Tag Archives: dialogue

15 Dec

Christmas Eavesdropping

Notes from the Field

During the holidays, it’s hard to concentrate on a story. But it’s not hard to BE a writer. As you go to gatherings of friends and families, one thing you can do is EAVESDROP!

In your story, you want dialogue to sound natural. One way to study dialogue is to just listen and record. At holiday gatherings, you may hear undercurrents of sibling rivalry, jealousy, reconciliation, or love. Usually, these things aren’t said on the surface, so much as in the subtext, or what is understood beneath the surface.

Try this: Take a pad of paper and a pencil/pen with you. Sit off to a side or in a corner, and furiously write everything you hear said in a specific conversation for ten minutes. Later when there’s time, look it over and see what you’ve learned about dialogue. OR, if your family is generous and agrees, find an app to record an hour of conversation! Thanks, fam!

So, here are my notes from the field for a couple hours, recording exactly what I said–just my side of a conversation. Notice how MUCH you can tell about the events and what others are saying just by the snippets of dialogue. (Names and phone numbers XXX-out to protect the innocent.)

Getting daughter out of bed

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dani_vazquez/10479425133

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dani_vazquez/10479425133

I don’t have time to be gentle.
That helps.
No, you can’t consistently count on it. It’s not your car.

Before and During Breakfast

He’s not up yet.

I’ve been in there once or twice.

I need to eat.
I’ve messed around too long.
Could you clean up the kitchen, do the things you haven/t done in two days.
Where? What?
It would be easier with a comb.
Too late now.
We gotta remember to take the trash out.
Oh, man!
Both of you stop.
It’s not just her. It’s you, too.
Stop! XXX, don’t take that in your room, please!
No. No. It’s a mess.
Whose spoon is this?
Just ‘sec.
Tell MMM she has e-mail.
What is it, oh, a Pokemon?
ZZZ, work on that kitchen now.
It used to be a road.
Wow. How much?
$15 isn?t bad at all. Who’s sponsoring it?
Cool. It’s not bad.
I’m gonna shower.
I’m gonna shower.
Huh? I’m totally lost.
Oh, OK.
OH, well.
Gimme kiss.
Yes. To school?
No. Gimme kiss.
Lots more than that. I’ll be in the library today. At noon. XXX has to stay ?’til 4. So we?ll just stay.
You might as well read.
Have a good day.

Taking truck to shop

Last night, we lost 3rd and 4th gears. You can put it in gear but you have to hold the stick. 1st, 2nd & 5th are OK.
Oh, and he said to change the oil and a nut on the valve cover is missing.
Pattison. I-s-o-n. Not e-r.
We also have a Sienna van so we should be in the computer.
Let me give you his number. XXX-XXXX.
A second number XXX-XXXX. But I’ll be gone a lot, so try him first.
And give us an estimate. Just give us an idea of how long would help.
He’s coming to get me, so I?ll just go in the waiting room.
Don’t change the oil first. Let us know how much on the transmission first.
Is that all you need?

Driving to work with DH

She said she’d call you with an estimate. It’ll probably take over night.
Where’s my glasses?
My headache is coming back.
No, on the other side.
Uh huh.
Uh huh.
So, which do you like?
What is all that?
Yep. That’s the one you said I could have? I could put it on my business cards?
That’s weird.
Strange. I gotta call XXXXXX. About YYY.
Where’s the check book? I need one for this doctor’s visit.
Bad time for a vacation with all the other guys messed up.
Wow. Must be nice.
Yeah. He’s the best marketer.
Which one?
That’s good.
By who?
I should be able to make it to the doctor by nine. I was hoping I could go be the house and eat, though. I need to go by and see XXX and then–I need to buy crickets. (Note: to feed the lizards.) And I?ll bring you the car just before 12.
Okay. I know.
Kinda misty on the river today.

Yeah, I know.
It was weird yesterday.
Yeah. Like what?
I haven’t heard of him.
What are they building over there?
Boy, that looks terrible. It’s big. Well–it’s just big. Wow. That’s amazing.
I have my keys. I need a check.
Was it on the table?
That’s right. Love you.

