Settings, Backstory and Descriptions
One of the toughest things for writers to handle well has to do with telling readers about settings, explaining backstory, and communicating personal descriptions. Many times, long passages of narration (exposition) are used to tackle this issue, but narration will actually slow down your story. I encourage writers, whenever possible, to use dialogue to accomplish these goals.
Let’s look at two ways of writing the same scene. In one example I’ll use exposition to describe the setting.
Sarah gazed around the room. The walls were painted an awful shade of green, and the floors were covered with chipped, pink linoleum. She pulled out a chair from one of the broken tables and inspected it carefully. Deciding it was clean enough to risk sitting on, she carefully lowered herself onto the cracked plastic. Bringing the abandoned café back to life would take more work than she was willing to do alone. If the Breadbasket Café ever welcomed customers again, Roger would have to roll up his sleeves and pitch in. Years ago, the Breadbasket had been the most successful business in the small town of Dunfield. But that was a long, long time ago. Sarah ran a finger down the middle of the dusty wooden table. Maybe this was a lost cause.
Now, let’s do the same thing with dialogue:
“Wow. I had no idea this place was such a mess,” Sarah said, gazing around.
“The Breadbasket closed a long time ago, Sarah.” Roger frowned at her. “What did you expect?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. But not this.”
“The whole place needs to be redone. This awful green paint on the walls reminds me of mold.”
Sarah grinned. “But it looks so good with the pink floor.”
Roger didn’t smile. “We’d have to pull all of the linoleum up. Even if the color wasn’t disgusting, it’s badly chipped.”
Sarah pulled out a chair and after inspecting it, sat down gingerly on the cracked plastic seat. “Look, this place used to be the most popular business in town. If we work hard, we can bring it back.”
Roger grunted and sat down on the other side of the dusty wooden table. “Dunfield has a population of six hundred people. Most of them farmers who live out of town. I’m afraid you’ll never get enough customers to make all the effort worthwhile.”
She looked at Roger through narrowed eyes. “But I want this.”
Roger stared back at her. “I don’t.”
Through dialogue, we’ve brought two characters into the scene, and almost all the exposition detailing the setting has been replaced with dialogue. The backstory about the café and the town of Dunfield was also revealed through dialogue. I also used Roger, a secondary character, to create conflict for Sarah. We know that Sarah needs Roger’s help, but Roger isn’t in agreement. The second example is much more active and interesting than the first. When you need to share setting, descriptions, back story or conflict, use dialogue!
Now, what about describing your characters? Painting pictures of your characters can be much more interesting if you allow another character to do it instead of using narrative passages. Here’s an example:
Sarah had dark red hair, green eyes, and a dimple in her chin.
“I wish I looked like you,” Tonya said as Sarah stood in front of the mirror on her dresser, combing her hair.
Sarah laughed. “Don’t be silly. You have gorgeous blond hair and beautiful blue eyes. Why would you want to look like me?”
Tonya fell back on Sarah’s bed and stared up at the ceiling. “You don’t know anything, do you? Blond hair is so out. Redheads are the rage. And your eyes. Wow. Green eyes and red hair. You’ve got it all.”
Sarah shook her head. “You’re goofy. I suppose you think this stupid hole in my chin looks good.”
“An angel’s kiss.”
Sarah giggled. “You’re losing it.”
Tonya smiled dreamily. “My mom told me once that dimples mean you were kissed by an angel.”
Sarah frowned. “But you don’t have any dimples.”
Tonya sat up and grinned at her friend. “Yes, I do. But you’ll never see them.”
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Two other important things to remember! Whether it’s your setting or your characters, don’t dump all your descriptions at once, even when you’re using dialogue. Weave these tidbits throughout your story. The only exception to this has to do with your lead character and his or her love interest. Readers want to get a clear picture of them early so they can concentrate on their story.
Don’t over describe your characters! Give just enough information so that your reader will be able to create their own images. Engaging a reader’s imagination will cause them to be more invested in your story.
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Nancy Mehl lives in Wichita, Kansas, with her husband Norman and her very active puggle, Watson. She’s authored fourteen books and is currently at work on a new series for Bethany House Publishing. The first book in her Road to Kingdom series, “Inescapable,” came out in July of 2012. The second book, “Unbreakable” released in February of 2013.
All of Nancy’s novels have an added touch – something for your spirit as well as your soul. “I welcome the opportunity to share my faith through my writing,” Nancy says. “God is number one in my life. I wouldn’t be writing at all if I didn’t believe that this is what He’s called me to do. I hope everyone who reads my books will walk away with the most important message I can give them: God is good, and He loves you more than you can imagine. He has a good plan for your life, and there is nothing you can’t overcome with His help.”