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When my work was being critiqued, one of the critics said that the exposition given away in my dialogue was forced and unnatural. Though, this exposition is crucial, so leaving it out is out of the picture. The critic said it would be better to break the "show don't tell" rule by actually just giving the exposition straight up, no dialogue.

This does eliminate the chance of the exposition feeling unnatural in dialogue, but to me it feels cheap. The easy way out. And I also feel it takes the reader out of the experience. But without the information itself, the reader is not getting the full experience, nor is understanding/seeing the full picture.

Now, (this is opinion-based) I felt the exposition wasn't unnatural, due to the fact it was very relevant to the topic, and it seemed to me like something a person, and more importantly, the character in question would say in that situation. But is this irrelevant? Will any exposition given through dialogue feel forced and unnatural? Is it all better to just give it as unfiltered exposition in a paragraph?

  • FWIW, the story I just wrote for the writing challenge on meta used absolutely no dialogue (for stylistic reasons). I found that while my exposition feels chunky and needs some work, it seems (to me) to flow better than it would have had I used dialogue. – Brandon_J Jun 1 at 12:58
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    "Show don't tell" is a guideline, not a rule. Some exposition is necessary in any story, and having the characters say it rather than the narrator is "telling" all the same. – eyeballfrog Jun 1 at 14:00
  • I went ahead and accepted Galastel's answer, though ALL the answers added something useful and taught me something, which isn't something I'm used to when looking through a question with 7 answers. – A. Kvåle Jun 1 at 22:29
  • Even John Steinbeck told at least some of his introductions. So did J. K. Rowling. – gen-z ready to perish Jun 2 at 0:36
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The thing that is often unnatural about giving exposition in dialogue is that both people having the dialogue should already be aware of what is being said. To solve that problem, you can either introduce a character who would reasonably not be aware of the situation, or you can tell that exposition instead of bringing it up in dialogue. Telling in this case doesn't need to be multiple paragraphs of enciclopedia entry - it can be a couple of sentences by the narrator within the same dialogue scene. "Lord Frey was known for..." etc.

If you can, it might be possible to hint at the situation, rather than state it explicitly, through what the characters, who are aware of it, say and do. For example, if two lords are known to be at odds with each other, a character might complain about trouble with the seating arrangements at a feast, needing to keep those two apart.

Another option is to interject a thought or memory by your POV character. For example:

"I am so sorry, my love. Jon Arryn is dead."
His eyes found hers, and she could see how hard it took him, as she had known it would. In his youth, Ned had fostered at the Eyrie, and the childless Lord Arryn had become a second father to him and his fellow ward, Robert Baratheon. When the Mad King Aerys II Targaryen had demanded their heads, the Lord of the Eyrie had raised his moon-and-falcon banners in revolt rather than give up those he had pledged to protect. (G.R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones)

It feels much more natural, doesn't it, than if Catelyn had said "I know it takes you hard because you were fostered at the Eyrie..."?

6

You can do it in exposition, but in general if I find a conversation that requires exposition or background to proceed, it is a signal that the writer is "rushing to drama". The solution is previous scenes or exposition that accomplish delivering the proper context of the scene, and not immediately before the scene occurs. Probably in the first half of the first Act, where readers expect extra exposition to set up the story. They will cut you some slack very early in the story, you just need a relevant reason for the narrator to be telling us about this.

In other words, by the time this crucial conversation occurs, the reader should already know whatever they need to know to follow the drama. It had to be revealed earlier. And the fact that is wasn't implies you are rushing to drama and not setting up the story well enough, you are trying to evoke both emotion and include a history lesson simultaneously, and that is nearly impossible to pull off.

Since you have included this unnatural exposition in the dialogue, it can't be too long; find a place or invent a scene or excuse for this background info to be reviewed by the MC earlier in the book. Somebody else brings up an event from the past, prompted by some current event; a friend or parent reports news of a marriage, or a death of some key figure in this invented event. In such circumstances, it is natural for the narrator to recap the thoughts of the MC about the background. Find some excuse. Invent a party, or a get-together, a marriage or funeral or anniversary celebration, a friend returns from a long trip, anything that is normally an occasion in which the past is reviewed.

Don't rush to drama; anytime you feel the urge to explain background in dialogue, or even in prose within or adjacent to dialogue, you should examine if there is ANY way you could have delivered the background information earlier in a more natural setting.

