The Craft of Writing: Exposition Through Dialogue.Writing advice often tells you to avoid exposition in dialogue. Why? What makes it bad, and are there exceptions?
I wrote this on my laptop whilst sitting in an airport terminal in Calgary, chatting with my co-author Kitty on my phone. We were actually talking about this very thing when a question scrolled through my feed on Quora that started me on the path to typing this out. Sometimes life imitates art.
Anyway, exposition is often bad in fiction because it’s telling, not showing. It’s the author explaining the world to the reader, rather than the reader experiencing the world as the story unfolds.
Why is that bad? Because it interrupts the story. Because the writer doesn’t trust the reader to be able to pick up on how the world works by watching the action; rather, the writer spoon-feeds information to the reader. Because often it simply isn’t interesting. Because often it’s completely unrealistic, especially if it’s delivered through dialogue: “As you know, Captain, the Treaty of Gorm forbids introducing tachyon pulses through the turboencabulator within a planetary starsystem, so blah blah blah…” If the characters already know this, they wouldn’t be having this conversation.
It can be done well, if the exposition is delivered to a character who genuinely wouldn’t be expected to know the information, as a proxy for the reader. This is the Doylist function of the companion characters in Dr. Who: the companions are generally characters who don’t know how everything works in the Dr. Who mytology, so the Doctor can explain to us, the audience, via the companion character, who acts as a stand-in for the audience.
However, even then, to be done well it must be short, necessary, and not detract from the story.
There is a very specific exception to this, where dialogue that seems expository serves a different narrative function. If you watch the movie Inglorious Basterds, the antagonist Hans Landa, the Nazi SS Jew-hunter, spends a lot of time talking. He doesn’t do so for the benefit of the audience; often, we already know where he’s going with his long dialogues. Instead, he’s doing this specifically to create a sense of fear and dread in the characters he’s speaking to. The exposition is for the benefit (or detriment) of the character, not the audience, and it shows Landa’s sadism. It’s part of the character’s gleeful cruelty, a way to toy with his victims.
Does that mean all exposition in dialogue is always bad?
No, of course not.
There might legitimately be situations where one character knows things another character doesn’t, and must explain to the other character (and, by extension, the reader) what’s happening. A character who stands at the doorway to the protagonist’s Hero’s Journey might do this, for example; think Morpheus in The Matrix, explaining to Neo this new world he’s suddenly landed in. Or the companion characters in Dr. Who, who act as proxies for the viewer.
So how can you do exposition in dialogue without having it come across as ham-handed?
By breaking up the information, revealing only the information that would actually come up between the characters (most novels don’t break the fourth wall by talking directly to the reader, though of course some do), and showing the other characters responding.
When you’re a writer, you can be really excited about some piece of information you really really want the reader to know. 99 times out of 100, this is a bad idea, and the reader doesn’t need to know the information; instead, the reader needs to be present when the characters find out the information.
It’s always amusing (and slightly creepy) when Quora sends a question drifting through my feed that’s on the nose for what’s going on in my life, considering that last night I actually wrote a dialog in which characters are revealing information they have.
This is from the contemporary urban fantasy by Eunice and I, in which magic is a real thing but most people don’t know about it. The protagonist, May, has just been the victim of an attempted kidnapping, rescued by a secret society of spellcasting sex workers, and is being settled in by Iris, the society’s spell engineer.. Her three flatmates have come to make sure she’s okay and bring her stuff to the place she’s hiding, and, well...
“Oh, hey, you didn’t all have to come!” May said.The characters respond and interact; it's not a monologue exposition dump. In real-world conversations, you rarely see one person just spewing out big chunks of exposition with everyone else just listening. Dialog is interactive. A big part of making it seem like a natural interaction and not an info-dump is that interactivity. What do the other characters say? How do they respond?
“Of course we did!” Claire said. “Someone tries to grab you, then you text to say you’re getting in a car with strangers, then we don’t see you? We wanted to make sure you were okay. You okay?”
“I don’t know yet,” May said. “Claire, this is Iris. Iris, meet Claire, and Zoe, and…”
“Amelia!” Iris squealed. “Long time no see!”
“Iris!” Amelia dropped the suitcase and flung her arms around her.