Saying Hi to Neighbor

Good morning.
Pretty good.
Already in a rush.

08 Apr

Complicated Dialogue: Keeping 5 Characters in Line

Today, I’d like to answer a question from a reader.
Shena asks, “I’m writing a story and I have five people who are carrying on a conversation with each other. How do I go about stating each person’s line without constantly using, he said, he replied or using the person’s name to say this person said after the sentence without it being an overkill of redundancy?”

Thanks for the question! You’re right to be concerned about repeating speech tags too often. It’s really a balancing act: on one hand, you don’t want to repeat too often, but neither do you want the reader to get lost. You have limited options, however, and you’ll have to work hard to keep this conversation interesting.

Fiction Notes at darcypattison.com

Speech Tags

Speech tags are the “he said” and “she said” that often accompanies dialogue. Notice that when you use HE or SHE, they are pronouns and will refer to the person immediately preceding. That’s important. The pronoun antecedent must be the right person. In the case of five people talking, you’ll probably need to use the character’s name often.\

James said, “Get lost.”
Jim said, “No way?”
Jill said, “Why?”

In the example above, notice that the job is even harder when character’s names all start with the same letter. Make sure your novel is populated with characters who have unique names that stand in contrast to one another. Not Jill and Bill, because they rhyme. Not James, Jim and Jill because they all begin with the same letter and are all one syllable. Instead, choose something like this: James, Brianna, Marguerite, Ally, and Bob.

Actions in the Midst of Dialogue

Dialogue rarely stands alone, though. When you add actions to dialogue, it’s sometimes called beats. This isn’t the same as action beats in a scene, but instead just means the small actions that are interwoven with dialogue. Sometimes those are the same, but sometimes not.

Dialogue beats are the small actions. Scenes demand actions, not just interior thoughts. What are your characters doing? Changing a light bulb.

James took the light hub out of the package and said, “Get lost.”
Reaching in, Marguerite gently took the package from him and said, “No way.”
Ally stuck out her lip in a pout. “Why?”

Notice here that Ally has an action, but has no speech tag. Sometimes, you can just omit the speech tag, if a character does something right before or after the dialogue and it’s clear that it’s this character speaking.

This still sounds boring, though. Part of that is because we repeated the structure too exactly in the first two sentences. They have an “action and said,” structure, which doesn’t really work here. Vary the structure of your sentences, sometimes putting the dialogue first, last, or even in the middle of the action.

Bob shook his head in disgust.
James tore open the light bulb package and snarled, “Get lost.”
“No way.” Marguerite’s voice was soothing and gentle. She took the torn cardboard from James and patted his shoulder.
Ally stuck out her lip in a pout. “Why should I get lost?” She hesitated and added, “I don’t want to.”
Bob grunted, “Why? Isn’t it obvious?”
“James is just upset,” Brianna said, “But that doesn’t mean he should get his way.”

Notice the variety here.

  • There are some actions without dialogue.
  • Dialogue occurs at the end, the beginning or the middle of the dialogue.
  • After some dialogue, there’s a longer section of actions.
  • I’ve used two substitutes for “said”: snarled and grunted. I don’t like using very many substitutes. Many writers explain that “said” disappears and readers don’t notice it. If you use an alternate word, it should add something important to the story.

Character Tics and Tags

Finally, it’s possible to use character tics or tags to good effect. Perhaps, poor Ally stutters. And James has a high pitched voice.

Bob shook his head in disgust.
James tore open the light bulb package and whined in soprano, “Get lost.”
“No way.” Marguerite’s voice was soothing and gentle. She took the torn cardboard from James and patted his shoulder.
Ally stuck out her lip in a pout. “W-w-why should I get lost?”
“Especially you!” James squeaked.
Bob threw up his hands. “Why? Isn’t it obvious?”
“James is just upset,” Brianna said to Ally, “But that doesn’t mean he should get his way.”

