Talking Pretty

Dialogue and Description

Before railroad crossings had flashing lights and mechanical gates, signs warned motorists to “Stop, Look, Listen.” That old-time advice now is often repeated, and it applies in this Writing Craft lesson which considers two of our concerns when creating scenes in a life story: Dialogue and Description.


On the surface, writing dialogue might seem easy. After all, most of us have conversations every day. We know how we talk; we hear how others talk. We could record on the page what we have said and what we have heard others say. We could, but the result would not be pleasing, at least not in story terms.

The following is a verbatim transcript of two people meeting in the lounge of a doctor’s office:

Long time no see. 
It’s been a while
How’ve you been.
Not bad. You?
‘Bout the same.”

The interaction may be true to life, but it doesn’t go anywhere. The cliched remarks say little about the personality of the two persons or their current situation. They both profess to be well, yet they are waiting to see the doctor. What is the real story? Perhaps if we knew the full context of the situation, the evasive blandness might be of interest, but as story dialogue it does not seem promising.  

Edith R. Mirrielees was a creative writing teacher at Stanford University and a teacher of novelist John Steinbeck. In her classic text Story Writing, she contended: “The belief that dialogue is conversation transferred to paper is one to get rid of early.” Certainly most dialogue does need to sound like real conversation, as if it fell “from the speaker’s lips loose and full and exactly as spoken,” to use Mirrielees’ words. In a life story, such artful reconstruction of what is said is one of the interesting challenges in each scene.

Besides sounding realistic—like yourself or another particular person speaking—the dialogue in your scene needs to achieve one or more of the following:

  • contribute information that advances the action of your story;
  • reveal something about the person speaking, spoken to or spoken about; and
  • create a sense of the story’s setting or atmosphere.

As well, the dialogue should build the conflict or tension in the scene. It conveys a sense of the cross-purposes between the persons interacting. Typical conversation tends to be diffuse and meandering; dialogue, by contrast, is compressed. As Tom Chiarella notes, in his guidebook Writing Dialogue, the attitudes are more defined, the word choice is sharper, and the expression is more original. Good dialogue also has a sense of direction. The scene where it is used is going somewhere and the dialogue should help to take it there.

Four Tips for Better Dialogue


Descriptive writing is like painting with words. When well done, it helps us to experience a scene, both the people and the setting. Yet, for several reasons, such writing is not easy to do. First, we have much less practice with description. In our conversations and more formal communication, we tell stories, give explanations and make arguments, but we do not often create descriptions.

Secondly, description is seldom a separate category of writing. We usually describe the appearance of people, places and things as part of a story, an explanation or argument. We rarely isolate and practice descriptive skills, apart from their narrative, expository or argumentative contexts.

Finally, and most importantly, descriptive writing requires us to translate what we experience all at once into something presented one part at a time. Through our various senses—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling—we may experience all parts of a scene simultaneously, but we still must describe them sequentially. 

Tips for Better Description

Describing the Scene: 

Perhaps the first skill to consider is our description of the action that occurs when people are speaking—in other words, weaving description into the dialogue. When one person is talking, what is the listener doing? Meeting her gaze? Sitting with crossed arms and a frown? Squirming? Yawning? Sighing? 

The following scene, describing preparations for dinner, blends dialogue with description   of the characters, the action and the setting:

   Michael carried the groceries up to her apartment and unloaded them on the kitchen counter. Karin looked at him, her eyebrows raised.

  “It’s Italian…okay?”

   “Tomatoes, olives, spaghetti…How could I guess?”

   She handed him Uta’s menu and then began setting the dining room table, two plates to a side and one on each end. Michael glanced at the list. antipasti, minestrone, spaghetti, sorbet. With wine and espresso, it should go well. He was relieved to hear that the pasta sauce and sorbet were already done. Michael rinsed several stalks of celery. laid them on a cutting board, and started chopping, methodically, rapidly, making each slice the same precise size. Karin took a Bolognese sauce from the small fridge.

   “I hope you’re not vegetarian…”

   “Only when it’s liver.”

