Recently, I talked with a woman (God, I can't call people in graduate school girls, ack!) who was somewhat surprised when I said that description is not only highly overrated, it can be detrimental to a story. Just look at Stephen King. By far, his best books are books like Cujo and Christine - which are also his shortest books. Longer books, like It, tend to lose people in the description (or flashbacks - oh the ridiculously long flashbacks in that book!). Even in Fantasy novels, where world building is so very vital to the story, in depth descriptions of the side of a building aren't useful. They don't help the character (or the reader) navigate the world. They just confound the reader and delay the plot. The more time you spend on description, the slower the action, the more you lose your reader to boredom or irritation.
It's the same reason we are discouraged from using passive voice. Passive voice (using is, are, was and were) doesn't move the plot along. Readers like action. They want to see what will happen next. The best times to use description are when you want to prolong a short scene or increase suspense. An example would be if someone is running for his/her life. People aren't always hyperaware in these types of situations, but it always seems like a minute takes ten (or more). Stretching those types of scenes out with description or inner ramblings isn't just a good idea, it is essential.
But I digress (like always...). My ramblings here today were on dialog. There's a lot of places where authors can fall short with regard to dialog. In general, the two most common are being able to pinpoint who is speaking and balancing readability with accents/ethnic backgrounds.
Many authors complain most about the use of dialog tags (e.g. said, whispered, hissed, screamed). More specifically, they complain about using anything other than said. They claim that using other tags pulls the reader out of the story. I disagree with this. I believe they are necessary in certain circumstances.
But I also think that dialog tags should only be used under the most dire of circumstances to begin with. They are fillers so that we don't get confused and lost as to who is talking. While important, dialog tags are the worst way of accomplishing this goal. I far prefer two other means of speaker identification: tone and action.
Tone is quite simple. Everyone speaks a little different. Me, I'm fond of cursing in foreign languages when in mixed company. I also have no filter on my mouth, which can mean curse words at inappropriate times or it can mean that the first word to come to my mind to finish/start a sentence doesn't necessarily have to be in English (e.g. when meaning wait, the first word to come to my mind is the Japanese word, mate). People have different word preferences, like maybe one person always says yeah, while another says yes. It can be just a matter of a person's outlook and you can tell who's talking simply by how pessimistic they are. A great example of this comes from a book series by Danika Cassidy I was just reading. Nina is pessimistic, paranoid, and the biggest "potty mouth" on the face of the planet and her jaded, sarcastic, curse laden, biting comments are easily identified from the other characters in the book... without anything else to identify them. This all comes out in tone and, while this is the hardest way to write, it is always the best way as it moves the conversation along the fastest, keeps the reader in the story better, and sounds the most realistic.
Action is simpler in practice, but has a few more rules. Well, really, just one. Never mix the action of one person in with the dialog of another. This should never be done, even if you are not using dialog to distinguish speakers. It is confusing if you do. This isn't always easy and can, at times, take some thinking to word things just right, but the mix of action and dialog is very good at moving the story along quickly.
The other point has to do with readability and accents or ethnic origins. We all want to be true to the background of our characters. You want that Latino to ring true in the reader's mind. However, you don't want choppy dialog like, "Eeees good ju don go, vato." That wasn't too bad and there are far worse examples (that was hard enough for me to write but, again, I've seen worse). The above should never, never, never, never be done. It's choppy and hard to read. It's painful to read. Instead, if you want the ethnicity to ring true. Pay attention more to how they forms their sentences than how they form their words. Like, for example, in the Spanish language, they rarely ever use pronouns. So saying, "Is good you no go, vato," is okay. That is very close to the Spanish sentence of, "Es bueno no vas, vato," with only the you being adding in English. It's much easier to read and you get across the ethnicity of your character.
Another thing to be careful of when playing with ethnic characters is use of foreign languages. This can really apply to any use of language that is not mainstream (like using some texting abbreviations, MMORPG abbreviations, or profession-specific lingo). Keep in mind things like newspapers are written with a person with only a 5th grade reading level in mind. Unless you are writing a scientific journal article or a textbook for a University, be careful about word usage. Can you use words like vato (a Spanish slang originally used among gang culture which has gradually come to mean something like dude) or bucolic (which is on the GRE suggested vocabulary list, i.e. they expect you to have at least some college education to know it)? Sure. Granted, I like to say, if it's on the GRE suggested vocab list, don't use it. At least, not without proper context clues. If there is a chance the average fifth grader wouldn't know the word, please use the word in a way that tells them what is means. A 27-year-old graduate student with a 3.73 GPA shouldn't need a dictionary next to her when she is reading a book. Like in the example above, the placement of the word vato clearly indicates that it is being used as a non-proper name for a person. For something like bucolic, just saying that a scene has bucolic majesty doesn't tell the reader enough. Following it up with an in depth description of a country scene does though.
Well, that was my rant for the day. Ciao, bellas!