You can start to see how dialogue can be enliveded with actions, sentence variety and small characterizations. You can devise many more ways to distinguish one character from another and use those traits in creating interesting dialogue. Try varying the character’s typical word choices or dialect. Within a larger conversation, too, you might have one character addressing another, as in Brianna’s aside to Ally and Marguerite’s intimate moment with James.

What’s your favorite way to keep complicated dialogue straight, yet keep enough variety to be interesting?

24 Jul

Dialogue: Make Each Character Unique

Dialogue, what characters say, is an important element in any story.
DH, a reader here, is puzzled how to switch from one character to another.

Here’s an example she gave:
“Hey Danielle! Come check out this new book I got!” says Viola. “Okay just a sec.” says Danielle.

See, what I’m asking? I need to know what ways are there to talk between characters without having to say says Danielle, or says Viola or says Darcy.

Dialogue is what characters actually say and it is set off with quotes. Each time a character finishes talking and another begins, it is a new paragraph. If the character’s speech is a sentence, then it ends with a comma that goes inside the quote. If it is a question or exclamation point, that goes inside the quote instead of the comma. Generally, stories are told in past tense, so you would use “said” instead of “says,” which would be used for first person stories. And finally, I tend to put the character’s name before the said/says. In some ways this is a personal preference, but some references consider “said Viola” to be more juvenile than “Viola said.” Decide which you like and stick with it. It’s also a pet peeve for a character to constantly call the other person’s name. I don’t talk to people that way and characters shouldn’t either.

“Hey, come check out this new book I got!” Viola said.
“Okay, just a sec,” Danielle said.

That’s a good basic dialogue structure but now there are things that can help the story move along smoothly. First, is a beat or some sort of action. You can also insert the “she said” into the middle of the dialogue to vary the rhythm of the exchange.

Viola held up a shiny book. “Hey, come check this out!”
“Okay,” Danielle said. “Just a sec.”

Let’s add some setting.

From across the library, Viola held up a shiny book. “Hey!” she called in a stage whisper. “Come check this out!”
“Okay.” Danielle shoved back her chair and said, “Just a sec.”

It is also important to distinguish each character simply by the way they say something.

Viola: Hey, come check this out!

What are some possible responses for Danielle?
“Sure thing.”
“Why? Boring.”
“Girl, you know I don’t like books.”
“I’m busy.”
“Not now.”
“Go away.”
(Silence. She ignores Viola)
“Be quiet.”

Which one would THIS Danielle be most likely to say? It’s a matter of character. What is her attitude about reading and books and being in a library? What is her emotional state? Is she mad, sad, bored, or engrossed in a book of her own? All of those things will infuse the dialogue with something unique. And the reader should be able to tell Danielle’s voice from Viola’s. Because you also know all that about Viola and that should be in what she says and how she says it.

From across the library, Viola waved the new Harry Potter book. “It’s here! Come check it out.”
“Okay.” Danielle yawned, then put down her worn copy of Pride and Prejudice. “I’m coming.”

Dialogue must do more than just have people talking. It must also characterize and show attitude and move the story along. It’s worth the time it takes to explore options.

03 Jul

Fiction Techniques for Nonfiction

All those fiction techniques you’ve spent time mastering — dialogue, description, setting, mood, scenes, characterization, and plot — are equally useful in writing nonfiction. Yes, there is more leeway in nonfiction than in the last twenty-five years, but publishers still value creative nonfiction or fiction written with fiction techniques.

For example, I have a new nonfiction coming out next year, Kentucky Basketball: America’s Winningest Teams (Rosen, 2014). I searched and searched for an interesting opening to the story, until I found a scene that was worthy of describing.

It was Valentine’s Day, 1938. Packed into the University of Kentucky Alumni Gym were over 4000 people, some sitting in windows, others literally hanging from the rafters. The UK Wildcat basketball team led top-ranked Marquette University team by 10 points.