4

Usually the exposition that writers think is crucial isn't crucial to the reader at all. A common intervention of many editors when they deal with a manuscript they get is to cut off the beginning so the story starts in the middle of things.

Readers love to get plunged into a story. The art of writing then is to introduce the reader to the necessary background as you go along.

That is you narrate your story in the same way that a character from that story would experience it. You don't sit down for an hour and think about the background of your life before you go to work, you just go to work and think about whichever aspects of your life are relevant to the current situation as it happens.

So what you do is sprinkle your "important exposition" into your story in small doses. A sentence here, a paragraph there, and some things mentioned by your characters when they speak.

And do leave most of what you think is relevant out. The posthumously published writings of J.R.R. Tolkien aren't part of the Lord of the Rings because it really isn't necessary for the reader to speak Quenya to enjoy that tale.

3

I, and all of the others who might answer this question, are flying blind without knowing all of the details. Oh, well, I probably would be confused anyway.

I too struggle with the show-rather-than-tell guidance. I tend to use dialogue to get the information out there but it can be strained. One of the techniques that I have used to relieve that strain is to dump out the information that the reader needs in the form of a mini-story.

lets say that a critical bit of exposition is that Jason Lessor is CEO of the family enterprise and he is non-too bright but he has a sufficient ownership position to make it near impossible to replace him. Mildly interesting would be a wild exaggeration. But there is a story within the story.

People only casually involved with Family Corp. marvel at how this bastion of excellence can be "lead" by Jason "not so much" Lessor. He was always handsome, charming, and... Well, unless you count being good, actually very good, in the sack, there wasn't much else to say. His lack of talent, drive, and good sense worried the elders of the family, but only occasionally. Older brother Carson more than made up for Jason's deficits. Younger sister Ellie regularly ran circles around Jason. When the police investigated the deaths of Carson and Ellie, separated by a mere six weeks, the detectives naturally followed the money. Through a set of arcane rules laid down nearly a century ago, Family Corp. stock could only be held by a direct family member. Jason, smiling and vacuous, was the only choice. After an hour in the interview box, the lead detective entered the following in his case notes, "almost too stupid to breathe, much less rig even a single car to fail." Then Aunt Matilda died at age 89. Jason made out again, not of course with Matilda -- she did have some standards -- but if called upon, Jason might well have performed magnificently.

Everett Chambers, the family lawyer of decades past, should have worked out where this was going, but there was his third mid-life crisis, the truly nasty divorce of Cousin Edward, and, of course, the vivacious Miss Emily. Everyone knew Miss Emily was a conniver but everyone associated the blue eyes, long blonde hair, and curves with a junior-league conniver. Their mistake. When Jason announced that he wished to be CEO (and had more than sufficient shares to make it more than just a wish), Everett realized the lapse in his obligations and Emily realized that Jason was her main chance.

So, Jason is the CEO. Miss Emily really runs the show. Anytime Jason shows any initiative, Miss Emily shuts the door to Jason's private office and performs "intense attitude adjustment." Ah, the duties of a wife are many and varied. And the contented smile on Jason's face as he tries to remember what he was going to do. Well, that is reward enough for the loyal and dedicated.

There is more in this mini-story than is needed for the main story but (after some serious editing) the reader can digest the key facts also with some "sugar" to make the medicine go down easier.

Just a thought.

3

I'll add a thought to the good answers here that it sounds as though you are using your characters to advance a plot point. While we all do this, allowing your characters to behave naturally with one another without any demands upon them can be an interesting exercise.

How would your characters interact in this scene if there was no need for them to expose the information you're trying to get across? Might be worthwhile to write that, and see what it looks like.

Also, for what it's worth, successful writers use 'tell' all the time. The advice to "show, not tell," is arguably analogous to someone saying a happy song should always be played in a major key; no minor chords allowed. Because major chords feel better, happier, and create the effect in the audience that you're going for.

Well, it's an interesting idea (...maybe...) but hardly an absolute. A musician learns to hear what a song needs, and likewise there's an ear for reading that a writer should try to develop. It's easier to hear the wrong notes in someone else's writing, but we all eventually learn to hear them in our own as well.

A story that is all tell would be tedious to read. that's probably the basis of the advice. And many writers start learning with telling. But every published novel on the market has some tell in it. Three weeks later... is telling. His hair was perceptibly longer, almost a half inch longer than the last time she had seen him... is, technically, showing. And a stupid way to say that three weeks had passed, if the point is to give a quick reference to the passage of time.

