R red shadow 60H




Crafting Killer Description & Dialogue
Workshop Description
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  • fiction (craft)
  • all levels learn from this workshop
  • Presentation, in-class writing and interactive critique
  • Needs: handouts at session OR ability to project writing task info from a computer
  • Bonus: will email instructive chapters from Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling to people who sign up for the workshop

Three things that workshoppers will learn:

  • 1. how to add dimension and characterization to description of scenes and characters
  • 2. how to utilize beats in dialogue to add depth, move story, characterize
  • 3. how to better create the experience of the story in a reader’s mind

Writers work hard to deliver the experience of a story, to evoke in the reader’s mind a visceral experiencing of what is happening. Two primary tools for doing that are description and dialogue. Those who sign up for the workshop will be emailed two free educational chapters in advance of the conference that focus on the topics to be covered; they are excerpts from Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling

Experiential description:

So much description we read in novels is no more than a snapshot, a listing of the parts of a scene that is no richer in content or experience than what a camera could give us. It just is what it is.

But in a novel a scene doesn’t have to just be “what it is.” Description of a scene, an object, or a person is an opportunity to set mood and to characterize the characters featured in the scene. That characterization can take place if the description is filtered through the mind of the point-of-view character. It can take on new dimensions created by the nuances a character’s beliefs, feelings, objectives, etc. bring.

I call it experiential description. A simple example: Steve, a young man, sees a woman in a blue dress.

  • Snapshot: Sheila’s dress was blue.
  • Experiential: Sheila’s dress was the same sleazy blue Steve’s mother had worn whenever she went out to get drunk.

Workshoppers are given a snapshot description of a scene and two characters to work with. They write an experiential description of that scene from the two characters’ points of view, striving to include all the elements that the reader “sees.” Then workshoppers read their descriptions and a critique follows. Here is the stimulus material used for the description part of the workshop:

Exercise 1: experiential description

Setting snapshot: The Montana courtroom gleams with polished oak—the judge's bench, the railings, the prosecution and defense tables. The court stenographer is a trim forty-year old, dressed in a gray suit with a mini-skirt. The judge is a rotund black man wearing reading glasses on the tip of his nose as he surveys the defendant and then the prosecutor.


  • 1. Earl is the defendant, 24, a habitual criminal facing his third trial, this time for criminal assault. Raised in Georgia, he hates authority and hates blacks.
  • 2. Greg is the prosecutor, fifty, often world-weary with the never-ending stream of criminals and the evil he sees each day. He is fired up for this trial though—the defendant beat a 12-year-old boy nearly to death. He is glad to see Judge Bell, the hanging judge, presiding. And Judy, the stenographer he has been dating for the last two years.

Describe the setting from each point of view. Include everything you see in the snapshot. Workshoppers will read their descriptions aloud for a critique.

Dialogue beats:

The second part of the workshop focuses on the use of “beats” in dialogue to give it dimension: to characterize, to inform, to advance story/plot. Dialogue beats can be action, description and characterization of aspects of people, place, or action, internal monologue, and more. Skilled use of dialogue beats can also eliminate the need for dialogue tags, thus making the narrative even crisper.

As an editor, I see the addition of beats that do nothing to characterize or enrich the story. A short example, an actual bit of a scene from a first draft by a published author: A man and a woman sit at a table in a café, talking about a woman (his wife/her friend) who has been missing for over a week. In the course of the conversation in the woman’s point of view, this happens:

A man from the next table asked to borrow the extra chair to my right. As I nodded, Robert said, “I have not told you everything.”


 “Her car was found abandoned in Stewart State Park.”

 “Oh my God! When? How long after…”



The solo beat at the beginning did inject action into the scene…but it had nothing to do with story—it was “activity,” not storytelling action. Here is what skillful use of beats can do to that scene:

Robert shifted his gaze away from me. “I have not told you everything.”

How like the man to withhold information. “What?”

“Her car was found abandoned in Stewart State Park.”

“Oh my God!” Fear for my missing friend jolted through me. “When? How long after…”

In the workshop, the presenter first solicits from the attendees a half-dozen random bits of dialogue. The attendees write down the lines and then are given a scene: a snapshot of the location and two characters. Their task is to use the dialogue given and apply it to the characters and the scene. They will then read the result aloud and the class will critique the effort. This is the exercise:

Exercise 2: beats in dialogue

Setting snapshot: The reception area of the Exotics Veterinary Clinic. A ten-foot counter holds displays advertising cat and dog medicines and food. Behind it is the receptionist, a 20-something young woman who is bored with her job. There are two patients waiting, one with a yappy little miniature poodle and another with a cat in a carrier that yowls every once in a while, which sets off the poodle. The veterinarian (below) is present when the scene starts, talking with the owner of the cat.

Characters in the scene:

  • 1. Virginia is a fifty-year-old woman who is a veterinarian. She specializes in small, exotic animals—snakes, rabbits, hamsters, mice, parrots, etc. She is a caring woman, but does not approve of dragons in general, though she’s never really talked to one. She has avoided contact ever since one flew off with her miniature pony.
  • 2. Gargoo is a dragon who has a pain in his side. He’s about the size of a horse, not including his tail. He can talk, of course, and he works undercover for the police, which is where he got hit in the abdomen. He doesn’t trust human medical science, but he’s in pain. He knows about this veterinarian because he saw her sign when he carried off a tiny horse he had for brunch a few years back.

I’ve taught this workshop at:

  • 2012 Write on the Sound Writers Conference, Edmonds, WA
  • 2012 South Coast Writer’s conference, Gold Beach, OR
  • 2012 Write on the River workshop, Wenatchee, WA

I’ve received workshopper evaluations from Write on the Sound for this workshop. The class of 75 was sold out (I’m pretty sure there were more people there than that.), and 55 evaluations were turned in. Here are the ratings on a 5-point scale, with 5 = excellent, 1 = poor:

5 – 28 votes

4 – 23

3 – 2

2 – 0

1 – 2 (Well, you can’t please everyone.)

Average rating: 4.4


I operate a book editing and design business, Crrreative Book Editing and Design—I’ve been freelance editing full-length fiction manuscripts for about 13 years. I also run the “litblog,” Flogging the Quill. I get about 9,000 page hits per month.

I published my writing craft book titled Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling in 2014.

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen said this about my book: 

  • "For some time now, I've been a fan of "Flogging the Quill," Rhamey's excellent blogsite about the how-to's of writing. Now he's compiled his expertise into a writing guide, and it's a must-have for any novelist--published or aspiring. It's one of the most readable, entertaining books on writing out there."

I’m also a novelist: I’ve published 4 novels, and have had literary agent representation. My novels are commercial fiction and include speculative fiction; fantasy; and mystery. Samples are at rayrhamey.com.

In screenwriting, I was a story editor for Filmation, Los Angeles, and my screen credits include an adaptation of The Little Engine that Could and 20 half-hour screenplays for animated series.

© Ray Rhamey 2017   ray (at) rayrhamey (dot) com 206.291.8758  Ashland, Oregon