A second skill to cultivate is the description of people.  Dr. Gerald Grow, who for years taught journalism at A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, sometimes used the following activity: When you are in a meeting or amidst a group of people, ask yourself: ‘How could I describe someone sitting here so that a stranger, using only my description, could enter the room and immediately pick out the person?’ 

Here are a couple of description samples from Living Our Prayer, Betty Enns’ Lesotho memoir. The first depicts her husband Bill as they sat in the jet plane on the first leg of their flight to Africa:

Once airborne, the flight attendant asked, “Would you like something to drink?”

   “Yes, thank you. I’ll have a coffee and a Sprite, please.”

   I turned in my seat and gazed at Bill. His face was deeply tanned and the sunlight streaming through the window accented his silvery hair and pencil-line moustache. He leaned back with a look of contentment and an unopened gift from Wendy and Peter on his lap.

   “Happy birthday, Sweetheart. Did you remember that today’s your fifty-second birthday?”

In a subsequent scene, Betty and Bill meet their language teacher:

   In his welcoming, Ntate Ntsene extended his hands and offered us a customary threefold handshake. His wide smile revealed a gap surrounded by healthy glistening white teeth. “What is the story of his missing teeth?” I wondered, as we shook his hands.

Yet another skill we need to develop is the description of the places we live and visit. To convey the appearance of a particular place, we first need to be “a good observer.” “To write a good description,” says Rebecca McLanahan in her book Word Painting, “we must look long, hard and honestly at our world. Careful and imagination may well be the most essential task of any writer.”

Here is Betty Enns’ description of their plane landing in Johannesburg, South Africa:

“…I continued to gaze out the window. The landscape below looked very different from the jet-black soil and square, patchwork pattern of our Manitoba prairie. As we approached the large, sprawling city that is Johannesburg, the ground seemed red and brown. Thousands of homes were clustered tightly together in semicircles and pie-shaped wedges. A large highway snaked through the city with cars and trucks speeding in both directions.

   The plane began to vibrate as it slowed and descended and I heard a high-pitched whine as the rear wheels lowered into landing position.l As we neared the ground, my view became more clearly defined—a long string of industrial buildings surrounded by parking lots and hundreds of cars, and then the runway, dark and lined with white and yellow stripes.”

Betty Enns was an astute observer and she kept detailed notes in her journal. Yet how does one follow the advice of looking “long, hard and honestly at our world” during the rapid landing of a jet after a wearisome flight? In this instance, Betty could turn to YouTube videos that other travellers had made of their plane’s descent into the South African capital. 

Organizing Your Description:

Although we can experience a setting all at once, we must describe it one part at a time. The vivid and significant details that we select need to be arranged as artistically as possible. Fortunately we can learn from the practice of great writers.

   The beach was strewn with little heaps of clothes and shoes; the big summer hats, with stones on them to keep them from blowing away, looked like immense shells.

In the above description, from Katherine Mansfield’s short story “At the Bay,” the narrator pans the broad beach and then looks more closely at the summer hats.

At the outset of Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund, our gaze sweeps from the trunk of a chestnut tree to its leafy crown and then on to the surrounding trees, also noting its age and monastic setting.

   It was a sweet chestnut, with a sturdy trunk and full round crown that swayed gently in the wind, brought from Italy many years earlier by a monk who had made a pilgrimage to Rome. In the spring it waited until all the surrounding trees were green, and even the hazel and walnut trees were wearing ruddy foliage, before sprouting its own first leaves…

Anton Chekhov reverses the pattern as he begins his story “Heartache.” Like the opening of a movie, the camera-like description zooms in from on high to reveal the snow-covered figure of Iona Potapov.

   Thick flakes of wet snow were circling lazily round the newly lighted street lamps, settling in thing soft layers on rooftops, on the horses’ backs, and on people’s shoulders and caps. The cabdriver Iona Potapov was white as a ghost, and bent double as much as any human body can be bent double, sitting very still on his box. Even if a whole snowdrift had fallen on him, he would have found no need to shake it off.

