Friday, April 3, 2015

How to Avoid Exposition in Dialogue

Good dialogue can stick the reader right in the middle of the action.  It can reveal a lot about the characters and help pacing.  But writing dialogue can be tricky.

Today's pitfall is what I call "exposition in dialogue" or "dialogue for the benefit of the reader."  This is when two characters tell each other things they both already know and have no reason to talk about, just to give the reader important information.  It's unnatural and awkward and should generally be avoided.

Example of Exposition in Dialogue:

I'm going to exaggerate a little here to illustrate the point.

Scene:  Lila and Tom are brother and sister, both young adults.  They're together when Tom gets a phone call.  He hardly says anything, and when he hangs up, he turns to Lila.

"John Abernathy's dead."

"No," Lila said, sinking into a chair.  "John Abernathy is our grandfather.  He owned two canneries in Alaska, and I remember how bad they smelled.  Our mother fell out with him and we haven't seen him for ten years, but still, I can't believe it.  We didn't even know he was sick."  

Okay, so most of the examples in our writing aren't this bad, but I see less glaring cases all the time, and it's something we need to watch for.  These two people already know this information.  There's no reason they'd say it like this.


1)  Narrate.

"Grandpa John is dead."

"No," Lila said, sinking into a chair.  John Abernathy was their grandfather, but they hadn't seen him in years, not since he and their mother had fallen out.  They'd visited him once in Alaska, where he owned two canneries.  Lila could still smell the fish if she closed her eyes.  How could he be dead?  She hadn't even known he was sick.

2)  Argue.  Twist the conversation into an argument to give them a reason to discuss it.  Maybe your characters remember things differently.  Maybe they have different ideas about the consequences or the importance or the truth of the background information.

"Grandpa John is dead."

"No," Lila said, sinking into a chair.  "Mom's gonna be sorry now."

"It wasn't her fault they argued.  Grandpa--"

"That's just her side of the story.  We don't know what happened.  And she didn't have to cut him out of our lives completely.  Now we've lost all these years, and we'll never get them back."

"It wasn't exactly as if he was the best grandpa before, hiding himself away in Alaska.  He cared more about his canneries than he ever cared about us."

3)  Reminisce.  Have the characters take a walk down memory lane.  Be careful with this, however, as it can sound forced.

"Grandpa John is dead."

"No," said Lila, sinking into a chair.  "Dead?  He was strong as a bull."

"Ten years ago he was.  But things change."

"Remember the tour he gave us of his canneries in Alaska?"

"He let me chop the heads off the fish.  I thought it was the coolest thing."

"It was disgusting.  And the smell...but he was so proud of everything. I wish he and Mom hadn't fought.  Now it's too late.."

4)  Tell a character who doesn't know.  Bring a third character into the conversation, one who really doesn't know the information.  Use this sparingly, as it can also come across as too convenient and lazy on the author's part.

"John Abernathy's dead."

"No," Lila said, sinking into a chair.

"Who's John Abernathy?" Tom's girlfriend asked. 

"Our grandpa.  Mom's dad."

"I didn't know he was still around.  You never talk about him."

"We haven't seen him for years," Tom said.  "He does fish canning up in Alaska.  Mom had an argument with him a long time ago and wouldn't let us have anything to do with him."

"I'm so sorry."

More examples:

"Captain, if we get a whole in the hull, we'll sink!"

Uh...he's a pretty bad captain if he doesn't know this.

Solution:  be more specific:  "Captain, a whole that big will sink us in less than fifteen minutes." 

"As you know, Jake got married six months ago.  Now I can't talk to him without his wife hanging on his arm."

Solution:  rephrase to build on what the listener knows:  "Ever since Jake got married, I can't talk to him without his wife hanging on his arm."

Final Test:

When you think your dialogue is good, read it aloud.  That's often the best way to hear if something sounds unnatural.

Melinda Brasher currently teaches English as a second language in the beautiful Czech Republic.  She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.  Her travel articles and short fiction appear in Go Nomad, International Living, Electric Spec, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and others.  For an e-book collection of some of her favorite pieces, check out Leaving Home.  Visit her online at


Karen Cioffi said...

Melinda, thanks for the great writing tips.Avoiding exposition in dialogue can be tricky, you gave excellent examples!

Kathleen Moulton said...

Yes, these were very good examples. I learned something today!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Love the examples, Melinda! That's one of the advantages of reading a credible blog post like this--it can go into more detail than a book that covers, say, the broader subject of dialogue. I talk about this a bit in the second edition of #TheFrugalEditor, too.

Linda Wilson said...

Melinda, your post is a big help to me. I'm going to look back on my WIPs and see if I've made this mistake. Your examples are excellent. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the lesson, Melinda. I will review the dialogue in my WIP.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the lesson, Melinda. I will review the dialogue in my WIP.

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