I was reading a manuscript the other week that included a lot of expository dialogue. In this instance, the characters relied on each other’s names too much when they were speaking to each other. This kind of telling in dialogue is, believe it or not, a common problem, as is this other, slightly related one: characters who know each other well giving us background information in dialogue… producing language that real, breathing humans would never say!
Example of Expository Dialogue
“My darling husband Danny, can you please pass the mashed potatoes?” the wife asked.
“Why, of course, my dear Laurie. How was your day as board member of the Greensboro Museum Society?”
“Just lovely. After I shuttled the kids, Jake and Emily, off to preschool and first grade, I went right over there.”
“Just what I like to hear, Laurie, darling.”
“Now, Danny, just what are you going to do about your problems down in the engineering department of the power company? Your boss has been making you livid for weeks!”
Tips for Avoiding Telling in Dialogue
- Never use dialogue to introduce large swaths of character details that don’t belong in a scene between two people. This will almost certainly result in expository dialogue.
- Don’t over-rely on names, especially in a scene with only two characters. Real people don’t talk like that. Try and remember the last time you said your best friend’s or your significant others’ name to them in casual conversation.
I’ll be writing up some thoughts on dialogue tags very soon. For me, endless name-dropping is a sign that the writer doesn’t trust their reader to follow the dialogue. That fear may be founded — if the author is doing crazy things like putting two indented lines of dialogue from the same character one right after the other — but in 95% of cases, your reader is following you. They know who’s talking.
I’ve said it once, twice, and I’m sure I’ll say it a zillion more times: trust your reader. Ditch the telling in dialogue. It’s okay. They’ll get it.
The only times I use more names than usual is when there are multiple characters in a scene and I get tired of dialogue tags. You can’t rely on dialogue tags alone. My current WIP has a section where five characters go on an adventure. To tell you the truth, orchestrating this many people in one scene makes me want to crawl back into bed. It’s the only time I’ll let the occasional name slip into dialogue.
Hire me for fiction editing. I will comment on all facets of your manuscript, including whether or not you’re slipping into expository dialogue.