May blinked. Somewhere in the machinery of her mind, a needle dragged across a record. “Wait, what? Okay, look. I never thought I’d say this, but getting snatched off the street and then being rescued by a centuries-old guild of prosti—um, sex workers, is officially not the weirdest thing that’s happened this week. How the fuck do you know Iris?”
“Through my mums,” Amelia said.
“And how do they—”
“They did their training here!” Iris said.
May gaped. Amelia’s palm met her face. “Oh, God,” she sighed. “Here it comes.”
Claire looked back and forth between Amelia and Iris. “I’m confused. May, are you confused? Because I’m confused.”
“Oh, no,” May said. “I blew through confused ages ago. Didn’t even stop to pee. From where I’m at, confused is a dwindling speck in the rearview mirror. What the fuck, Amelia?”
Amelia spread her hands. “Can we wait until the lorry’s unloaded to have this conversation? We’re renting by the half-hour.”
“Sure!” Iris said. “Let me help. I’ll get some boxes and show you May’s quarters.”
“May’s quarters?” Zoe said. “May, you have quarters now? How fancy! I’m dying to hear this story.”
“Apparently so,” May said. “Where’s this lorry? Let’s get this over with.”
Arms loaded with boxes and suitcases, the five of them crowded into the elevator. Iris hummed to herself. May, door card clenched in her teeth, looked levelly at Amelia, who looked back at her without expression over the edge of a cardboard box full of toiletries.
The elevator dinged open. May shifted the cardboard boxes in her arm as she fumbled at the door. Iris carried on humming to herself. Eventually, May got the door open, and the whole gaggle spilled through. Zoe gaped. “Nice place! Doesn’t really suit you, though.”
“Everyone’s a critic,” May said. “It’s not like I’ve had time to do much with it. So.” She set down her boxes, plucked the boxes from Amelia’s hands, and stacked them on top. “Talk.”
“But the lorry—”
“Zoe can bring it back.”
“No.” Zoe sprawled out on the sofa in the sitting room. “Huh-uh. No way I’m missing this.”
Claire flopped down next to her. “Me neither. Spill.”
“Well, it’s complicated,” Amelia said.
Iris rolled her eyes. “No it’s not. Amelia’s mum and her other mum are spellcasters. Amelia has the talent too. They tried to bring her in but she was all like ‘eww, I don’t want to think about my mums having sex’ and ‘yuck, there are some things I just don’t want to know’ and ‘why should I have to do what my mums do anyway?’”
“Iris!” Amelia said. “You aren’t helping!”
Claire leaned back into the sofa with a smirk. “So it’s your fault May is in this? Are you, like, a spy or something? Sent to live with us to keep an eye on her?”
“She did move in after we did,” Zoe said.
Claire nodded. “She did.”
“Can’t be a coincidence.”
“Doesn’t seem likely.”
“Not at all.”
“I mean, what are the odds?”
“Slim. Very slim.”
“If you two are finished,” Amelia snapped, “I’m not part of this! I’m nothing to do with this! Iris, tell them! I don’t want any part of this world.”
“It’s true,” Iris said. “She doesn’t.”
“There. You see?”
Claire and Zoe looked at each other. Zoe shook her head. “Nope, not buying it.”
“Still,” Claire said, “this is a nice place.” She stood and looked at one of the paintings, a woman in a bathtub, flowers strewn on the floor around her, back turned demurely. “I like the decorations. Really set a mood. Quite the love nest here. Hey May, you could totally bring a boy back here. Or a girl. Or, you know, both.” She folded her hands behind her back as she stared at the painting. “I’m thinking both. Definitely both.”
“Claire!” May said. “How can you even think of that right now?”
“Well, it’s pretty simple,” Claire said. “First you put on that slinky red…no, wait, not the red, there’s too much red here. You need contrast. The black. Yes! The black dress, the one slit all the way up. Then you—”
“Okay! Claire! Nobody wants to hear your wank fantasies!”
“I do!” Zoe said. “But later. First, what is this place?”
Amelia shook her head. “You don’t want to know.”
“I think I do,” Claire said.
“Okay, fine,” Amelia said. “You know that famous wizard school in those books with that one kid in glasses?”
