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OVERDESCRIBING DIALOGUE

Be careful not to overdo it, though. Too much description in a dia­logue sequence can "flood" your dialogue:


"Here's the envelope," Stanley said. He held the envelope out, his eyes fixed on the ludicrous embossed return address with the pink-tinged logo of his uncle's company.

Eleanor hesitated. She squinted up at the fluorescent lights, considering. Then she plucked the envelope from Stanley's hands, her lacquered nails gleaming. "This will be our little secret, Stanley," she said, stuffing the envelope into her purse. "I promise you, no one will ever know." She ran one deft hand across her hair.

Stanley laughed. A flat, disdainful sound. "As long as the money keeps flowing?"

Eleanor's lips parted into a thin smile. "You don't mind so much, do you?" she said soothingly. "It's Uncle's money, after all." She drew her purse closer to her coat as if daring him to take the money back.

Stanley hung his head like a bad dog. "You don't under­stand, Eleanor," he said, clenching his weak fists. "That's what makes it so humiliating."

She pursed her lips, inching closer to him, taking arrogant little baby steps. "Poor dear."

He shook his head, steeling himself against his own stupid tears. "I can't pay my rent," he said. He sucked in his breath and let it out slowly, his cheeks deflating. "I can't meet my child support payments. I can't even pay off a blackmailer with my own money."
Under all the hesitating and squinting and handing over and smiling and head-hanging and head-shaking and breath-taking, your dia­logue is struggling to be heard. Unfortunately, the constant descrip­tive interruptions force your readers more than once to backtrack a line or two to figure out what question or comment the speaker is responding to. Description interruptions are most effective when in­serted sparingly:
"Here's the envelope," Stanley said.

Eleanor plucked the envelope from Stanley's hands. "This will be our little secret, Stanley," she said, stuffing the envelope into her purse. "I promise you, no one will ever know."

"As long as the money keeps flowing?"

"You don't mind so much, do you?" Eleanor said. "It's Uncle's money, after all."

"You don't understand, Eleanor. That's exactly what makes it so humiliating."

She pursed her lips. "Poor dear."

"I can't pay my rent," he said. "I can't meet my child support payments. I can't even pay off a blackmailer with my own money."
See how much more dramatic this scene is without that blanket of description? In the first version you gave the readers too much guid­ance. Ironically, by clearing out the guideposts you made the conver­sation easier to follow. Your readers don't have to backtrack. And the description still delivers the crucial information—that Stanley is at Eleanor's mercy—without overwhelming the scene.

Be careful, also, about making your descriptive additions to dia­logue too similar. In this first sequence, a modifying phrase follows each line of dialogue; the sequence feels rote and wooden:


"Over here," Alan called, waving his glove.

"Did I miss the game?" she asked, picking her way over the grass.

"It rained. We're just now getting started," he said, giving her a kiss.

"Do you expect me to stay for the whole thing?" she asked, scanning the bleachers.


In this second version, a gestural pause precedes each line of dia­logue:
Alan waved his glove. "Over here."

She picked her way over the grass. "Did I miss the game?"

He gave her a kiss. "It rained. We're just now getting started.

She scanned the bleachers. "Do you expect me to stay for the whole thing?"


The second version is as wooden as the first, because the gestural pauses one after another seem to be following a predetermined pat­tern. Your best option is to combine several kinds of descriptive inter­ruptions in the same sequence:
"Over here."

"Did I miss the game?" she asked, picking her way over the grass.

"It rained," Alan said. "We're just now getting started."

She scanned the bleachers. "Do you expect me to stay for the whole thing?"


In this final version, the dialogue takes center stage. The descriptive interruptions, because they are varied and therefore unobtrusive, lend shape and rhythm to the dialogue.

IMPLYING SETTING

Let's say you want to write a story in which plot and character are revealed chiefly through dialogue. Instead of explaining the setting through a descriptive interruption ("the woods were dark"), you can imply setting through dialogue:


"These trees are beginning to suffocate me," April said. "You'd have to hold a gun to my head before I'd live here."

Carrie looked around. "It's not so bad. Aunt Jean says coun­try air's supposed to be good for you."

"Air? How can air get through all these trees?" She looked up. "Your aunt must have double-sized lungs and a hell of a lot of fortitude. How can she tell day from night?"

Carrie kept walking. "I think the house is at the end of this path, if I'm remembering right."

"I hope she has electricity," April said. "I feel like I'm walking in the bottom of a well."
The setting implied through this dialogue is a thick woods with a house nestled somewhere therein. The beauty of implying setting through dialogue is that you allow your readers to "see" the charac­ters—the histrionic April and tranquil Carrie—at the same time they are seeing the setting.

Make sure the characters' descriptions sound natural, and not staged for the readers' benefit. Precise description of setting shouldn't come at the expense of the characters:


"Carrie, I'm really getting tired of walking through Ten Acre Woods looking for your Aunt Jean's house."

"I think the turnoff is at the end of this path," Carrie said. "We'll just keep following it, even though it's overgrown with blackberry bushes in full bloom."

April looked up. "The trees are so thick and dark. I don't like the deep Maine woods."
Both versions describe a similar circumstance: Carrie and April are walking through thick woods on a path that will eventually lead to Aunt Jean's house. The first version sounds like two people talking, and the second sounds like two people announcing. What went wrong? In the second version, the characters are describing a setting that they are too familiar with to speak of in so formal a way. So they sound like stick figures. People never make reference to what they already know. If you and a friend are walking through Ten Acre Woods, you refer to it as "here," or "this godforsaken place"—any­thing but Ten Acre Woods; you both already know where you are. Similarly, if you and your friend are looking for your aunt's house, you don't say, "I'm tired of looking for Aunt Jean's house," you say something like "When will we get there?" or "Do you see the house yet?" That the house in question belongs to Aunt Jean is already known to you both, so you wouldn't normally identify it any further than "the house." Similarly, the fact that the blackberry bushes are in full bloom is too obvious for Carrie to mention so precisely. She might say, "Let's get some berries" or "I just scratched my leg on that bramble," but she would not say "blackberry bushes in full bloom."

If you have to fully describe your setting early in the story, then do it through narrative:


They were hiking through Ten Acre Woods in search of the small bungalow that belonged to Carrie's aunt Jean. It was mid-morning, but the sun was all but missing for the depth and breadth and height of the stern, ancient trees. Their path was nearly invisible, thick with blackberry bushes in full bloom, and given to false trails that forced the two women to continually double back on their tracks.

"These trees are beginning to suffocate me," April said. "You'd have to hold a gun to my head before I'd live here."

Carrie looked around. "It's not so bad. Aunt Jean says coun­try air's supposed to be good for you."
The logistical details of setting are best delivered through narrative. If the interaction between characters is your main concern at the moment, you can give a general impression of the setting through dialogue and fill in the specific details a few at a time as the story progresses.



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