Handling exposition with dialogue.
There are a number of ways to work exposition into a story without writing long paragraphs of back story or explaining what’s going on in the moment. The most direct ways are through action, description, and dialogue. Dialogue might be the most tempting method, but it can also be the trickiest.
Great dialogue delivers information the readers need without making them feel like they’re being lectured. It simultaneously develops characters and moves the story along. But when it’s used to dole out exposition, the effect can be deadening.
We’re all familiar with bad dialogue. My favorite example is what I call the CSI effect, where skilled professional colleagues (on CSI, they’re crime scene investigators) are inexplicably compelled to explain to each other everything they’re doing and why they’re doing it. It makes me want to scream at the TV: “Don’t you people do this together every day? Why on earth are you talking about it?”
A simple solution for the CSI scenario would be to have a reporter or visitor or trainee tag along, asking questions. That would give the pros a reason to explain what they’re doing.
When you’re writing dialogue, it’s important to remember that your characters aren’t talking to each other to meet your needs as the author—they’re talking to meet their own needs.
The brilliant acting teacher Uta Hagen once said that “Words are the messengers of our intentions.” I use this as my guide when I’m writing and critiquing fiction. If we keep in mind that every word we put into our characters’ mouths must be justified by their motivations, objectives, and desires, we’ll have a better shot at creating believable characters that our readers can’t get enough of.
For further reading on dialogue and exposition, check out James Scott Bell’s book How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. And for one-on-one help with your own novel’s dialogue and exposition, contact My Two Cents Editing and request a comprehensive manuscript critique or a mentoring session with me.