“You realise that doesn’t actually narrow it down, right?” Claire said.
“You know which one I mean! Anyway, it’s nothing like that. No magic wands, no talking hats, just…” She sighed. “Look, my mums know more about this world than I do. I know magic works. I know it goes back a long way. I know the people who know all this are usually powerful and politically connected. And I know two of them showed up at the flat yesterday.”
“What?” Zoe said. “I thought you said they were police.”
“No, I said they said they were police. I said I talked to them and they went away. True, all of it. Melted my necklace, though. My mum Sarah gave me that necklace.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Claire said.
“Being all mysterious. Doling out what you know in dribs and drabs. What necklace? Who were the cops if they weren’t cops? Why are you so irritating about all of this?”
“It’s simple!” Iris said. “They probably tried to use a minor geas on her, she had a charm in her necklace, it turned the spell back on them. I designed that charm, by the way. That’s what you’ll be doing once you start working for us, May.” She poked at a white cardboard box with her foot. “Why is there a pornographic comic book in there?”
“It’s not porn!” Claire said. “It’s ecchi. I thought May might want some reading material. Didn’t know you’d be set up in such a cosy love nest.”
“Look, Iris, should we be talking about this in front of civilians?” Amelia said.
Iris shrugged. “They’re kinda in it anyway, right? So how’d the spell work? Any aftereffects?”
“Nasty headache,” Amelia said.
“Sorry about that. Feedback.”
Zoe raised her hand. “I have questions.”
“Welcome to the club,” May said.
Also, keep in mind that people generally don’t go on and on about things they each know the other knows. This is the Star Trek Voyager problem: “As you know, Captain, the Treaty of Rumpledink prohibits the use of phased tachyonic polarity inversions, so the Vogons wouldn’t dare to blah blah blah…” People in real conversations don’t generally spend their time going on about things everyone already knows. When authors use Star Trek dialog to try to communicate information the characters all already know, the result comes out, well, like Star Trek dialog.
You can, however, still have characters who talk about things they both know! This can give you an opportunity for indirect exposition. The characters aren’t telling each other things they already know, they’re talking about their feelings or opinions or reactions, and in the process, revealing to the reader facts they already know.
Here’s an example not taken from any of my books, that I wrote just to illustrate this point:
“Is that it?”Finally, remember that people in real-life situations will, especially if they’re under stress, keep their communication relevant. People aren’t habitually prone to walking about expositing on history or politics or their own personal past, and if they’re under some kind of stress (like a potentially hostile situation in Star Trek), they're not going to exposit at each other.
“Yeah,” she said.
He walked around it, a squat cylinder scarcely larger than a trash can, dull scuffed metal gray in the light of the naked bulb hanging forlornly from the rafters. The damp heat and insect sounds of a humid Florida night curled in through the broken window high in the wall.
“It’s just that I thought it would be…”
“I don’t know. Bigger. More impressive. Such a tiny thing, to contain so much death.”
“What, are you a poet now?” she sneered.
“So what if I am?” he said, a trifle defensive. “We’re talking about real Armageddon stuff here. ‘When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, Come. I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hell followed with him.’”
She snorted. “I didn’t have you figured for a God-botherer.”
”I’m not! But you can’t tell me you don’t feel anything, standing next to….that.”
”It’s a delivery system for an engineered bacterium, not a curse from God. The way I see it, maybe if God would show some interest in punishing the wicked, we wouldn’t be here, you know?”
”So we’re doing God’s work now? Is that what this is?”
“Fuck no. Getting payback is what this is. God can look after his own self. I’ll look after me and mine.”
He opened his mouth to reply. From somewhere outside, a low drone carried in on the still air, gradually resolving into the whup-whup-whup of an approaching helicopter.
”Showtime,” she said. “Torch the truck and get ready to move. We have work to do.”
If the history of the Second Kingdom of Myrtlnarnia isn’t relevant, then having characters suddenly go on about it in the middle of some unrelated situation comes across as extremely contrived, even if you as the author have suddenly realized there’s something about the history of the Second Kingdom of Myrtlnarnia that your reader needs to know. Either put it earlier, or let the characters find out about it organically and let the reader learn it when the characters do.