12 Oct

Dialogue and Exposition

Here’s a question from a reader:

Is it ok to use dialogue to tell the main character about the fantasy world she just entered via her sidekick who lives there? I’m not sure how else to do it. Is there such a thing as too much dialogue?

Thanks for the question!

Where to Include Exposition

You’re really asking about a couple things. Exposition is the explanatory text that tells the reader about the setting, the time period, backstory, etc. It’s important that the reader know what’s going on and the tendency is to try to explain everything.

But think about this: when you first meet someone, you know nothing of their back story, their history, how they reacted the first time they ate cotton candy, or whether or not they are scared of dogs. You don’t know their family history, or anything about their job or how well they do in school. You only know the immediate situation.

That’s what you must focus on, is the unfolding of scenes that tell you story.

But, you want to know how to get all that other stuff in there. Is it okay to tell it in dialogue? Maybe.

Unfortunately, little in fiction is set in stone. In general, though, you should trust your reader to understand implications of what you write. Maybe add in a line here or there of explanation, or occasionally a paragraph of description or just plain explanation. But overall, the exposition must be naturally worked into a story AS A SCENE UNFOLDS.

I’m emphasizing the use of scenes. A scene is something immediate happening; it includes action; it includes conflict; it includes immediate consequences. Nothing can interrupt the flow of that scene. In the aftermath of a scene, when the reader is following the character’s reactions to the scene, you might slip in a memory or flashback–if and only if it directly relates to the decision the character must make at this time.

Otherwise, sorry, the exposition must flow naturally.

Examples of Using Exposition

From The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages, p. 43.
This is a story about the families of scientists who are developing the atom bomb. “The Hill” is the research facility in New Mexico where much of the action is set. Suze has just had lunch with mom and is trying to decide what to do for the afternoon:

Both her parents had always worked. Back in Berkeley, though, where they’d been professors at the university, they’d had regular hours. Here on the Hill, she was never sure when she would see them. Especially Mom. Suze missed having her around, which was unpatriotic, because whatever the scientists were working on was going to end the war, and she knew that was more important than playing cards.

Here, the exposition is slipped into the scene and also does a good job of characterizing Suze, who both misses her Mom and Dad, and feels the conflict of their patriotic duty. Usually, it’s better to just put the exposition into a paragraph like this, instead of trying to fit it into dialogue.

On the other hand, here’s a bit from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, p. 91-92. In this futuristic reality TV show, children are supposed to kill each other in order to gain food for their section of the country. Here, Haymitch, a mentor, is explaining the reality of the arena:

After about a minute of this, Haymitch says, “Well, then. Well, well, well, Katmiss, there’s no guarantee there’ll be bows and arrows in the arena, but your private session with the Gamemakers, show them what you can do. Until then, stay clear of archery. Are you any good at trapping?”

“I know a few basic snares,” I mutter.

“That may be significant in terms of food,” says Haymitch. “And, Peeta, she’s right, never underestimate strength in the arena. Very often, physical power tilts the advantage to a player. In the Training Center, they will have weights, but don’t reveal how much you can lift in front of the other tributes. The plan’s the same for both of you. You go to group training. Spend the time trying to learn something you don’t know. Throw a spear. Swing a mace. Learn to tie a decent knot. Save showing what you’re best at until your private sessions. Are we clear?” says Haymitch.

Peeta and I nod.

This excerpt definitely takes place in the midst of a scene where Haymitch, the mentor is giving them instruction on how to act during training. We learn a lot! There are public and private training sessions; they must hide their skills; they will train in weights, bow/arrow, spears, maces, tying knots. But also notice that there’s conflict even here. Katmiss “mutters.” She’s resisting the advice of the mentor, reluctant to listen, even as she knows she must.

Notice also, that the mentor relationship allows for more exposition than just a friendship. You must keep in mind the type relationship being shown in the dialogue you use to provide exposition.

So, yes, sometimes, you can use dialogue to explain something. You just need to make sure there’s conflict and a scene to back it up and to keep the reader’s interest.

Avoid Talking Heads

Another aspect of the reader’s question is how much dialogue is too much? Elmore Leonard is known for his almost pure dialogue in his novels. So, using dialogue as your major storytelling strategy can and does work. But you must avoid the danger of Talking Heads: this occurs when two people are talking and there’s no action, no setting, no physical body.

It is easy to write Talking Heads when you get involved in the back and forth of dialogue. But you need to include beats, or small actions that ground the people in a physical setting.

Again, from The Hunger Games, pp148-149.

Here’s a bit of dialogue, without the physical grounding.

“You should be getting some sleep.”
“I didn’t want to miss the party. It’s for us, after all.”
“Are they in costume?”
“Who could tell?” Peeta answers. “With all the crazy clothes they wear here. Couldn’t sleep, either?”
“Couldn’t turn my mind off,” I say.
“Thinking about your family?” he asks.
“No. All I can do is wonder about tomorrow. Which is pointless, of course.”

Compare this to the way Collins wrote it and think about how the physical beats add richness and context to the dialogue.

My feet move soundlessly across the tiles. I’m only a yard behind him when I say, “You should be getting some sleep.”

He starts but doesn’t turn. I can see him give his head a slight shake. “I didn’t want to miss the party. It’s for us, after all.”

I come up beside him and lean over the edge of the rail. The wide streets are full of dancing people I squint to make out their tiny figures in more detail. “Are they in costume?”

“Who could tell?” Peeta answers. “With all the crazy clothes they wear here. Couldn’t sleep, either?”

“Couldn’t turn my mind off,” I say.

“Thinking about your family?” he asks.

“No,” I admit a bit guiltily. “All I can do is wonder about tomorrow. Which is pointless, of course.”

Dialogue needs–usually–to be mixed with physical action and thoughts and emotions. The exact mix is yours to choose as you tell the story. So, there’s not really such a thing as too much dialogue. It’s merely how you choose to use the dialogue that matters. Does it move the story along, keep the pace going, expose conflicts, express emotion, etc.

Don’t let exposition drag down your dialogue. But don’t be afraid to use dialogue to give some exposition. Just keep everything in balance and most of all remember to keep the story moving. Don’t let dialogue or exposition drag down the pacing of your story.

Any other tips for exposition or dialogue?

Got questions? We can’t talk about them if you don’t ask! Thanks to A for taking the time to ask.

7 thoughts on “Dialogue and Exposition

  1. I once wrote a novel in first person, but a lot of the action occurred away from the MC. The result – always – was a conversational info dump. Didn’t matter if it was in a meeting, over drinks in a bar, or hiding out in the bathroom with the water running to confuse any bugs: the conversations were long, just to get the MC up to speed.

    Still don’t know how to fix that in first person, since if the MC doesn’t know then it didn’t happen.

  2. Maybe it should be in 3rd person?
    Maybe the MC isn’t really the MC?
    Maybe it should be in omniscient POV?

    The first draft tells you what the story is. The second and subsequent drafts are about finding the most dramatic way to tell that story. You haven’t found that solution yet. So, you’ll have to try different things until you do find it.
    Darcy

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  4. Darcy, great article. You use some very good examples to get the point across.

    I do like exposition – knowing where a scene is, what’s going on. That makes me feel like I’m there – too “dialogue-y” feel likes listening to a radio play. And I’d rather “see” a character rub her arms, or wrap herself in a blanket, than complain in dialogue that she’s cold.

    Thanks!

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