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Exposition. Dialogue, Part 2:

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

Humans are an interactive group. We love to talk. Dialogue in real life serves as one of our primary windows into other people’s thoughts, and serves as one of our primary methods to explain how we feel to other people. Our actions of course speak louder than our words, but our words are second probably only to deeds.

We established in the last dialogue section that books vary widely in the total dialogue between genres and even inside of a genre.

Dialogue can be used in a book to drive the plot by revealing information to characters which they did not previously have, thus making available to them options for action. It can be used in world building, through characters who are ignorant like the reader asking questions we want to ask. The answer expands the world. What is said and what is not said can drastically drive character development, especially when paired with actions which may say something else, or inner monologues which may say yet a third thing. Remember, people are not always self-consistent.

I want to touch on expositional dialogue today. Specifically, on bad expositional dialogue. We already said that dialogue can easily serve to tell the reader something that they don’t already know as the character learns it too. It's probably why so many stories follow the young, ignorant protagonist around as they have a witness exploration of the world. Following a character who knows everything makes it very difficult to have a reason for exposition.

This is one of the first lessons in bad exposition. It comes in many forms. “As you know,” dialogue, or sometimes called “Maid and Butler,” dialogue is a terrible use of exposition in spoken word. Example:

“As you know Mary, the lord is away for a week.”

“With his mistress as always.”

“The lady must be kept in the dark as usual.”

This is a brief silly exchange between a maid and butler about their lord and lady. Both people know everything said. They are not telling each other to exchange information, they are telling each other to tell the audience. This is bad exposition.

Pointless explaining of rules of magic in fantasy, explaining publicly known technology in science fiction, or the history of a serial killer in horror may all fall into examples of pointless, boring exposition. Here is another example.

“The bride,” she whispered to herself. “I’m getting married,” she tried again.

“Ready to give your life away to a human?” her father asked her.

“He is a good man,” she said. The words were worn from frequent use. “Humans aren’t all bad you know.”

“It’s just that you’re marrying one, is all.”

“I don’t trust humans either, but that doesn’t mean I hate them…”

The dialogue continues. This is an example of bad exposition, and generally overly on the head dialogue. I have removed the names of the characters which were used in the actual book, because I have no desire to insult an author, but the rest is unchanged.

Clearly the author wants us to understand a few points.

1) Humans are bad.

2) The young girl is marrying one.

3) Her father doesn’t approve.

The author however almost comes right out and says the points verbatim in dialogue. There is no discovery, no intrigue no development, and no … interest. Everyone already knows everything that was being said. Nothing is learned, characters emotions are not present, and there is no subtext.

One solution in your own writing if you find such telling dialogue is to do exactly what I did above. What do you want your reader to learn? Make a list of the points you want expressed in the dialogue.

1) What world building ideas I want expressed:

a. Idea

b. Idea

c. Idea

2) What character beats do you want to drive home?

a. New character trait

b. Reinforced character trait

c. Character subterfuge or contradicting personality

3) What plot moments need to be nudged forward?

a. Things characters need to learn

b. Things characters need to hide

c. Things characters need to understand better

From these lists you can then move to figuring out ways in which people would express those personality traits, or act in real life to go about the action you want, without necessarily saying them outright.

If you ever find you have none of these things and the people on the page are talking just to hear themselves speak, you probably don’t need the scene! If you can help it though, most dialogue scenes should be accomplishing more than one of the items above concurrently.

Good Dialogue can certainly express these things, but need to do so in a realistic way. Example:

1) Express a young man does not have in-love parents.

2) Express the nature of the relationship between the parents.

3) Express the household dynamic.

“Are your parents still in love?” she asked.

“My mother and father? God, I suppose so. Are yours?”

“Not a bit. No.”

Peter went on eating.

“They don’t even share a room.”

“How long have they been married?”

“Lord, don’t ask me. I wouldn’t know.”

“All in all, I suspect they were still very much in love,” she suggested.

“I expect so,” he said.

“You won’t tell them I mentioned this will you?”

We learn deep things from simple sentences. “I wouldn’t know,” how long a parent is married implies no public telling or celebrations of the duration of a marriage. “My mother and father?” implied surprise. Who else would his parents be?

Study good dialogue. Study bad dialogue too, though in lesser volume. Learn to pull out the things you are really trying to say, and find ways to say them that everyone on the page needs to know.

Always remember, writers write. Go get writing.

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