That speech thing…

Nancy Jardine March 2014This post is by Nancy Jardine

I’ve just finished reading a historical novel, one of those that have been on my kindle for ages. My TBR list is long but I can’t seem to make enough time to slim it down. I read on and off all day, after demanding and urgent domestic tasks are done – my own writing; blog articles on the internet; research; proofs belonging to other authors that I might be commenting on, or doing an early review for – but the main time for novel reading is late evening before sleep.


The time period of the book was intriguing since it was set in the first century AD Roman Empire, just a little earlier than the era of my Celtic Fervour Series. The story of Gaius Antistius Vetus unfolds in first person. It’s his journey from boyhood to middle adulthood and is about the role he plays in the Roman Army. It’s also about Roman politics of the time while he is stationed in Jerusalem, and in other Mediterranean lands of the Roman Empire. The technique of using first person isn’t my most favourite to read but when used with skill, and when the tenses used are consistent, I can appreciate the read.from wikimedia commons

This was the case for the book called ‘In The Shadow of Tyranny’. The language isn’t too complicated and the use of first person narrative is thorough and constant. What surprised me most about this particular novel is that it is almost a complete descriptive story. It’s a fairly average length of 245 pages, maybe something like 70 thousand words, but there is almost no dialogue, and when dialogue is used, it’s for anecdotal recall. My feelings on this novel are mainly set out in the short review that I’ve written for the story which will appear on my blog – this one not being the correct place to discuss in detail.

However, it made me think of the uses of description and dialogue in my own work.

My own opinion is that a story reads more fluently when there’s a mix of explanatory passages and dialogue. I think I personally tend towards being heavy on description in my earliest drafts which often becomes the dreaded ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. When I read over what I’ve written and come to those accounts, I ‘hear’ just how much I’m expecting the reader to absorb and that’s when I change scenes, or parts of scenes, to dialogue. As a physical reader of my own story, I find it flows better after dialogue changes and I think the pace is improved.

Changing to showing rather than telling has been particularly important in the rewrites of my WIP novel for early teens. As a former teacher, I know that younger readers are not willing to plough through huge amounts of description. I can still recall the looks on faces when a more reluctant pupil reader realised he/ or she was about to embark on a long narrative paragraph during our group reading sessions.

I know they wanted to skip or scan past those exposition passages.

I now wonder just how true that is for the average adult reader today as well. Do they also tire of long evocative prose sections? Are they also unwilling to spend time on more details of the surrounding scene and have tendencies to skip the pages?

As a teenager, I read loads of Classic novels which had huge amounts of long explanatory paragraphs but at the time didn’t blink an eye – and I guess I still don’t. Sir Walter Scot’s ‘Ivanhoe’ adventure comes to mind where my teenage friends and I joked that Sir Walter Scott took three pages to describe a medieval tent peg. That was an extreme case, but I tend to like sufficient description for my imagination to expand on.

My first editor told me that I needed to have at least one section of dialogue on every single page of a romance novel, reckoning that it added to the pace and to the enjoyment of the romance reader since they were looking for the feelings of the characters rather than the situations they were involved in. But what about non-romance writing? Does that premise still ring true these days?

Do you think that long evocative and descriptive passages are no longer desired in mainstream novels? Do you prefer a story when there is only a little dialogue? Or, do you like a balance of both in a novel?
There are lots of blog posts out there in the ether about dialogue but this one has some good points

Embed your dialogue in a scene: absolutely sound advice. Keep the talk realistic: absolutely…

Enjoy you weekend whatever you are doing. Me? I’ve got a few more reviews to write and some paving slabs to lay in my garden, since it’s not raining today!



Nancy Jardine Award Finalist The People's Book Prize 2014Nancy Jardine writes historical and contemporary fiction- history mysteries and historical adventures.

Amazon US author page
Amazon UK author page



Novels also available from:

Celtic Fervour Series



Barnes and Noble P/B

Crooked Cat Bookstore


23 thoughts on “That speech thing…

  1. I usually like to read in the evening before bed, but the books I read are in audio format so I often find myself listening to them while preparing and eating meals, doing laundry, etc. I have a lot of books on my device, and I’m always downloading more. I’m lucky if I get through a book a week, but that’s better than not having enough to read, don’t you think?


  2. I love the classic novels with pages and pages of description, but I definitely like both dialogue and description in a book. It keeps me present and I don’t wander off if the book is interesting and well-written. I’ve been reading very heavily since my concussion almost 2 years ago. I started out reading about a book a day when we were at the camper, but at this point it’s more like four a week. I absolutely love reading and I read when I’m in the car, standing in line, at the doctor’s office and anywhere else I can get away with it. I started reading at a young age and have always had a library card – it was my most precious possession. Although I had been reading solely on my Kindle, for these two years I’ve been reading only books from the library. I like both. I think I just needed a break from all the downloads on my Kindle.


    1. Linda – Your reading sounds more like what I used to achieve and will probably achieve again once my family commitments are less pressing. i used to use my library a lot but now it tends ot just be for non-fiction research books. Hope you continue to enjoy your reading!


