Exposition in dialogue: Don’t let it go wrong

Earlier this week I posted some writing “don’ts.” These included exposition in dialogue. In the comments, pujagokarn161289 asked:

Could you explain the ‘exposition in dialogue’ point a bit more elaborately?

Happy to.

I’ll start you off with a definition of exposition, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Narrative exposition, or simply exposition, is the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc.”

Exposition is writing or speech whose purpose is to explain something or convey information. It’s necessary in narrative fiction — at some point in a story, the characters’ relationships, their histories, their world, and what’s at stake will need to be revealed. And sometimes straight exposition is the simplest and most efficient way for the author to explain what’s going on. But it’s almost always more dramatic, and elegant, to immerse readers in the story, to show the characters and their world, than to explain background information through a long expository summary or a speech.

Exposition can come off as clunky, boring, and stupid when characters reveal information in dialogue — especially when one character explains something to another that they both know. The dialogue will convey information to the reader, but it will be unnatural and stilted.

“Well, if it isn’t my oldest brother, Joe. Did your wife, Gina, and your twin sons, Simon and Garfunkel, come with you on this surprise visit?”

“No, Wilfred. As I’m sure you remember, the last time my family came to this secret cabin on the shore of Loch Ness, we had that tragic fishing incident, and Gina swore never to return unless Nessie regurgitated the twins.”

Nobody talks like this. The characters are force-feeding information to the audience.

Instead of simply dumping information into dialogue, reveal it through conflict, humor, or moments of surprise.

“Joe. How the hell did you know I was here? Dammit, did Mom–”

“Yeah, she told me. I’m her favorite. You gonna invite me in, or just let me freeze in the wind coming off that loch? And stop looking over my shoulder. I’m alone. Gina wouldn’t come back here even if I speared Nessie and barbecued her with a flamethrower.”

Hope that helps.

6 responses to “Exposition in dialogue: Don’t let it go wrong

  1. Damn you, Nessie, damn you!

  2. Nicely done. I love Nessie. Not so big on pre-digested offspring. Murder is murder. Nessie could be the trigger-monster, too.

  3. Also known as AYKB. As in, “As you know, Bob, our father left us the farm jointly when he died 27 years ago, cutting out our sister, Frieda….”

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