Dialogue versus description – or in simple terms – how much of each should you aim for in your fiction?
This is a common question asked by many writers, and more often than not, if you ask a question like this you will get a hundred different answers, simply because there are no absolutes in fiction. Some people say lots of description is preferable, others say lots of dialogue is better. This can leave writers understandably confused.
The one thing to remember is that fiction is about balance. The dialogue to description ratio doesn’t have to be an exact science, but a healthy amount of both is better than a story that relies heavily on one and not the other, which may leave the whole thing lacking. This then begs the question - why does there need to be a balance?
Dialogue and description depend on each other; they co-exist, rather like strawberries and cream. One without the other just isn’t the same and sometimes it doesn’t work so well.
One element imparts vital information and moves the story forward. The other paints the background, creates a fictional world and supports the entire story with added layers. Every story needs both of these elements.
Some stories thrive on a lot of dialogue, short stories in particular. That’s because the market and genre sometimes demands it. Women’s magazines, for instance, use more dialogue in their structure than description simply to move the story along within the short amount of words allocated. Those kinds of stories won’t have time to dwell on luscious descriptions when keeping to 1000 – 5000 word counts.
If the word count is more generous, however, then the writer can afford to add more description to bolster the story and therefore help balance it, so something like 3000 – 10,000 words has more chance of balance between the two elements.
Some stories need description. Thriller and horror style short stories, for example, really do need something more substantial than large chunks of dialogue, otherwise how will you show your reader the atmosphere, emotion, tension or suspense? Romance markets also like plenty of description to create mood, emotion and allure.
If you are writing a story primarily made up of dialogue, remember that you can only achieve so much with it.
A novel in particular needs more than large blocks of dialogue to sustain itself, otherwise there is a risk of the reader losing interest simply because there isn’t much for them to go on. With 80,000 – 100,000 words to play with, you can be very generous with both dialogue AND description.
A novel or short story top heavy on dialogue will miss a critical key factor in fiction writing, and that is the ability to SHOW the reader what is happening, to move the story forward, create a sense of atmosphere and tension and create an overall picture for the reader. Dialogue can’t really do that, but description can.
Conversely, if you have too much description and not enough dialogue in your novel, then you risk alienating the reader because then they have to trawl through large chunks of it, at the risk of becoming bored. Pages and pages of endless text is hard work unless the writer can thoroughly and cleverly engage the reader.
And here’s a strange thing: Short stories made up entirely of well-constructed description do work – but they have to be very well written.
Dialogue only stories, on the other hand, don’t work. This is because there is nothing for the reader – no sense of mood, no sense of conflict, no atmosphere and no emotion to hook them, other than a few descriptive sentences here and there. These types tend to be sterile and lack lustre and don’t always engage the reader.
As previously mentioned, the balance between the two doesn’t have to be exact. Look at your favourite novels and the majority will have a healthy description: dialogue ratio.
One important point here - having the right balance of description and dialogue increases your chances of being published. Why? Because editors expect it, they are looking for that balance between the two, and they like detail.
Of course, this doesn’t mean your story has to be middle of the road, or ‘safe’, or constructed exactly to ‘how to’ writing instructions, it simply means you have paid attention to the structure of the overall story and made sure one element doesn’t overshadow the other.
Your writing should have a healthy balance of both.
Next week: Why you shouldn’t give the reader what they want.