It’s an exciting rivalry game, early in the history of the basketball program at Kentucky. Fiction techniques dictated that I set the scene immediately. Then I use sensory details to fill in the scene to describe the fast-paced last few minutes. Joe “Red” Hagan shoots a long 49-foot field goal from near the half-court line. When Marquette missed three more times, it becomes the winning score. Then, the interesting part started. In the audience was “Happy” Chandler, governor of Kentucky. He was so excited by the win, and especially Red’s winning shot, that he called for a hammer and nail. He rushed onto the court and at the spot from which Red shot, Chandler hammered a nail into the floor to commemorate the moment.

It’s stuff of legends. And it deserved a full scene, which meant fiction techniques.

Research Details for NonFiction: Think Fiction

This means that while I was researching the nonfiction topic of Kentucky basketball, I was really looking for a certain type of information.

Scenes. I look specifically for scenes with a beginning, middle with conflict, and ending. It needs to be something fun and interesting, a specific event.

Details. Next, I look for details. Here’s a fact: the basketball arena was meant to seat 2500, but 4000 fans were in attendance. A newspaper article of the times specifically said that fans were literally sitting in windows and hanging from the rafters. I look for numbers, colors, sizes, shapes, extended descriptions, and other specific details. These will all help the story come alive.

Timelines. The timeline of the basketball game was important to lay out and newspaper reports were helpful. The details of the first half were important to understand, so I could focus on the last three minutes.

Personalities or Characters. This story is made richer by the presence of Happy Chandler, governor of Kentucky. What a happy thing that he was named Happy! It added to the appeal of the story that the governor with such a nickname was so Happy that he did something unexpected.

Unexpected. The story is interested because of the governor’s unexpected reaction. Stories of last-minute wins are commonplace, even if in the moment it feels like a miracle. By itself, Red Hagan’s shot isn’t remarkable enough to include in a book like this. But add to that the unexpected hammer and nail, and it becomes a remarkable story of a fan who wanted to acknowledge a miraculous shot. That’s why this story made it into the book’s introduction, surprise.

Research and document all your research; but while you’re researching, think fiction techniques. And your nonfiction article will become an interesting story that both informs and entertains.

29 Mar

Imperfect Dialogue: Making Characters Sound Real

I’ve been reading manuscripts lately and one thing keeps jumping out at me: dialogue that is too perfect. It’s grammatically correct, perfectly punctuated. And totally unreal.

Characters don’t talk that way. Kid-characters, especially, in the midst of an exciting bowling tournament or soccer or other sports games do NOT talk in complete sentences.

Use Sentence Fragments for Realistic Dialogue

You must get over the fear of sentence fragments in order to write believable dialogue. Really. Right now. Commit to at least one sentence fragment on every page of your manuscript, just for practice.

Here’s an example from Clementine, Friend of the Week by Sara Pennypacker:

“What does that stand for, M.V.P.?” I asked.
Margaret scratched her head like she was fake-remembering. “Oh, right! Moron-Villain-Pest,” she said. “He wins it every year. No competition.”

That is three sentence fragments: Oh, right! Moron-Villain-Pest. No competition.

What if Pennypacker had filled out those sentences?

“Oh, you are right! M.V.P. means Moron-Villain-Pest. He wins it every year. There is no competition.”

That is clumsy to read, more boring, and destroys the voice of the novel. Sentence fragments work better here to keep the rhythm, keep the pace interesting and maintain the ironically-innocent voice of Clementine.

Sentence fragments also allow the writer to put emphasis where needed to direct the reader’s attention. Here, the emphasis is on the definition of M.V.P and how well the M.V.P fulfills his role. No competition.

Are you struggling with believable dialogue? Look at writers like Elmore Leonard, David Mamet and Woody Allen.

What authors do you admire for their dialogue?

20 Feb

2 Dialogue Tips from Studying SitComs: Just Spit it Out

I learned that Sit-Coms just spit it out. On one episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, Raymond’s brother Robert comes over to take the kids to the zoo. Raymond realizes that the kids might even like Uncle Robert more than him. Robert actually spits it out: You’re not a good father.

Of course, in a sit-com, all you’ve got is the dialogue. Like movies, you can’t get in the characters’ heads, you only have dialogue and actions to make a point. Robert clearly expresses his opinion of Raymond’s parenting skills–in the dialogue.

