On February 19, 2018, Nichole wrote, I want to know what suggestions you might give for the parts of writing that I suppose I would call “background description.” See, I’m a writer who loves dialogue –I love to know what people choose to say and what people say in return. My problem, though, lies with describing what is going on in-between the dialogue.
Allow me to give an example from one of your books I grew-up with: Ever.
“You never crawled,” Aunt Fedo says.
Merem corrects her. “Once or twice you crawled.”
Aunt Fedo ignores the correction. “You were too eager to walk and dance.”
“And climb!” Merem says. She pats Kezi’s hand.
Senat, Merem, and Aunt Fedo laugh.
“Nothing was safe from you,” Senat says, breaking off a section of bread for her.
In this example, using “say” and “said” are the first tools in breaking up straight dialogue as it tells who said it. But, what about the rest? The –as I put it- “background description”- correcting of facts, patting of Kezi’s hand, laughter, and Senat breaking off the section of bread. How would you suggest I write “background description” to break up dialogue?
Christie V Powell wrote back, I think that being able to see the whole thing in your mind would help you nail those details. In writing dialogue, you’re often focused on the words the characters are saying, but you might miss out on everything else going on: real life doesn’t stop when people have a conversation. Visualizing the setting might help.
Also, those little descriptions are a great way to build subtext. Senat handing her bread shows that he’s caring for her. Merem patting a hand is a gesture that shows that she’s an older woman, probably family, showing fondness and possibly a bit of teasing. There is a ton of subtext going on–reading between the lines, if you will. Not everyone will pick up on it, but it makes the story richer.
Here’s a section I’m working on right now (still in progress).
—He nodded slowly, but his guarded expression cleared when he saw her bandaged arm. “Hurt during capture?” he asked. Despite his husky accent, she easily picked out his words.
“No. That tiny griffin…”
He unwrapped the bandage with fingers scratchy with callouses, but gentle. The wound began to bleed again, but he pressed one hand over it. The warmth grew to heat, higher and higher, but a second before it grew painful he let go. The cut had vanished completely. Mira thought of the Spektrit visitor who had fixed her limp on the beach.
“It brought me to you on purpose. For the healing.”
“He,” the Spectrit corrected. “That griffin is a he. I’m Arvid, Keeper.” He tapped his black collar. “Keepers herd, sometimes heal. You’re a minder. General labor. Sometimes pets…”
She shot the griffin a suspicious look.
I’m with Christie V Powell. The description lets the reader’s senses enter the story to see, hear, smell, and feel what’s going on. And description also allows us to move the plot along with action. In her sample, Christie V Powell even manages to drop in the experience of Spektrit magic or power.
I was just thinking about this in my own WIP. I started a bit of dialogue when an older man, a duke, sits with a young woman and complains about his creaky knees, after he’s demonstrated their effect in the stiff way he sat. But following that introductory moment, the scene becomes disembodied, as I realized just before closing my laptop to get on the train, which I’m riding right now to New York City.
Either I can fix the scene as soon as I open the manuscript again, or I can fix it in revision, after I’ve got a completed first draft. If I decide to delay the repair, I’ll make a note at the top of the first page, along with a string of other instructions to self, to watch out for disembodied dialogue.
So the first step is self-awareness, which Nichole has mastered.
The second step is action. We look at our scene to see what’s missing and what we can use.
In the case of my WIP, my MC, Cima, is embroidering a pillow cushion when the duke approaches her. He’s much higher in rank than she is, but I forgot to make her put aside her embroidery, which she certainly would do–or be rude, which might be useful in a different situation from the one I’m writing. When I revise, I’ll do something with the embroidery.
And he’s a guest! But she doesn’t offer him food! Getting him food, or even starting to stand up if he doesn’t want any, would introduce action.
Let’s go back to Nichole’s quote from Ever. I haven’t looked at the context and I don’t remember what went before or after, but I noticed just now that I left out thoughts and emotions. If I remember right, this scene isn’t from Kezi’s POV, but the POV character would notice how much her family loves her. I hope his reaction came in at some point!
Thoughts and emotions can come only from the POV character or from an omniscient narrator, but there’s always one of those around. The charming thing about thoughts, if we love writing dialogue, is that thoughts are like speech, and yet they do break up the dialogue.
When we want to add description, we start by examining what we have, and we ask questions:
Where are the characters?
What are they doing?
What is the POV character thinking and feeling?
Let’s take the where. Say the characters are having a picnic. What’s the weather? If the wind is blowing, is it blowing away the napkins and paper plates? Do things have to be weighted down with other things? Is there an ant parade? Mosquitoes? Natural beauty? Who else is around?
If it’s a picnic, eating is probably going on. Who’s a neat eater? Who has mustard on his chin? Who talks with her mouth full? Who serves everybody else?
All of our choices of detail will be guided by our plot and our characters and, especially when we’re near the beginning, what appeals to us.
Here are three prompts:
∙ An argument is great for trying this out. Mariel is furious with Christopher for giving away a secret. Christopher is angry, too. He had a good reason for breaking the confidence. Write the scene, breaking up the dialogue with description. Think about body language and how loud each one gets. Consider the props they can use, like a book slammed down on a desk. Think about where they are and how the environment can enter in.
∙ Two spies have to exchange secret information. Problem is, they’re at a castle ball. There’s no chance for privacy. They keep trying to communicate, but their conversation is broken into repeatedly. Write the scene.
∙ Write the picnic scene. Decide who’s there and what the occasion is. Bring in the elements I mention above and any others that come to you and sprinkle them in with the dialogue. For the fun of it, make something disastrous happen to end the picnic.
Have fun, and save what you write!