Unlock the power of expository dialogue in fiction
At the start of a new term of writing classes, I always ask my students if there are any particular aspects of fiction writing that are causing them concern. And every term, at least one writer – and usually more – tells me that they’re worried about writing dialogue.
Primarily, they’re worried about making their dialogue sound natural. Fair enough. Our primary access point to a narrative is through character, and having a character say something at odds with how we understand the operation of normal human communication is a great way to knock your reader out of the story. But unless you’re going absolutely wild with fancy phraseology and dense, complicated language… you probably have more leeway than you think before you go off the rails.
Here’s why “naturalism” in dialogue is much less important than you might think.
Natural dialogue is the opposite of compelling
Everyday communication is functional. It’s transactional. It’s utilitarian. It’s full of “um” and “er” and other conversational placeholders. It’s – not to put too fine a point on it – kind of boring.
That’s because the purpose of everyday communication is simply to make things work as efficiently as possible. It lets the barista know how you like your coffee. It organises dinner preparation with your spouse. It updates your colleague on the status of the paper tray in the office printer. It re-establishes social bonds with your neighbour when you meet them on the street. All of these tiny little micro-information packages keep the world functioning in status quo, and they’re incredibly important as a collective whole, but individually… very little hangs in the balance when they’re exchanged.
Now consider a work of narrative fiction, which by definition seeks to disrupt status quo. Moreover, everything in the text has been actively selected for inclusion due to its significance. If everyday communication is about conveying information, and, for the most part, that information does not have a profound effect on the world at large, then clearly the vast majority of everyday communication does not belong in narrative fiction.
For example: say you’re in the supermarket getting in the weekly groceries when you run into the parent of your child’s school friend. You might expect that the conversation would go along the following lines:
…and so on. It’s a necessary element of our social rituals, but, unless you’re able to invest an exchange like this with some kind of deeper narrative significance, it’s completely extraneous in a fictional context. Any truly “natural” dialogue would need to reproduce these important handshake protocols – but their function doesn’t transfer to narrative fiction. It’s usually better off without them.
Real-life dialogue is terrible at conveying exposition
We’re a storytelling species, and oral traditions preserved our myths and legends long before we had the tools or the capacity to commit them to writing. That doesn’t mean your mate Danny’s Monday-morning retelling of his weekend antics makes him a modern-day seanchaí, however.
Oral storytelling and relating expository information through dialogue are entirely different beasts. Have a listen to BBC Radio 4’s Listening Project conversations to get an idea of what I mean. Verbal recounts of events are messy and disjointed; they likely start with the conclusion, dive back into exposition, skip ahead to a couple of things the teller remembers from the middle of the story, veer off down a tangent that’s vaguely related but which offers some necessary context, completely spoiler the ending, and then maybe offer a few selected tidbits from well and truly outside the narrative timeline for a little extra oomph.
Try replicating that when you need your character to deliver the line that leads us into the midpoint twist. Your readers will not thank you.
The process of editorialising our natural storytelling tendencies into something easily parsed, digested and understood by your readers is a process of organising it into a logical evolution of key information. Natural dialogue doesn’t allow that level of finesse.
Which is why…
Expository dialogue doesn’t feel “natural” to write (but it reads just fine)
We don’t, as a rule, speak in soundbites. Perfectly logical back-and-forward exchanges, in which each party has the ideal riposte immediately to hand and always asks exactly the right questions to elicit the information they need – without any misunderstandings, mishearings or contextual gaps – are only possible in a rehearsed environment. In any given off-the-cuff conversation, you are only able to control your own contribution; everyone else is an unknown quantity and is unlikely that anyone present has a big-picture view on the subject under discussion.
Not so when you’re writing a dialogue-heavy scene.
One of my absolute favourite books of recent years, which I’ll recommend unprompted without even knowing if the other person reads or enjoys ghost stories (like I’m doing right now), is The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean. In Chapter 18 of this glorious novel, our protagonist and first-person point-of-view narrator Tim is introduced to four of the six new characters who will accompany him throughout the rest of the book. It’s a limited omniscient narration – Tim is retelling events that took place during his teens, from forty years later – so one perfectly valid approach to getting the reader up to speed would be a simple prose description of Juliette, Sebastian, Polly and Neil, informed by older-Tim’s subsequent experience of sharing time with all four.
This is not what happens. Instead, the author elects to have the characters introduce themselves through an effervescent multi-person dialogue exchange in which they tease, banter, argue and reveal established relationships, past conflicts, and lines of tension bubbling beneath the surface. A lot of information is conveyed in this scene, all of it allowed to flow through action and interaction, which tends to be much more compelling, narratively, than lengthy prose exposition.
It also flows just a little too perfectly.
Nobody talks over anybody else. Nobody derails the discussion down a linguistic blind alley. Nobody struggles to catch what anyone is saying and asks for information to be repeated. When one person bats a conversational tennis ball towards another, the recipient punts it back with the skill and apparent ease of a Grand Slam winner.
