When should you put information that makes a dialogue understandable? Sometimes, the characters may use an idiom or expression that only makes sense if you know some world-building element of the story. Should you just avoid these dialogues all together or should you inform the readers before or after the dialogue?


"He believes himself to have been given birth in a blackened pot on the Kamalah day."

--Blackened pot was the mythical pot where God was given birth to, Kamalah day refers to the day God was given birth. The religion of Kurugh says that the next savior will be given birth in a blackend pot on the Kamalah day.

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    When you are being clever, it's good manners not to point and tell everyone how clever you are. Trust the reader's imagination and they will help you with their own world-building. Readers want a story, not a textbook.
    – wetcircuit
    Aug 1, 2021 at 20:07
  • "Should you just avoid these dialogues all together or should you inform the readers before or after the dialogue?" Preferably none of the above. Aug 1, 2021 at 20:46
  • Do at the very least make it clear from the larger context that this is a positive implication from the point of view of the guy believing it. (Otherwise I might guess that the blackened pot was a chamber pot, and the day was a particularly unlucky one - suggesting a serious lack of self-esteem.)
    – Jedediah
    Aug 2, 2021 at 21:31

3 Answers 3


There is nothing wrong with keeping the dialogue. From your excerpt, it helps to make your world feel real through the characters. There are a few ways you can choose to explain your dialogue.

The first technique would be to assume that your reader will pick up as they go. In N.K Jemisin's "Dreamblood Duology," the narrator explains that one of the characters has seen "x floods." The reader can assume that this is synonymous to being x years of age. It also tells the reader about the climate of the current city, Gujaareh because we can also assume there is a wet season where a large flood is common. Later in the book, other descriptions and conversations help to confirm these assumptions. Brandon Sanderson also does this quite a bit throughout "The Stormlight Archive" with exclamations like "Kelak's hand". I don't recall if Kelak and his hand's significance is explained, but the reader understands that this is similar to saying "Oh God," in our world.

Another technique is using footnotes. As signedav explained in their answer, a drawback to footnotes is that it can throw off the reader's flow. In "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao", Junot Diaz uses footnotes to explain Latin American history, politics, and superstitions. Footnotes in this novel can take up almost half the page and go on for several pages. It is almost like reading two different works, which can be difficult for both the reader to keep up.

The last technique I will mention is a glossary. This is often used in nonfiction works. "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot provides a timeline of events and a glossary that explains the different people, events, and places in her work. Leveraging this technique in fiction allows you to have a safety net for your readers.


This depends on the perspective from which you are writing. An authorial (omniscient) narrator can bring this information before or after the dialogue, because the narrator explains the world directly to the reader. A footnote would also be possible, though it's less elegant and can throw the reader off the reading flow.

Otherwise, the character can explain it to his counterpart himself when asked. Sometimes authors use characters specifically to have the protagonist tell the reader the information they need (e.g. Watson in Sherlock Holmes).

Further, you might not inform the reader at that moment, but let them know at an earlier (or later) time what the statement is about.

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    I like this approach. The other characters can gasp, or chortle disbelievingly; these reactions will tell the reader this is a big claim, without making it clear what's being claimed. As the book goes on, dialog can explain the claim (perhaps a bit at a time), or a character can attend a religious ceremony in which texts are read, or whatever, and the reader can come to understand the specific claim the character is making. Aug 2, 2021 at 21:21

I'll add one more suggestion to all the great ones you've already got.

Let the story tell you what needs to be explained.

Write the passage only providing the information you would when using your chosen point of view (for instance if it's deep third person, the POV-character will likely know about the pot and its meaning, etc, so they won't spend a thought on this at all).

It's possible that the story will offer a way to explain the pot later. Or not.

Once you've finished the first draft, put it away for weeks, months, years... whatever time you need to forget the details.

For me, it's about 3 months. After that, I must read the story from the first page to the last or I'll start mixing things up (who said absentmindedness was bad?), and I'm quite able to detect things that don't work or won't make sense to someone that reads the text for the first time.

On this reread of the manuscript you might be able to test if your pot makes sense or not.

Maybe it needs to be explained more—then explain it more (using any of the other answers). Maybe there's an explanation but too late—then move it up in the text.

Write an exploratory first draft and finalize the novel in editing.

Even if you're like me and do a lot of outlining your first draft might contain a cohesive story, but will likely still need changes to small details or larger parts. The only first draft that needs no editing is either produced by a senseless fool or an insufferable genious. And a genius who doesn't take the chance to "do the test" one more time to improve their score is still a senseless fool...

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