J.A. Stinger

Words Can Inspire The World

How To Convey Setting In Dialogue - Without Sounding Like A B&B Brochure

I was on a bit of a dialogue spree a few months ago, but I decided to post this with the setting series to give you (and me) a bit of a break. As I have mentioned, I prefer dialogue to narrative. So much so, I actually skip blocks of description when I read. This is obviously not ideal, but then again neither is my wine habit. And I’m not giving that up either.
 

As an author I need to find the balance between narrative and description. I have written about Talking Heads and how leaving details up to chance can create confusion or ambiguity.
 

When I discussed layering, I worked hard to use body language and actions to help me fix my talking heads. Remember body language and internal thoughts are also considered part of dialogue. So, now I should have something like talking bodies. But, I still don’t have setting. 
 

How do I include setting detail without inducing a coma with blocks of description? Remember, I love writing that shows. There are authors who excel at telling and who write brilliant, intoxicating descriptions. I don’t. I want stuff to happen.
 

Let’s take a look at some examples. Using a line like “Please pass the salt” already tells us we are at a dinner table. It could be a restaurant or a home.
 

Having your character say: “Grab your jacket, it’s freezing.” Tells me it is cold, without having to use the line: It was a cold and snowy day, just like the weatherman predicted.
 

This is a skill that you will hone. The more you make a conscious effort, the better you will get. I just sounded like a motivational gym DVD, didn’t I? But it’s true.
 

Consider this example:

“Why did you choose this place?” His nose is scrunched. His upper lip is pulled up at the corner. “It’s very dark in here.”

“You said you didn’t mind where we ate.” She sighs, closing her eyes for a moment.  

“Well, I mind now.” He tries to move his chair, but it catches on the thick carpet. “How do they expect you to move your chair?” He tugs it again.

“Do you want to go somewhere else?”

“I’ll survive I suppose,” he says and flicks open the menu. “When in Rome,” he mumbles, “although I suppose Rome would find the association rather insulting.”

Fran folds her napkin in her lap. Paying careful attention to the errant corners and folds.

“What are you going to have?” He leans forward, peering over the menu, and his reading glasses.

“I haven’t looked yet.” She watches the people at the next table. Young, beautiful, in love. She traces the damask pattern on the white tablecloth. “These are like the ones we had for our wedding, can you remember? The tablecloths?”

He peers again. “Why would I remember the tablecloths at our wedding?”

“Because your Mother insisted on them and they blew half our budget?”

“Mother, does have good taste. She wouldn’t think much of this place, though. Too flashy, very nouveau riche.” He pretends to shudder, and nods at the menu. “The show starts at nine.”

“I know.” She glances at the glossy pages.

“I don’t want to be late.” He says behind the menu.

“Fine, what are you having?” She says, snapping her menu closed.  

“I can’t decide.” He re-appears, perky eyebrows with black, piggy eyes. “What do you think I should have?”

Her smile disappears, sucked into a thin, straight line. “For heaven’s sake, can you not make a single decision on your own?”

“I was just making conversation, Fran. It’s date night, remember? Dr Benedict says, we should-”

“No, you were not making conversation. You were waiting for me to choose so you could blame me if you didn’t like it.”

“When have I ever done that?” He squints in the dim, dinner light.

“Only at every session we’ve had with the good doctor.”

“But Mother says therapy-“

She signals the hovering waiter. “I’ll have the house salad, please.”

The waiter turns, eyebrows raised, pen poised.

“I haven’t decided yet.” Panic cracks his voice. He perches on the chair scouring the pages, jaw pumping. “Why did you do that? I haven’t decided.”

“He’ll have the line fish, grilled, with a side salad.”

He deflates. Disbelief floods the table, followed by an angry fist. “Why did you do that? You knew I wasn’t ready.”

“You’re never ready, Frank.” Resting her hands on the rattling silverware. Her wedding ring glints, mocking her with its cheeriness.

“Well, I didn’t want that.”

“Yes, and now you’ll blame me. Your life is my fault.”

“Why are you being like this?”

“Like what? Like the woman you chose to marry, and then complained about for the next five years.”

He stares at her. Mouth agape.

“What? Honesty too nouveau riche for you?”

Ok, I hope that helps to explain using setting in dialogue instead of writing it in big blocks at the beginning of the scene.
 

Try it using the prompt: “Why is it so dark in here?” OR “Where the hell are we?”
 

Happy writing.