This is not how “natural” conversation works. “Natural” conversation runs all over the place like a headless chicken and, under narrative conditions – especially information-dense narrative conditions – it would be an absolute chore to read.
Your brain knows this. Your brain also knows that “natural” conversations never unspool with the machine-gun precision of a bickering couple in a screwball comedy. That’s why your brain will almost certainly throw up multiple objections as you write a scene heavy in expository dialogue: it feels “forced,” it feels “stilted,” it feels difficult to write. Chances are, it will take you a number of passes before you get a draft that you can live with, and chances are also good that you’ll never feel completely happy with it.
And chances are excellent that your reader – engaged, invested and eager to gather up narrative threads – will never notice your struggle, because they’ll be so busy processing the multiple nuggets of exposition you’ve poured into the narrative that “natural” will be the very last thing on their mind.
It was when I read The Apparition Phase – I had to actively go back and make myself notice after the fact. Your reader is… less likely to do this, I’d suggest.
It’s easier to fake “natural” than you might think
And not just because of the fact that your reader is almost certainly more focused on information-gathering than the means by which that information is conveyed.
Yes, absolutely, there is plenty of scope for expository dialogue to go pear-shaped. TV Tropes – if you have time to go down this particular rabbit hole – has a detailed discussion about As You Know, Bob dialogue and its many variants, which, while not always necessarily a bad thing, is certainly something to keep in mind when you need one character to give another character information that your reader needs.
But, as with so many things in writing, it’s the little things that make the biggest differences. And with dialogue, it’s about incorporating just enough of the cadence of natural conversation that it reads true without overwhelming the narrative.
One of the simplest ways to effect this is to have characters not-quite-answer when they’re posed a question. Not enough to send the conversation hurtling off track – just enough that the exchange loses some of the choreographed feeling that expository dialogue can sometimes adopt.
Ian Rankin’s A Question of Blood (Hachette, 2003) offers some great examples. In the excerpt below, note how each of the characters poses questions that the response fails to address.
Siobhan asks for a description of Andy Callis; Rebus doesn’t provide one, instead asking a question of his own, which Siobhan deflects. He asks where she is; again, she deflects. Nobody has offered a straight answer at any point in this conversation – and yet we’re in no doubt about what’s going on, why they’re asking the questions they’re asking, or what’s happened to Andy.
This also reads much more cleanly than a conversation that follows a question-answer-question protocol, commonly seen in expository dialogue. It feels grittier, less polished, less scripted. It offers all the critical information that the sequence needs to divulge, but it does so in a way that feels closer to the organised chaos of a real-world conversation.
Characterological quirks can also do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of de-polishing your expository dialogue. Colloquial phrasing, grammatical errors, vocabulary restrictions or flourishes, catchphrases, and so on, can all rough up the surface of a smooth exposition drop in dialogue, making it blend in more seamlessly. A new-guy info-dump receptacle is a tried and tested vehicle for expository dialogue (if a little overused at this point, but I can say nothing because I’ve done it myself); it’s also a great way to avoid monologuing as you can have New Guy ask a dozen pertinent questions in the order that you’d prefer the information to flow.
Ultimately, it boils down to character: how well you know the speaker, their voice, their use of slang and expletives, their relationship to the other party or parties to the conversation. From there, it’s a question of tailoring the style of the expository dialogue to match the reader’s understanding of that character to date.
Dialogue is a powerful narrative tool – set it free in your writing
Dialogue is not just characters saying words to each other. It’s an access point for establishing interpersonal relationships, power dynamics, shared history, deepest desires and greatest fears. It can give you a geographical location for your narrative. It can paint a picture of your setting. It can dole out important parcels of plot information. And it can, in theory, do all of this through showing rather than telling.
I’ve talked a little bit about this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: dialogue is by definition an action beat, and action beats are how we keep readers engaged.
Yes, you could set the scene through prose:
The room was dark, cavernous and bitterly cold. Anna had no idea where Jenny might be.
Works perfectly well.
Or you could achieve exactly the same effect through dialogue:
“Jenny?” Anna’s voice echoed in the darkness. “Jenny – are you there? I’m so cold…”
It’s the exact same information, and more or less the same amount of words. But one is distant, removed from the stakes and the consequences. It’s telling us why Anna and Jenny are in trouble, while allowing us to step back from the reality of their situation. The other is right in the middle of the drama, placing us in the thick of it with characters facing unknown dangers.
So, no, “natural” is not always best when it comes to putting words into your characters’ mouths. “Plausible” would be a better goal to aim for. And you’re absolutely doing your writing a disservice by constraining your dialogue to match some kind of arbitrary paradigm of “naturalistic” – which is a shifting target, anyway, and altogether best left alone.
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