A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.
An excellent example of this skill (and, frankly, an excellent example of pretty much every type of good writing) is “A Survivor’s Life,” Eli Saslow’s recent article about a 16-year-old girl who survived the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. It was published in The Washington Post, where you can read it now.
How the Article Works
The article focuses on the relationship between the survivor, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, and her mother and primary caregiver, Bonnie Schaan. In the opening paragraphs, Bonnie needs to run to the store to buy juice and ice, the first time she’s left her daughter alone since the shooting. Here is part of the dialogue from that scene:
“Do you want me to call someone to come sit with you?” Bonnie asked.
“No. Jesus. I can take care of myself.”
“Blinds opened or closed?”
“Damn it, Mom. Just go!”
Bonnie grabbed her coat and opened the door. She could see the market across the street.
“You’ll be okay?” she asked, but Cheyeanne didn’t answer.
This dialogue is effective for several reasons. First, attribution (identifying the speaker) is used only when necessary. Second, the attributions are kept simple: no screaming or whispering or begging, just “she asked.” Finally, physical details that we’re shown serve a clear purpose. Bonnie grabs her coat and sees the market across the street, making it clear how close the store is and how little time Bonnie’s daughter will spend alone. It’s a small detail, but it reveals so much about the situation. Bonnie is running literally across the street to buy two items, and yet she’s scared to leave her daughter for that long.
In another scene, Cheyeanne tells the story of the shooting, something that Bonnie doesn’t want to hear. What results is dialogue with only one person speaking:
“The thing I keep thinking about is how that bastard stepped on me,” she said.
Bonnie shifted on the couch. She flicked dust off the armrest. She noticed a dirty plate on Cheyeanne’s bedside table and reached over to grab it.
“Like I wasn’t even human,” Cheyeanne said. “Like I was nothing.”
Bonnie may not speak words, but she is still communicating. It’s not intentional communication, but nonetheless, she’s revealing her thoughts: she doesn’t want to hear this information, a fact that is shown by how she redirects her attention from what is being said.
Finally, there’s a long tradition in stories, particularly war stories like “Speaking of Courage” by Tim O’Brien and “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway, in which characters speak but aren’t heard—at least not in a meaningful way. The same thing happens to Cheyeanne in a coffee shop with a sign posted that announces, “Ten percent of proceeds go to victims!”
“I actually was a victim,” Cheyeanne told the girl at the counter, after she’d ordered her drink.
“Of what?” the girl asked.
Cheyeanne pointed to the sign.
“Oh. No kidding?” the girl said. She smiled. She handed out the drink. “Straw?” she asked.
In this case, the physical description (she smiled, handed out the drink) tells the reader how to understand the dialogue. For example, if the description had instead said that the girl “trembled, her hand shaking as she handed out the drink,” the dialogue would be understood much differently.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s add physical description to dialogue, using “A Survivor’s Life” by Eli Saslow as a model:
- Use description to add context to dialogue. Saslow writes dialogue showing how nervous Bonnie is to leave her daughter alone, but that nervousness takes on a different meaning when we see the store across the street. So, find an exchange of dialogue that refers to something or someone (I know that’s a vague instruction, but it’s necessary.) In short, find a noun that one speaker references and feels something about (happiness, trepidation, anger). Then, show that noun to the reader. If there is some difference between how we see the noun and how it’s being discussed, that difference will provide context for what is being said.
- Use description to replace dialogue. It’s no secret that body language is a significant part of human communication, yet we tend to strip it out of dialogue. Or, we add meaningless details, the equivalent of someone clearing their throat. One strategy is to summarize what a character is communicating or thinking or feeling. This is different than a summary of what the character says, as anyone who has snapped, “And what is that supposed to mean?” knows well. Keep that summary in mind as you write the dialogue. If possible, delete one line of dialogue and replace it with a physical action. The goal is to communicate the same thing as the line of dialogue but without speaking. The result can be a more nuanced scene.
- Use dialogue to interpret dialogue. In the scene in the coffee shop, Saslow uses the description to help us understand the barista’s line, “No kidding?” The description shows her smile and a single action, but you could also describe a character’s clothing, posture, or what the character does immediately following the dialogue. The goal is to reveal the impact that the conversation has on the character.
The goal is to add nuance and depth to dialogue with physical description of the characters and the things around them.