How to Write (and Not Write) Expository Dialogue

How to Write (and Not Write) Expository DialogueDialogue is one of the most versatile of all narrative fiction techniques. It allows us to characterize, to create both context and subtext, to entertain via humor, and to share some of the best and punchiest prose rhythms in the entire book. Because it is the only narrative technique that is a “true” form of showing, instead of telling (aka explaining, aka describing), it also creates some of the strongest and most vibrant sensations in all of writing.

However, its very versatility can make dialogue easy to abuse. One of the most common ways in which it is abused is by turning it into expository dialogue.

Expository dialogue is dialogue that explains. At its rudest and crudest, expository dialogue takes the form of the infamous “as you know, Bob” conversation, in which one character tells another character something the other character already knows, with the first character then telling the second character he knows he knows it. (Yeah, it’s just as bad as it sounds.)

However, expository dialogue can be even subtler and trickier than that. It can slide into dialogue in ways that may not be as egregious as “as you know, Bob,” but are certainly not the best choice for sharing information with your readers.

Is Expository Dialogue Sneaking Into Your Writing?

As western author Brad Dennison pointed out in an email:

I don’t think enough writers understand that a novel isn’t just a movie on paper.

In a movie, information can be shared in only two ways. Either, you share it visually (e.g., the bank robber has a gun in his hand) or through dialogue (e.g., the bank teller yells, “He has a gun!”)

Modern writers are influenced in our storytelling as much, if not more so, by movies and TV than we are by books themselves. Too often, this means we might also attempt to limit ourselves to sharing information via expository dialogue.

Most writers these days are smart enough to avoid blatant “as you know, Bob” gimmicks. So they ratchet up the sophistication knob a few notches and sneak that info into their dialogue in less blatant ways. Sometimes this works admirably, sometimes not.

What’s the difference between expository dialogue that works and expository dialogue that doesn’t?

The bottom line is always: Does it make sense for the characters to be talking about this?

What Bad Expository Dialogue Looks Like

Bad expository dialogue looks like this:

Evan smacked his fist against the Thunderbird’s dashboard. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

Cara looked up from her white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. “Doing what?”

“You know, all of this. Robbing a bank! We couldn’t come up with a better way to pay off Don Carlo for accidentally getting his son arrested?”

“I know, I know. How were we supposed to know Jack was really an undercover agent?”

“That’s not the point. The point is you’ve hatched this crazy plan to storm into a bank in broad daylight, wearing Frozen masks. You don’t even like Frozen!”

Now, this conversation isn’t that bad. It shares backstory and character motivation in a snappy minimum of words. Neither Evan nor Cara stooped to saying “as you know.” But we do have Cara acknowledging  she already knows everything Evan is telling her (“I know, I know”), which is a huge tip-off that this dialogue isn’t as sensible as it seems.

2 Ways to Fix Expository Dialogue

You have two options open to you. Either you fix the expository dialogue so it’s smoother, smarter, and less obvious. Or you work your way around the need for dialogue altogether.

1. How to Write Good Expository Dialogue

It is totally, totally possible to write really great expository dialogue. Good screenwriters are da bomb at this. Classic cinema, in particular, offers a plethora of excellent examples of how to rattle off tons of information in dialogue that’s so smart viewers don’t even realize they’re being force fed the facts.

Consider these gems from Casablanca. All of these exchanges offer important information about the characters and story, but all are so rapid-fire and sharp-witted that we’d be sorry if they weren’t in the movie:

Major Strasser: We have a complete dossier on you. Richard Blaine, American, age 37. Cannot return to his country. The reason is a little vague. We also know what you did in Paris, Mr. Blaine, and also we know why you left Paris. Don’t worry, we are not going to broadcast it.

Rick: [reading dossier] Are my eyes really brown?

Casablanca 3

—or—

Captain Renault: Rick, there are many exit visas sold in this café, but we know that you’ve never sold one. That is the reason we permit you to remain open.

Rick: Oh? I thought it was because I let you win at roulette.

Captain Renault: That is another reason.

Casablanca 2

—or—

Captain Renault: My dear Ricky, you overestimate the influence of the Gestapo. I don’t interfere with them and they don’t interfere with me. In Casablanca, I am master of my fate! I am…

Police Officer: Major Strasser is here, sir!