  3. I like a mix of dialogue and description. Sometimes they put too much description in the dialogue and it sounds contrived. Sometimes too much description without dialogue bores me. It’s a delicate formula I think to get it right. And has certainly changed from the earlier classic novels which had long descriptions that people had patience to wade through. I don’t think they do anymore. I like to read to and use to read while chasing cows home for milking. A couple times they kept slowing up and I didn’t realize it as I was into the story and pretty soon we were all standing still! Neva


    1. Hi Neva. That sounds like fun with the cows! I agree about that perfect balance and getting that correct is a definite skill.


  4. I’m one of those middle of the roaders as well — I like a mix of dialogue and description when it comes to novels — plus, I like the breaks and white space on the page, makes it easier to read and helps move the story along. Great post, Nancy!


    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Gayle- it makes me believe that is what the reader of today mostly wants, and for those very reasons of helping to move the story along.


  5. Nancy, cute photos. I like both, probably a little heavier on the dialog. I don’t like long passages of scene descriptions. How much does it take to say, the grass is green, and the sky is blue, unless it’s a alternate universe, and then the grass is blue, and the sky is yellow. There are probably times I don’t put enough description in my stories. LOL Cher’ley


    1. Thanks, Cherley. In my contemporary mysteries I’ve ended up with more dialogue than description but it’s probably the opposite with my historical adventures.


  6. Nancy, My rule of thumb is, if the description sets a scene, as the background is a minor character, or moves the story forward, I will include it. If is doesn’t I try to leave it out.

    Some authors, like Robert B. Parker in his ‘Spenser’ series could do more with dialogue than most writers could do in three pages of description. Other authors are more a balance of dialogue and description. I think if depends on the writer and what they are trying to accomplish.

    A really useful post and links. Thank you, Doris


    1. Doris – you’ve said it perfectly. I forgot to add that in my post about it very much depending on the author and their ‘voice’. Good advice,


  7. The amount of description depends on the genre. In my case, I write sword-and-sorcery fantasy, which has lots of 700- to 900-page novels. These are worlds that truly only exist in the head of the novelist, and so description is important for bringing a reader into a scene. Of course, it can be overdone, bogging down the narrative pacing. I try to set the scene with scenery description at the beginning of the scene, and use description to set mood. I keep dialogue as life-like as possible. When it comes to character descriptions, I try to mesh them into the narrative so they don’t come across as info-dumps. Brevity of description — unlike this comment — is important for the modern reader… it’s not 1845.


    1. Mike- again you’re correct about the genre and some genres fit better with more dialogue. Other genres, like the fantasy you describe, are better with sufficient description set up by the author to really make a vivid picture for the reader. Thanks for a great answer.


  8. I tend to like balance in my reading and strive for it when I write. Yes I will skip over long paragraphs that are purely descriptive when reading. I also find myself consolidating such paragraphs when doing rewrites.


  9. I’m also less than enthralled with first person and I would have a hard time with long descriptive passages in that POV. Like most modern readers I prefer description woven into the dialogue and ACTION. You seemed to have forgotten that element. It seems to me if soldiers are using a catapult, description of how it works would be part of the action. I try very hard to weave bits and pieces of description into my dialogue and action, rather than have long passages.
    Good thought-provoking post.


    1. You are absolutely correct, Kate. That weaving in of all of those elements into th edialogue takes time and conscious effort, sometimes.


  10. Interesting post, Nancy. I must confess I tend to skim over any long descriptive passages, and in my own writing, tend to go by the ‘less is more’ idea. A few well-chosen words can give the impression of a place, and leave the readers to use their own imaginations. Many of the reviewers of my latest novel have praised my ‘descriptions’ of Ireland, but in fact I did very little actual describing! Maybe a sentence here and there, but obviously it was enough for readers to picture the scenes!


    1. Hello, Paula. Your ‘Irish Inheritance’ definitely had enough to give a real sense of Ireland and picturing the landscape wasn’t difficult. 🙂


  11. It depends on what I’m reading. I’m happy to read well-written description, if it enhances my sense of place, character, mood, etc. (I’ve also spent a lot of time reading classics.) But if a description doesn’t give me those things, then I skim. (I’ll skim whenever I get bored.) I like details though. Sometimes books without descriptive passages feel insubstantial to me. I want enough description to give me something to wrap my mental arms around. But I’d agree that dialogue is central. It reads faster and can convey character, feeling, backstory, etc., very efficiently. I like writing both–painting the word pictures and letting my characters speak for themselves.


    1. Great comment, Stephanie. I, also, feel more fulfilled when I have sufficient description (not boring passages though). The getting your characters to successfully speak for themselves can be quite a skill!


  12. I tend to be more concerned with the actions, thoughts, and words of a character over a lot of narrative description. Still, I want and need a story to be grounded in a specific place and time. I guess what I look for is a story told from the character’s perspective – what he or she would notice about the world they live in rather than author intrusion telling us about the same thing. I think it is more seamless this way and it’s my favorite thing to read (and write). Just my two cents. 🙂


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