember what I said, I’ll be honest with you. I’ve done a lot of editing since then. I do remember like the dialogue was fine, but I didn’t get a feel for how guilty or innocent the characters were until the end. You didn’t really hint are imply anything.
And quite often what people say, isn’t what they mean. And you can kind of gauge what they mean by the way they act. So like you say, things like playing with a tissue when people are avoiding eye contact or, you know, they’re feeling distracted or they’re worried about something, all these little things add up and help to build a picture in the audience’s mind so they can start to form their own conclusions. And it’s a lot harder for them to do that when it’s just dialogue.
Ellie: It makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense. You are very good at scripts.
Kristina: Thank you. I do enjoy doing them. I have to admit I do. I don’t write them very often.
Types of description
Ellie: There are different types of description, aren’t there?
Kristina: What we were talking about mostly with your script is the action stuff, it’s what people are doing around it. An example I always like to give for this is based on one of my old works, actually, when I was doing my BA and I wrote an argument scene. And it was mostly just dialogue.
And my teacher fed back and said, you know, I need a bit of description to break up the dialogue, but also what the characters were doing around the argument, added depth to their relationship.
Because it’s a lot different when someone is looking at you and arguing with you or someone who’s avoiding eye contact and maybe cleaning the kitchen at the same time, or maybe they’re packing a bag, half-heartedly replying. It all makes a difference and adds more depth.
Kristina: And you’ve got the inner monologue, which is always good, particularly in first person. To you really reinforce that connection and put the reader in the narrator’s shoes. And that’s a key part of first person, but if you’re writing any sort of commercial fiction, you really need that because it just fleshes your character out so much and makes them feel that much more human.
Kristina: And then we’ve got the, you kind of has to be mindful of, depending on the situation. We’ve got the info dump, which I think newbie writers tend to fall into. Particularly if they’re defaulting to writing something like fantasy.
Ellie: I used to be terrible for info dump, but I still do it now sometimes, but I’m better able to catch myself, but I love a good info dump.
Kristina: Hate it, hate it.
For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s basically just where you throw information at the reader and you just dump it. And the reader may not actually need to know it. You just want to talk about it.
Occasionally these scenes are needed. Like for instance, if it’s backstory and it’s necessary to fleshing out the character and understanding why they’ve done things in a certain way or why they’re responding to something in a certain way.
But these kind of scenes or sections you want to use sparingly, because they’ll be more effective. And you also want to use them when the reader cares.
Ellie: I’ve actually, I started reading a book, I think I told you about called, Snow Crash, and it’s premise is similar to Ready Player One where they’ve got this big online world, everyone logs into it, et cetera, et cetera.
But it was written in the early nineties. And so a lot of the things that are commonplace now that are just sort of glossed over and something like Ready Player One or various other examples in that genre. He has to explain so much more. And so seeing it through that lens is really interesting.
So there’s a lot more info dumping than something written in a similar style today. But I don’t hate it. I mean, I kinda like info dumping sorry. .
Kristina: I don’t necessarily think you’re in a minority, but I think it’s like purple prose in that it’s genre specific. Because I’ll be brutally honest: anything with too much info dumping or purple prose does lose my attention.
Purple prose—or frilly knicker writing
Ellie: I love the name purple prose. But for any of our lovely listeners who do not know what it is, do you want to just give us a brief description? Not the rant, don’t do the rant.
Kristina: Can I, can I tell you my nickname for purple prose? I think you’ll appreciate my nickname for it.
Ellie: Go on.
Kristina: Frilly knicker writing.
Genuinely what I call it, what I prefer to call it. Because the thing is, it’s like frills on knickers. You don’t need it, but it adds a little bit of something and it’s kind of a matter of personal taste. Some people like frills, some people like things very simple.
Ellie: That makes sense. I’m going to use that, I’ve never heard you say that before, but I love it.
Kristina: I haven’t used it much lately actually.
Managing genre and audience expectations
Ellie: So different types of descriptions vary between different genres. Is that right?
It’s all about your genre and your audience. Basically commercial fiction has to move a lot faster.
So it tends to be more dialogue heavy because the sentences and the paragraphs are a lot shorter if it’s dialogue heavy, which means people can skim and binge read it, which is what readers of contemporary fiction generally do.
Description tends to be much longer paragraphs. So it slows the reader down when they’re reading.
And so it tends to be much more niche genres like epic fantasy, maybe some types of sci-fi, that are heavier on the description.
But then also you have to factor in your audience as well, because if you’re writing for children for young adults or new adults, again, those genres are generally for people who just want to get to the action. They just want the story. They don’t want all of the description world-building.
Or if they do want it, has to be included in a way that ties in much more with the description and the dialogue than if you are writing something like epic fantasy, which can take five pages out of a fight scene to describe the history of a sword.
Ellie: I’ve definitely noticed myself that when reading different genres, you definitely get different amounts of description. I think that works. That works definitely.
What do we need for a first draft?
Ellie: Do we need to, worry about getting this dialogue and description balance perfect in a first draft?
Kristina: Definitely not, no. I mean, as I’ve said—
Ellie: Oh my god, thank goodness.
Kristina: As I’ve said, my first drafts are like 90% dialogue because I’m just telling myself the story; I’m getting it out of my head.
And I find it a lot easier to get the dialogue out of my head, but also because of the way I write and the way my characters are, the snappy dialogue is much more important than the description. The description fleshes it out and allows for you to see the characters. The dialogue is what really builds their relationships.
I like it to sound a certain way, and almost have a poetry and a rhythm to it. So getting that down first, and out of my head kind of makes me feel like there’s a load off and I don’t have to worry as much.
I can worry about the description and making sure that readers can see the room and the action and stuff the same as I can, once I’ve got that first draft done.