Rick: You were saying?

Captain Renault: Excuse me.

Casablanca

The key is to make all dialogue pull double or even triple duty. Avoid on-the-nose revelations of information. Instead, focus on conveying the information through what the characters aren’t saying. And always make them say it in interesting, or even humorous, ways. Humor makes any pill go down easier.

2. How to Share Exposition Without Using Dialogue

As a novelist, you have more expository options open to you than do screenwriters. You don’t have to cram all the exposition into dialogue.

Like screenwriters, you too can “visually” share information, via description. But you can also simply tell readers.

“Tell” has become something of a dirty word among writers. But it doesn’t have to be. Used wisely, telling can allow you to share information in the simplest, most straightforward, least intrusive manner possible.

For example, assuming our ill-fated bank robbers from the initial example hadn’t already had an opportunity to show readers the events they’re talking about, this information could be shared much more intuitively in a simple paragraph of narrative:

Cara handed Evan a plastic Princess Anna mask.

He glared, but took it anyway. This is what they got for being stupid enough to believe Jack the Stupid Undercover Agent when he said he just wanted to be stupid friends with Stupid Little Carlo. Still, there had to be a better way to pay back Don Carlo than robbing this bank.

Speaking of stupid.

Dialogue is one of your most valuable weapons. Hone it to its sharpest edge by using it for exposition only when that exposition makes sense and can offer some of the most interesting conversations in the entire book.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do you think expository dialogue is different in written fiction than in screenplays? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Well put. Definitely, dialog out to do double or triple duty, and might not even be the way to cover obvious points– the ones that screen-minded writers forget they don’t have to say out loud.

    I like to think of speed bumps. When the facts are saying the same thing, when there’s no problem or misfit information to hint at problems, we say –and think– them fast, then slow down when we get to “we know what you did in Paris” because that’s a part that matters. It’s those contrasts and conflicts that are interesting, and that people take time to cover or debate with each other. What’s simpler can be handled in a few prominent words, hopefully laced with the right attitude so it isn’t on the nose… if you bother to say it aloud at all.

    One thing in your use of examples bothers me, though: how could anyone not like *Frozen*?

  2. Rick was only 37? How is it that people in their 30s used to be so much older than we are?

    These dialogue examples are golden. Each one does so much more than convey information. I am inspired to try to squeeze as much juice as possible from every line.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Humphrey Bogart was actually 43. 😉

      • Well, that makes more sense! And smoking. Because really he seems older than 43. (And actually adds to the appeal of the character — that combination of gruffness and vulnerability.)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          He never really had a young face, even when he was young.

          • Joe Long says:

            Richard Dreyfuss went from a baby face still playing teens to a grizzled, bearded middle aged guy in less than 5 years.

    • Just an FYI for more worldbuilding purposes: Bogart’s old face is also a side effect of the time period. I used the old faces in movies from that era to explain to a writer in my group why his worldbuilding was off: people without modern conveniences age faster than people who have them. Remember those filmstrips we used to watch in school? In one, the narrator pointed out that before the automatic washing machine, 30-year-old women looked 50. After the washing machine, they started looking 30.

      I can easily distinguish my American relatives with the other side of my family, who didn’t get modern conveniences until rather late in the day. The Americans look a lot younger, even when they’re the same age, or worse, literally are older: think looking 40 when you’re 60, vs. the 40-year-old who looks 60. It’s a stunning contrast, really. Just a tip for anyone brewing a princess vs. peasant girl scenario or suchlike.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Good point. There’s a quote that always sticks in my mind from someone’s review of Tyrone Power in The Eddy Duchin Story. They wrote: “Power was 41 at the time of the filming, and it wasn’t the 41 of 2006–it was a 1950s, three-pack-a-day, party-all-night, I-fought-in-World-War-II 41.” That pretty much says it!

        But it beats the Botox look any day!

        • Indeed it does beat the botox look! I am often struck by the — how shall I put this? — manly good looks of actors in that era compared to now. And I’d forgotten about the war veteran aspect. It’s no wonder actors of that time had a certain authority when playing steely-eyed protagonists who must stand tall and face down an enemy; they had to do that in real life.