Raymond, of course, retaliates and tells Robert that he needs to get a life.
Fast forward to the end: Raymond has had a successful (sorta) day at the zoo with the kids and comes home to find Robert in the hot tub with two hot chicks.

Robert: Looks like you are a good father.
Raymond: Looks like you got a life. I’d get in that hot tub with you, but I didn’t come prepared.
Robert: That’s OK, you can use my swim trunks, they are over there. (Beat. That means wait for the audience to get the joke and laugh and appreciate it.) Just kidding.

I learned that the emotional content in a sit-com is laid bare. Characters actually say what the theme of the story is. Here, it’s a two-fold question: Is Raymond a good father? Does Robert have a life outside his duties as uncle? The important moments along the character’s emotional arc are so obvious. And isn’t that nice for the writer? We don’t have to imply, infer, implicate. Just spit it out.

As a novelist, I know that I have more tools than a scriptwriter, so I can put some of the characters’ tensions, fears, and pains into interior dialogue, narrative sections and can use sensory details to fully flesh out a scene and create the right mood. But I’ve added a new tool: Just spit it out.

Timing is crucial. Above, I had the aside about the BEAT, the pause for the audience to get the joke. Sit-coms work because the actors and actresses have superb timing. One book on acting in sit-coms emphasizes the importance of the actor/actress following EXACTLY the script, especially in terms of punctuation. Where should the character hesitate, pause, speed up, scream, whisper–in short, the scriptwriter is allowed to direct the pacing and delivery of the dialogue.

I’ve taken a new look at my punctuation this week, with an eye to pacing the delivery of dialogue. Am I using silences, pauses, hesitations, stuttering, speeding up, etc. to create an extra layer of meaning, to make jokes work, or to characterize?

11 May

8 Dialogue Mistakes to Avoid

Housekeeping note: I’ve updated all the pages for my books, so if you see a stream of them in an email–that’s my complete bibliography.

Dialogue can go wrong in at least 8 ways.

  1. Know it all. When one character knows it all the reader knows nothing, it’s tempting to have Mr. Know-it-all tell all. Don’t. That sort of “Let me explain. . .” dialogue is deadly to read. Instead, we need information to come out naturally as the tense situation develops. You can add a bit of exposition here, a description there, a tidbit in dialogue. But never do an information dump in dialogue.
  2. Trivialities. Please. I know that when you meet someone there are pleasantries to be discussed: the weather, polite inquires about how you are feeling and equally polite proclamations that you are perfectly fine and isn’t it a nice spring day. But that sort of trivial banter should be banned from fiction. It is the antithesis of conflict and tension on every page that will keep a reader’s attention.
  3. So. Trendy. It. Is. Truncated. In an attempt to create a snappy voice, one danger is to truncate dialogue so much that it becomes a staccato bore. Voice is created by a variety of speech rhythms. Some short. And some much longer. Don’t let a truncated style become a habit. Employ it only when a character is angry, upset, traumatized and can’t talk, etc. Otherwise, variety is the spice of dialogue.
  4. Drama Queen. Please! There are characters so full of drama that you want to use exclamation points everywhere. Really! Life is so full of danger! And one of those dangers is a drama queen who can’t carry on a conversation without exclamations. Get rid of those in favor of a stronger voice (lots of sentence variety), strong verbs to express strong emotions and a dip into DQ’s psyche to let the reader feel those emotions (Show-Don’t-Tell).
  5. Scientist. Some stories need experts who can explain the complexities of something. For example, Cory Doctorow’s book, LITTLE BROTHER, has lots of complicated explanations about how internet security works. But he never has an expert stop and explain it. The explanations are usually expository, but are straightforward and interesting. Some are integrated into the storyline, as the characters play out a way to get around computer security systems. Be careful not to let even expository be too heavy handed, but for sure, keep it out of dialogue. At all costs, avoid the dreaded talking heads.
  6. Poor Memory. In a memoir, can you really recreate pages of dialogue? No. Key phrases may live in your memory, but few can remember word-for-word exchanges. For this type writing, you’ll have to rely on reconstructed dialogue, but it needs to come up against the standards of good dialogue. No chit-chat, no information dumps, no truncated speech, etc. For flashbacks, of course, fiction rules apply and you can create whatever dialogue is needed.
  7. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. Do you mention a character’s name in dialogue?
    “Mary, will you get me a cup of coffee?”
    “Why, Bill, I’d be happy to do that.”
    I tend to delete most of the direct addresses as intrusive and not natural. Occasionally, I’ll allow one at the beginning of a scene to set the stage better or maybe a few times in a scene that is all in dialogue to keep the reader oriented. But mostly, leave these out.
  8. No Subtext. When we talk, we often don’t mean exactly what we say. Instead, we are evasive; our body language says one thing while our mouths say something else. Good dialogue should have more depth than just surface info, it has subtext. Real dialogue includes evasions, half answers, silences, reversals, changing topics and more, which all adds complexity and depth.
09 Jan

