Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Avoiding the Perils of Expositional Dialogue

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 24•14

Jack Nicolson courtroom speech     There comes a time in many stories when a character must deliver needed information via dialogue. It’s called expositional dialogue—a conversation with a whole lot of facts or explaining going on. It provides the back story and details necessary to understand for the story. Trouble is, after not too long these dialogue exchanges can easily become tedious and bog down your story. Especially if the conversation, speech, sermon, or testimony goes on for pages or the scene is solely based on delivering these facts.

So what’s a writer to do? Here are some solutions:

  • Tuck the information into scenes laced with  heavy conflict, especially with high stakes. Courtroom scenes typically contain expositional dialogue, but the stakes are sky high and jurors need to learn what they don’t know.
  • Add tension—perhaps the characters are afraid of being overheard or it’s improper for them to be meeting.
  • Try summarizing some of the information instead of only using direct dialogue.
  • If possible the character delivering the facts should be fascinating, funny, brilliant,mysterious, or somehow loaded with personality—and keep it lively whenever possible.
  • Tighten it to the bone. Not a single unnecessary word.
  • Set it up—readers need to experience the need to know before the exposition happens.
  • Feature the protagonist tracking down the information or somehow being proactive.
  • As one character is listening to the dialogue he or she doesn’t need to simply sit there. He/she needs to actively participate—become agitated, struggle to control emotions, ask difficult questions, etc.
  • Another trick is to have a necessary object or situation or fall apart and exposition is used as the object/situation is fixed.
  • Figure out when readers need to be kept in the dark and give out information on a need-to-know basis, especially in Act 1
  • Never discuss information that both characters already know.
  • Determine if the back story is sufficiently complicated; a flashback might work better to bring forth the information.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, heave heart

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  1. This is great advice. And something that isn’t always easy to pull off. Thanks for the tips, Jessica.

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