      • That’s incredibly fascinating. I always felt looking back that my 28 looks much younger than even my mother’s 28 (which was only 23 years ago, and she’s a very young-looking 51). I’ve noted before how easy my life is compared to my grandmother’s or great-grandmothers, but never thought it was part of the reason I look so (IMHO, unreasonably) young. Yet another sign of privilege?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          This thread made me think about the protagonist in my medieval novel Behold the Dawn. He refers to himself several times as being comparatively “old,” which has led some readers to be confused when they realize he’s only around 38. But when the average lifespan was 50-60, it puts a whole new perspective on what it means to be a certain age.

          It also made me think about how spoiled we are. To one degree or another, we’re a pretty hypochondriacal society—and yet look how long and well we live in comparison to the Middle Ages!

          • Don’t confuse average lifespan with thinking 38 is old. The average was so low due to infant mortality. Those who managed to survive until their 20’s usually had no problem living to about the same age as we do. Shakespeare never called anyone in their 50’s an elderly man.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Good point. I should elaborate that this particular considered himself “old” for a number of other thematic reasons.

          • Joe Long says:

            Illness also started picking off the folks over 50. In my genealogy of my hometown in Pa in was looking at the census data in the early 1800’s. The number of people aged 60-69 was half that of 50-59, and 70-79 was half of those in their 60’s. Someone who was 55 only had a 50% chance of making it to 65.

            I’ve been reading a book about a scientific time traveling expedition stranded in Central Europe 5000 years ago. The author points out how the Stone Age people were smaller and someone over 35 was a grandparent and entering their elder years. Also that the young boy who they adopted by age 12 or 13 was larger and more fit than his peers who didn’t get to eat as well.

  3. In my book, the main character spies on her Dad while he is in a meeting. There she gets a lot of information although she doesn’t understand everything of course. In fact, she just ends up with more questions. Is that a good idea or sounds too much like expository dialogue?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long as the tension in the scene is high (e.g., the dad is arguing with someone, or the main character is at risk of being found), and as long as that tension is paid off somewhere in the scene, you should be fine.

  4. Loved your examples. It’s amazing how cutting dialogue and consolidating can make some scenes that much stronger!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It is! Sometimes even scenes we don’t think twice about offer the opportunity for really upping the ante on the overall writing.

  5. Susan staab says:

    How about Doctors/therapists explaining ptocedures/information to patients?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If it’s pertinent to the plot, then readers should be interested in it. And, by the same argument, if readers won’t find it interesting, then is it really pertinent to the plot?

      It’s good to break things up by making sure the information is being dispersed in a conversation, rather than a long monologue. And other times, you’ll find it most efficient to skip the dialogue and just summarize what the character was told in a quick paragraph.

  6. Susan staab says:

    I now have that voice screaming in my head over the typo. Please excuse my elephant thumb typing.?

  7. I am glad for this post. I am in the middle of editing a scene where characters are giving an intelligence briefing as a prelude to planning their next move. Since most of the characters *don’t* know the information given in the briefing, I at least am innocent on the “as you know Bob” front.

    This briefing is coming during the sequel/reaction phase, when the characters are reeling from the consequences of the bitter portion of their bittersweet victory. The characters are all sitting in a sickroom, holding vigil over a comatose friend. My Talking Head Avoidance Devices center on their emotional beats — e.g., a character struggling not to cry.

    Now your post provides a handy key for me to evaluate the dialogue in this scene, which is the aspect that’s been nagging at me. Now I see a way forward to putting the nagging to rest. Thanks for these examples!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The benefit of characters who haven’t heard the info is that *usually* it means readers haven’t heard it either. Win-win! 🙂

  8. The biggest difference between screenplays and novelsor short stories is the inability to clearly depict what the character is thinking. Good actors can illuminate the character’s mind but the layers that the author can bring in a written work are much deeper.

    This is why, as inane as the first bank robber dialogue example is, it would be worse if it was on film. ‘As you know’ has no place on the page.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Agree. Movies are better at creating subtext; novels are better at exploring it.