Here's an easy device you might try: Move some of the 'dialog exposition' into thought, and leave some in dialog.

How could I tell her that Jackie had killed her ex? That the affair between them had spiraled into a toxic nightmare so deep the entire town reverberated from it?

"I think it was a local. Single bullet to the head."

What that does is place exposition into an emotional context. It is most certainly telling the reader who killed 'her ex' (Jackie did), and why she had done so (some sort of affair gone bad) but it's doing it by wrapping the information into an emotional dilemma for the viewpoint character--and since the viewpoint character is withholding some information from the other character (but not from the reader) there's another layer of complexity. It doesn't feel like telling. And, some info is given in dialog (bullet to the head.) So that feels like verbal movement, not an info dump, if you take my meaning.

And, as a bonus, with this particular device, we come to know more than the character receiving the information, too, which is also sometimes useful in storytelling.

Answer: Telling is fine when appropriate, and there are ways to impart information beyond info-dump and dialog--such as immersing into a deeper viewpoint, so that the reader can 'know' the information from the experience of the viewpoint character.

(Using dialog as a crutch to 'avoid telling' is an early tool we acquire, and a good one, but too easily abused which it sounds like you may have done.)

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    The dictum "show don't tell" originates from play/screen writing; where it can be taken literally; and in that form "John is angry" in exposition or "JOHN (angrily)" as a dialogue tag work; angry is acted and "shown" to the audience, whereas spoken dialogue "I am so angry!" no matter how it is acted, is "telling" the audience instead of "showing" them. (unless juxtaposition is in use; e.g. "JOHN (deadpan): I am so angry."; i.e. showing the opposite of his words.) Applied to written fiction, take "show" as aiding visual/audio/sensory imagination; and "telling" as non-sensory exposition. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 1 at 17:57
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    @Amadeus The advice is so pervasive in writing groups, especially among learning writers, and seems to be crippling at times. There's a person in one group who believes that dialog by definition is showing, because another member vociferously declares it so. I think it's a matter of learning to hear the story. (But, overly-telling is also still a useful crutch for me personally, at least to get plot onto paper.) – DPT Jun 1 at 19:41
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    The advice is pervasive, but misunderstood without understanding the origins. On video, if J is angry he can swing at the air, his expression shows it. In print, getting the reader to imagine the same visual is "showing". Telling is "Quit it!" J said angrily. (no visual description at all, vague audio). Showing is John slammed his palm on the table, his startled sisters looked at him as if he'd fired a gun. He shouted, "Quit it!" In print, show don't tell is about character actions caused by emotions/mindset/traits, instead of just naming the emotions/mindset/traits. But ... – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 1 at 21:50
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    ... I agree with your post, I just think it helps to know where Show Don't Tell came from. It is true that sometimes just telling is fine IF there is not that much emotion in the characters. For me that is the line, e.g. if my character is imagining another trip to Apple Junction and looking forward to the things they remember about that place, there just isn't much action those memories are going to trigger. In that case, we can keep the "visual" end of our story up (and add some conflict) by her recall of a story about her last visit (to herself or another). Something happened there. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 1 at 22:00
  • No argument here--though it seems to have evolved into its own set of rules at least among folks I know, and your comments indicate why it could be--A screen character saying "I'm mad!" is telling, and the narrative he was mad impossible on screen... The written word is different, as you point out. And, flat out telling in fiction is fine when done well and in balance (I think you agree with that). Authors I read do it all the time. kidlit.com/2010/06/23/when-to-tell-instead-of-show That has some nice examples from HP:TSS. – DPT Jun 1 at 22:21
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One approach can be to put a prologue mini-story at the front where all this happens. Rather than having the Lord High Whatever say to the prince "As you know, 30 years ago your father, the king...", just write the story of what the king did 30 years ago as a chapter told from the King's point of view. Then skip 30 years to the current crisis and what the prince needs to do about it.

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One of the most common ways to make exposition in dialogue natural is to have a conflict that inspires bringing it up. Your story is bound to need a conflict to drive it anyway, so you may as well take advantage of this. Think about a story in which two characters already know each other at the start, and at some point they argue. The first such argument is bound to tell us things they already know, through them shrilly bringing them up for point-scoring... and boy, does the other side ever reciprocate. But such a scene does not than just tell; it can also show personalities, how they feel about each other or third parties, you name it.

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