Show, not Tell, with Dialogue

Many of my writing students avoid dialogue because they struggle with it, and rightly so. Creating convincing, concise dialogue is a challenge that compounds writing stories. What they do not realize is that dialogue helps writers show rather than tell.

Consider the effect, for instance, of writing:

She wore an attractive, brightly-colored dress.

This is you, the author via your narrator, telling your reader what she wore.

Compare that to the effect achieved by the following:

“Do you like my dress?” Darlene said as she twirled in a full circle, flouncing the skirt as she did. “I think yellow looks good on me,” she smiled.

In the first example, your writing presents the reader with adjectives for a dress, but does not provide any action. The reader will either gloss over the sentence or, if imaginative, create an image of “she” in the dress, which could be yellow, orange, red, yellow-green, or some other bright color or a mixture of colors. Neither does the reader have the vaguest idea what the dress looks like. Is it long or short? Loose or fitting? Straight or flouncy? Unless you elaborate on that sentence by adding more descriptions, there will always be a lot of room for interpretation—sometimes more than you want.

In the second example, we know who “she” is—Darlene. We know she’s wearing a dress and it has a skirt that flounces as she twirls. We know the dress is yellow. More than that, we know Darlene likes the yellow dress and is light-hearted, expressive, and in a good mood. How can we tell? Because someone in a bad mood wouldn’t care much about wearing a bright, cheerful yellow; a more serious person would not be caught twirling to show off a dress; nor would an introverted or shy girl twirl, show-off a dress, and more than that, think aloud that they looked good in anything.

While the color or style of a character’s outfit might not always be relevant, sometimes we need to include more vivid descriptions because they provide readers with a clearer picture of your story. The trick is not to weigh down your story with bulky descriptions that can be made more memorable and effective with dialogue.

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