Subtext: What is this Story Really About?

I’m on a 4 day streak, after messing up a 36 day streak of writing daily on 750words.com. Sigh. Why did I mess up? Too many family issues going on.

If you’re writing 750 words daily, too, part of the goal is to learn to think like a writer. Character relationships are important to establish, but the relationships must be natural. In order for that to happen, you must not put too much on top of the text. In other words, you must have subtext.

Subtext is the real topic of discussion, whatever is going on in the relationship.
For example, a couple might be making apple pie together, peeling apples, mixing up and rolling out pie crust, popping it in the oven. Their dialogue might be:

This green apple is sour.
That’s why I got half green, half red.
It’s too sour.
Then add sugar?
Yes. Sometimes you need to sweeten things up a bit.

Straightforward, talking about apple pie. But the subtext could vary. Maybe they had a fight that morning and when one says “sour” they really are talking about the fight. When the other offers to add sugar, maybe it’s a subtle apology.

This green apple is sour. She hesitated, waiting for him to speak.
That’s why I got half green, half red.
It’s too sour.
He took the knife from her hand and turned her around.
Then add sugar? He bent to kiss her.
Afterward, she said, Yes. Sometimes you need to sweeten things up a bit.

The text is still talking about making apple pie, but the subtext is the couple making up after a fight.

What if it is two brothers?

His mouth puckered: This apple is sour.
Tight lipped, his brother said, That’s why I got half green, half red.
He shook his head and dropped the apple in the trash: It’s too sour.
His brother pulled it out again and slammed it onto the counter and glared.
Quickly now, hoping to avert the anger, he stuttered, Th-th-then add sugar?
Yes. His brother’s eyes gleamed red and he rolled up his sleeves and flexed his fist. Sometimes you need to sweeten things up a bit.

You get the idea. It’s not the dialogue, per se, that carries the weight of a relationship. Sometimes, it’s the subtext. Often that is in the dialogue itself, but often it is in the beats or actions, thoughts and emotions responding to the dialogue. Think like a writer: what is really going on in a relationship?

11 Dec

3 Christmas Season Projects for Writers

Happy Holidays, Writers!

Writing during the Christmas holidays can be difficult. There’s too much to do, too much living to do!

Here are some simple low-stress projects to keep you going. Just have fun with these!

Show-Don’t-Tell with Sensory

Go sit at a mall, beside a seasonal skating rink, at a holiday concert. Notice the sensory details of the setting, and write a short piece that incorporates your best Show-Don’t-Tell skills.

Dialogue Is NOT the Same as Real Talk

At that office party, neighborhood cook-out, or local basketball game, eavesdrop and focus on the authentic sounds of dialogue. If you can do it without looking creepy, take a notepad with you and jot down the exact words that people are saying. Transcribe it later and turn it into a short scene by studying how to change real speech into dialogue that matters. How can you use dialogue to imply information, emotions and relationships?

Play with Opening Lines

Print out this list of excellent opening lines. Over a several day period, take your Work-in-Progress and mimic each of the 12 types of opening lines. Try to write at least a dozen opening lines, but better, write 100 different opening lines for your story.

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.

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