Don’t Overdescribe in Text Surrounding Dialogue

Too many details in the text surrounding dialogue can distract readers from what the characters say. This common dialogue mistake may seem to have less to with what is spoken than the words around it, but that’s not exactly the case.

In fact, the problem usually a sign of poorly written dialogue. For example:

He held out the drink for me, stood there arrogantly. “What’s your name, pretty lady?”

Readers don’t need to know how he stood, which is arrogantly. Instead, the words the character spoke should suggest his stance. So instead of telling by writing arrogantly, instead show by changing to dialogue so the passage reads:

He held out the drink for me, stood there. “So what’s the name of the pretty lady I’m taking home tonight?”

A cousin to this dialogue error is explaining every detail about what a character is doing during a conversation. This actually slows the story. For example:

He handed me the drink. I took it, and he smiled, sat on the sofa cushion next to me, took a moment to settle in, then faced my direction. “Did you have any luck with your family?”

My eyes went to the floor, then I shook my head, smoothed out the crinkle in my dress, then sipped my drink. “I’ve already borrowed money from everyone.”

The reader doesn’t need to have that much explanation. While not exposition, the blow-by-blow account is overwriting. Instead, pare it down to the actions that absolutely are necessary for moving the plot forward and those that show the character’s emotional state. This keeps the dialogue moving. For example:

He handed me the drink then sat on the sofa. “Did you have any luck with your family?”

My eyes went to the floor. “I’ve already borrowed money from everyone.”

The story requires that he hand her a drink and sit next to her (otherwise later the reader will ask, “Wait, when did he sit down?”), but that’s the only information that needs to be conveyed to the reader. My eyes went to the floor shows her shame, and that’s a relevant emotional state that needs to be conveyed.

The point of dialogue is for the conversation itself to reveal characters’ intentions as they try to achieve their goals. Dialogue cluttered with extraneous information distracts from that and diminishes the conversation’s effectiveness.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.