Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Want to improve your writing, but unsure where to start?
Then you've come to the right place. I've created this blog series where I show you a before and after of my very own writing talking you through my changes.
We're diving deep into dialogue over the next few weeks and this week, we're tackling exposition.
How to write without losing your mind.
A big whacking caveat I'm discussing novels, not screenwriting, which is a different beast. Although some rules cross over, film and TV have the advantage of visual cues along with actors who can add gravitas to the reading of spam ingredients. But novels have the benefit of narration; a vehicle for exposition if done right.
Like everything else, excellent writing does many things, not just one and it's no different with dialogue. Good dialogue reveals character as well as moving things along.
Now I'm a strict, 'said' kind of girl. I will use the occasional 'whispered' or 'shouted', but I like the reader to figure out the tone of what's been said by what's being said. But I'm not going to judge anyone who wants the throw in extras; you do you. No one else can.
Like sugar, a little bit is fine, but get hooked and before you know it your selling tit wanks down the canal for that sweet Tate and Lyle hit. Sometimes writers can fall into the trap of using dialogue to dump relevant info thinking this isn't 'telling' because the characters are doing it. Still, just like real life, one-way conversations are boring. Readers want to be active, they want to figure things out, to feel like they're participating in the story, not just having it bashed over their heads.
Let's look at an example.
We want the readers to know that Jim and Jill are cops, who have known each other for ten years, he's neat, settled and old fashioned. Jill is a messy, fun single girl. How do we get information across to the reader? First things first the first draft. Brace yourself it's rough.
The above gives us all the info we need but it's 'telling' us things rather than letting us work it out though characterisation. The conversation feels stiff and unnatural rather than flowing and interesting.
Let's focus in on avoiding exposition and try again.
Here's the neat version, so you can see what's going on.
The banter between the two feels natural and lighthearted, which implies they've known each other for a long time. We know Jill has dirty habits because we're shown them with her spraying crumbs everywhere, and we know Jim better from his reaction to the mess.
This is what 'show don't tell' means. In the previous draft, Jim tells us she was a messy pig, but in the 2nd, we are shown it.
The same goes for learning that they are cops. The stakeout information is still there but it's been worked into the conversation as banter. The dialogue is doing more than one thing.
The conversation also doesn't randomly jump around, or shoehorn things in. One thing leads to the next. Jim mentions how horrible a takeaway burger is, which makes her defend her choice, which makes him counter-argue. They are reacting to each other rather than stating things or waiting for their turn to talk. Basically the push and pull of a good conversation. I wish real life had more of them.
That's it for this week but join us next time when we join Jim and Jill again and see how we can give our character conversation goals. Always happy to chat writing, stories, and the end of the world, (dystopian writer here) so head on over to that there Twitter and hit me up with your own tips or just to say hello.