Dialogue Versus Description

Because I much prefer to read dialogue rather than description, it seems only natural that I also use far more dialogue in my writing than I do description.  This can be a tricky thing, though, because too much dialogue can overburden the reader, especially if it’s forced or stiff.

I think I first noticed that I liked terse writing when I discovered both Paul Auster and Cormac McCarthy.  I want to make it clear that I am in no way comparing myself to either of those two enormous talents, but their particular styles spoke to me, and their methods couldn’t help but influence my own writing.

Abundant description is, for me, tedious.  Don’t get me wrong, description is where writers such as Michael Chabon truly shine because it is an opportunity for them to display both their fertile imaginations and their mastery of the sentence.  Consequently, while I am not a fan of description, I do appreciate well-constructed writing.  However, I have always been a writer (and reader) far more invested in characters, and I want to digest the story through their thoughts and words with few roadblocks.  As you probably guessed, I correlate ample description with roadblocks.

In all honesty, I don’t consider myself a master of the written sentence.  I don’t pretend to know every rule of grammar in existence, nor, frankly, do I much care.  For me, the characters’ story is the most important thing.  It needs to be rich, exciting, fast-paced, and if there is anything that does not contribute immediately to the progression of the story or the illustration of a character, then it doesn’t belong.

In my mind, the reader can deduce far more from a character’s words than through a narrator’s description, and it means more to the reader because there is no buffer.  I enjoy discovering character through words and action. When I read I like imagining the tone of the dialogue based upon what I know of the character.  Certain characters speak certain ways, use certain words, and even employ certain tones.  The narrator can provide all of that information, but the reader becomes far more invested by earning those nuances through personal mining.

So, the difficulty is in making sure that the dialogue is realistic, pleasurable to read, and serving a purpose.  Too much dialogue is just the narrator executing a sneak attack.  Too little dialogue wastes the reader’s time, as well as the story’s.

It’s a delicate balance, but one I enjoy trying to achieve.

I’d love your opinion on the matter.  Do you prefer dialogue or description?  Be sure to provide an explanation.