    • Joe Long says:

      Another point about the book I mentioned above, where the story & plot are solid but the story telling is meh. The author gets into a lot of detail, over and over. They go out on a hunt and the reader is told exactly how many deer and bison and cattle and aurochs were killed and how many travois were filled with field dressed meat and skins. I thought it would do better on film where those could just be seen and not talked about.

  9. In my work-in-progress, some of my favorite scenes are the expository dialogue scenes when one character explains something to the other. These scenes tend to be full of banter where the two characters burn (meaning “to make fun of someone”) each other repeatedly. These scenes contribute to the characters bonding and becoming partners for life. You’ve made me feel like writing more expository dialogue scenes.

  10. Love the example of Casablanca.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One can never go wrong with Casablanca. 🙂

      • Danielle O'Donnell says:

        Casablanca and a lot of other 40s and 50s films had wonderful dialogue. I think screen writers had to work harder and smarter before special effects and othet cinmeatic technology. Their story telling ability was better especially in dialogue.
        Thank you for this great article. I can definitely ponder the tips on my late edits of stories.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I wonder, too, if the censorship had something to do with it. It forced the writers to dig deeper for the subtext.

      • Joe Long says:

        Aaah, Ingrid Bergman.

  11. Sabrina says:

    As a screenwriter, showing and not telling is the most important tenet for us, which is why I’m baffled by and embarrassed for the writers on Game of Thrones and their transparent use of “sexposition”. Lazy writing and demeans women. Makes me wanna throw my Nutella jar at the tv.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Haven’t seen the show, and this is the chief reason why I haven’t. Hear, hear.

  12. I think of a James Bond movie when I hear about expository dialogue. The villain goes on and on about his plan to destroy the world. Meanwhile, James Bond has figured out how to sabotage the plans. It can be bad.

    • Joe Long says:

      I see that a lot. When the bad guy thinks he has nothing to lose by spilling all his motivations to his captive. In the newest Star Trek, Idris Elba tells all to Uhura.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Which is why we all love that line from The Incredibles: “You sly dog, you caught me monologuing!”

  13. Joe Long says:

    I missed this post!

    In the “speaking of stupid” example at the end, it’s a brief thought that Evan had, expressed in one paragraph – not like the antagonist gazing at the woman lying on his bed and spending 3000 words reminiscing about his rise to power, from high school until now (although that was a good book overall!) So even when telling – keep it short.

    I wrote this after you talked about “as you know, Bob…” last year. It’s time for Opening Night of the baseball tournament and there’s info to share.

    ***

    Our game was scheduled to start at seven, but by six we were still out on the sidewalk behind the left field wall.

    “I’m getting bored, Bobby. At least tomorrow we can just show up and play without having to wait for fifteen other teams to get their big introductions on the field.”

    “Yeah, but if we don’t win a game today or tomorrow there ain’t gonna be nothing else to show up for.”

    I was watching the activity near the gate, where a pair of young ladies were being helped into the back seat of a classic convertible which would lead the next team’s players down to home plate. “Whoa, Bobby – look at that queen with the red dress!”

    “My oh my…but I thought you were all spoken for now, Joe?”

    “Well, yeah – but I’m not dead yet.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Dialogue *is* still one of the best places to share info. We just have to do it right. 🙂

  14. My book, Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident, is different. I wrote it as a government report, with transcripts of conversations. It’s primarily dialogue. I tried to keep the exposition to a minimum, and gave it to characters that would normally be talking about it. I avoided the “as you know” trap because most of what my characters talk about are things nobody knew. I may work on this for my next book.

  15. Here’s looking at you, kid.

  16. Louie, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

  17. Sometimes the voice of a character can affect dialogue. For Casablanca, the studio originally wanted Ronald Reagan for the part of Rick. Reagan was busy with another project, and couldn’t do it. That would have changed the entire atmosphere of the film, and it may not have become the classic it is now.

  18. Great post. It’s actually something that bugs me a lot when I encounter it. Now I know what it is called – expository dialogue.

    I once played a video game where the player gets constantly confronted by heavy, on-the-nose expository dialogue and it was quite terrible. So much so in fact that it does not bother me that I never had the opportunity to finish that game.

    Needless to say, I think such bad expository dialogue can ruin the story for a reader. Your example in the post, however, has made it quite clear how easily as a writer, one can fall into the trap.

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