As we organize the details in our description, we use whatever pattern seems appropriate to our needs–e.g. from the broad view to a close-up; from an elevated perspective to street level; from foreground to background; from ground to sky; from left to right, etc.

Active, Effective Descriptive Language

Once we have studied a particular setting, selected vivid and significant details, and arranged them in a pattern to recreate for others our impressions and experience, we confront the challenge of describe the setting in active and effective language.

We might think of a descriptive sentence as coming alive with its key parts serving in the inner body. The verb is the heart, nouns are the blood, and adjectives and adverbs work like the liver and kidneys regulating digestive chemistry. Like healthy bodies, vigorous sentences exude energy and power. To keep our writing fit, they practice restraint, exercise with good sense, and watch the scale for excess weight.

Five pointers might get our descriptive sentences off to a good start.

Use active verbs. A verb can express either action (e.g. climb, wave, whistle) 

or a state of being e.g. (am, is, are, was, were, may be, has been). 

An active verb is based on gestures and shows actions. 

Example: The branch was moving in the wind. (less active, wordier)

Revised: The branch swayed in the wind. (more active, concise)

Use concrete nouns. A noun names a person, place, thing, idea or quality. (The English word noun comes from the Latin “nomen,” meaning “ name.”)

A concrete noun names physical objects that we can perceive with our senses. 

The qualities or ideas named by abstract nouns are important (e.g. beauty, community, heritage, justice, democracy), but in descriptive writing they should be embodied in things that we see, hear, touch, smell or taste.

Example: The neighbourhood appeared to be friendly. (tells)

Revised: On several houses, the porch lights welcomed visitors. (shows)

Use descriptive adjectives. An adjective modifies a noun (e.g. the woman, the river) or pronoun (e.g. she, it).

Chosen well, an adjective sharpens the focus of a description. Too often, however, it clutters the picture by telling instead of showing. 

Mark Twain said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” That might be too brutal, but as descriptive writers, we should compel them to describe rather than to label or interpret.

Example: The worried postman hurried past the vicious dog.

(The adjective “worried” interprets the postman’s feeling and “vicious” labels the dog)

Revised: The postman frowned, then hurried past the growling Pit Bull.

(The frowning expression shows the postman’s anxiety and the dog’s growl shows its temperament.)

Use few adverbs. An adverb modifies verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. You can recognize many adverbs by their –ly ending (e.g. loudly, swiftly, excitedly, cordially, sullenly, drowsily, sparingly).

Used sparingly, adverbs bring precision to the meaning of words they modify. In descriptive writing, however, they tend to weaken verbs and to tell rather than show. In short, an adverb does not add much.

Example: The postman walked past the dog rapidly. 

Revised: The postman hurried past the dog. 

(The revised sentence uses fewer words and the verb hurried suggests rapid walking.)

Example: “About face!” the sergeant said loudly.

Revised: “About face!” the sergeant barked.

Use an active voice. Each verb has three characteristics—tense (e.g. past, present, future); mood (e.g. ordinary statement, hypothetical statements, commands or requests), and voice (active or passive).

A verb’s active voice shows an action by the subject of the sentence.

Active voice example: We reduce our speed as we approach the orchard.

[The subject “We” reduces the speed of approach.]

A verb’s passive voice shows an action upon the subject of the sentence.

Passive voice example: Our speed is reduced as we approach the orchard.

[This passive-voice sentence expresses the same action, but it loses clarity.]

We often hear the passive voice in pronouncements by politicians. It allows them to promise action without commitment and to admit error without accepting blame.

Passive voice example: You can rest assured that the necessary action will be taken.   (Who will take the action?)

Passive voice example: If a mistake has been made, it will be dealt with.

 (Who will deal with the mistake?)

As descriptive writers, we do not need to avoid commitment or blame. When we use the active voice, our tone is more personal; our message, more direct; and our sentence, more concise. 

Revised examples: You can rest assured that I will take the necessary action.

If we have made a mistake, I will deal with it.