Dialogue as Exposition
Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post helping writers understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics for March:
- Finding Our Characters’ Voices (3/7)
- Developing Our Characters’ Voices (3/16)
- Dialogue as Exposition (3/21)
- Nondialogue Voice (3/28)
Using character voice as exposition may seem like a simple technique, but more often than not, writers do this in a heavy-handed way. This leaves their dialogue stilted, dry, and an obvious story function that drains their prose. Blending story exposition and important story information allow you as the writer to keep your story engaging while feeding your reader what they need to know to stay grounded in your story and characters.
“Jerry said, ‘You know I never wanted a dog and then you made me take care of it. It’s your fault I had to take it to the pound. I was too busy with work to do anything. And you know I had that bad experience as a child with dogs.’”
The above example is pretty close to what a lot of writers put into the dialogue of their stories. They pack it with exposition in a way that no one would ever talk and make the dialogue just an extension of the author’s voice and not a part of who the characters are.
“Jerry said, ‘After the mutt my mom had as a kid—you know, the one that left that scar on my ass—I never wanted another dog in my house again. You knew that and still went and got that fucking Pomer-puddle, or whatever you call it. What happened after that, was on you.’”
Both examples depict a person who doesn’t like dogs and did something to the new pet in their home. That’s the story information meant to be conveyed to the reader. The first one does it exactly—telling the reader what happened and all the necessary information. But what it also does is create a very flat few lines of dialogue. The second conveys the same information. Where the first one failed, the second one succeeds by introducing character voice, mixing up syntax, giving more descriptive and specific detail, and posing a question to the reader: what did happen after that?
“Probably take it easier on yourself? You really are getting close, you know,” he says, and I’m surprised to admit that he sounds like he means it. “I think you’ve gotta chill out a little. You’ve cracked the code, but you’re burnt out.”
“You really think so?” Something very like relief—I can’t say for sure; it’s been decades—loosens sinew in my back and shoulders.
“I mean, you literally singed the edge of the pillowcase last night.” He gargles toothpaste-water, spits. “Maybe try to sleep for real. Take a nap this afternoon.” He looks at me from the corner of his eye. Mouth upturned. Lascivious. “Stay on this side of the planet tonight. I can make you good and hungry for something you can’t eat with someone else’s mouth.”
Let’s get into it more below!
Putting exposition in our dialogue is unavoidable. We either need to convey information to our reader or from character to character. The issue with using dialogue to give information is that a lot of the time we fall back on simply stating the information without thinking about the characters, situation, or moment in the story. Using all of those aspects, we can give tons of information to our readers without letting our dialogue fall flat.
The best way to use dialogue to give information is by doing what the examples above do. They use the framing of the scene (what is physically happening and where), character relationship, and voice. This buries the info dump of exposition happening in those moments. So when you’re writing or revising your dialogue instead of focusing on what you need to tell the reader or character but on how that particular character would say this information.
Don’t forget that no matter what you want to tell the reader through the dialogue, there is still a story taking place with characters who are invested in what happens. Give each bit of dialogue, especially those filled with exposition emotions, voice, and framing to keep the story at the forefront. Examine each dialogue scene where exposition is given through the dialogue for what else is happening and what else the characters may be concerned with or hiding to create an exposition-heavy dialogue section have more life.
Find 10 scenes from works where the author is using dialogue to convey information to the reader. Pinpoint how the author is doing it and whether or not they lose you, engage you, enthrall you, or what exactly their method does to you as a reader. Maybe they’re using a common literary technique or maybe they’re using a nifty trick to give the reader details.
Then take the techniques and methods you learned from each scene to your current WIP. Find a scene where you’re giving information to the reader through character dialogue. Identify whether you’re relying on simply stating the information to the reader or if you’re using techniques that will allow the information to stick with the reader in engaging ways. For any of the scenes where your dialogue exposition falls short, edit it to use the methods you found from other stories.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics from February:
- Indirect and Direct Characterization (2/7)
- Character Action (2/16)
- Interior World of Characters (2/21)
- Physically Describing Our Characters (2/28)
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Please don’t forget to leave a comment and tell me your thoughts on using dialogue to convey information or how you use it in your writing! I’d also love to know how you made out with the exercise. Catch you next week for our Write Better, Right Now post on nondialogue voice.
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