I can always see the scenes in my head, but I find it hard to remember what the exact words were sometimes, once I’ve planned a scene. And so it’s a lot easier for me to get those words out and make sure they’re right and then worry about describing what I can picture in my head at a later date.
Ellie: That’s a good method. I like it. I have been doing something similar recently, to be honest.
As you may or may not know I’m writing my first book. Which I told our audience a little bit about recently of our episodes. But I have been writing that. Almost subconsciously the scenes come out a lot of dialogue because I know what people need to say, I know how they’re going to say it, even. And I know what, they’re going to bicker about, what they can argue about, or like the scene I wrote recently where, they get very angry and it’s fun to write because it’s like,I like torturing them.
It’s a good system. Get all the dialogue down or get down whatever you can first it might be that some people write all the description first, I guess.
So get down whatever you can first and then come back and tweak the balance later on. Would it be the advice? Is that right?
Kristina: Yeah, totally because there are some people who write description first. And if that’s your thing, fair play to you, you’ve got to do what works for you. I think certainly the upside on focusing on the dialogue is the fact that, as I’ve said, it’s faster.
Because dialogue tends to be bam, bam, bam. Whereas description is like baaaaaam, with the kind of longer paragraphs and things.
But one thing I’ve definitely found, is that I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been setting myself, these ridiculous writing goals of writing 5,000 words in a day, but I’m writing more description on my first draft at the moment.
And I think it is because of the ridiculously long writing goals, description allows me to fulfil that faster.
Kristina: It’s not cheating. If I’m hitting my word count, doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t recommend 5,000 words a day. It hurts your hands if you’re doing it all in one sitting.
Ellie: You’re a crazy person.
Kristina: I managed to do it usually in about an hour and a half.
It was nice to have that challenge. And to do something different with my writing process. I mean, my record is like 14,000 words in a day, and this was before I had chronic pain and stuff.
Ellie: I think my hands would fall off.
Kristina: I think my nearly did towards the end of the week, to be honest. But it was a good challenge to set myself because it made me realize what I’m capable of.
It acted as a really nice reminder that, you know, I can write a lot faster than I do and I should stop rewatching Lost Girl and just write more.
Ellie: Disagree. We need to keep watching Lost Girl. I’m really enjoying it.
Kristina: Yeah but I don’t need to watch it as much, or maybe I do, it can be my reward. If I hit my word count everyday.
Ellie: That’s a good plan. I have vegan cookies, but—
Kristina: I’m really jealous.
Dialogue and description
Ellie: So then, to put it simply, I would say that description and dialogue is not a face-off; it’s not a battle Royale. It’s not even a fight because they need each other.
They have a turbulent relationship, but at the end of the day, there’s no one else I’d rather go home to: they need each other.
Kristina: It’s a yin and yang thing.
Ellie: Yeah. Yeah.
Kristina: Because you need a balance of both to really flesh out your whole story from your characters, to your world, to the action.
Because for example, if you’ve got an action scene, it’s not going to move along very quickly using just dialogue.
But if you’re building a relationship between characters, dialogue is a much better way to do that—sometimes—than description.
Particularly if you’re trying to show that they’re quite witty or quite funny, that’s going to be much easier to do in dialogue than in description. Because describing, you know, comedy involves a certain writing style, and you’re probably going to have to be a little bit more physical in the comedy, which can be quite difficult to do.
Ellie: I like it. So the big takeaway then is that dialogue and description, I almost forgot the word then, are very good together. They come from each other and you need both of them add depth to your characters and your world.
Kristina: Yeah. And most importantly, just don’t overthink your first draft. Write whatever you’re most comfortable with first.
And if you don’t like description or you don’t like dialogue, worry about it later, just get that story out of your head because that is the hardest part. And that is where most people get stuck is they go into mad panic and they’re like, I’ve got to do all these things and it’s got to be completely perfect in the first draft.
And it’s like, it’s your first draft? No, it doesn’t.
Ellie: No, just get it down. Get the words on the page.
Kristina: Because the faster you do that, then the faster you’ll grow as a writer as well, because the people who I have seen grow the most are not the people that you spend forever tinkering on the same piece.
They are the people who write and finish faster, because what you learn comes more from finishing something and moving on to the next, rather than endlessly tweaking and polishing something until it’s just a speck of dust and there’s nothing left to polish.
Ellie: No one wants to read specks of dust. Nobody.
Kristina: I mean, maybe like some scientists might be analysing it to see what they can find. You never know.
Ellie: Do you reckon like, little like woodworms and stuff read specks of dust?
Kristina: I don’t know. I tried to avoid thinking that bugs exist. I block their existence out of my head.
Ellie: We do have a little bit of important news for our lovely listeners today. This episode is the last one in our first season of podcasts.
We have had so much fun doing these podcasts for you.
We’re just going to take a veeeeery short break and we will return for episode thirteen in April. Lucky thirteen.
Kristina: If you say so.
Ellie: I was born on the thirteenth. I have to believe it’s lucky.
Kristina: I mean, I don’t think it’s unlucky. I’m a little bit paranoid, but
I’m paranoid by everything.
Ellie: Yeah, that’s a, that’s a whole different can of worms.
If you enjoyed this episode, though, don’t forget. You can support The Writer’s Cookbook by visiting writerscookbook.com/support.
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Kristina: Yeah. We love it. When we see, you know, past students publishing and getting over their roadblocks, it’s really, really uplifting and also inspiring and motivating for us as well.
Ellie: It is and it makes it all feel worth it.
Kristina: Exactly. That is officially it for season one. Thank you so much for listening. We will see you in April.
Stay safe, take care, and we’ll see you next time. Bye.