Is dialogue showing or telling?

Flaviosky

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Hello!

After going through repeating revisions and rewrites, I noticed that I've been relying quite much on dialogue to deliver exposition Spies delivering information, mages explaining how magic works, characters describing tribes or herbs or pieces of past events that help knowing other characters, etc.

There are ways to use dialogue to deliver exposition in start ways of course, but I wonder if it may be a boring way to make the reader know certain things if used too much.

Thanks!
 
Is it boring to you? That'd be the first measure. In general, when I find myself wanting to ask others if a passage is weak, it's my own judgment sending out warning signals.

Second measure, is the exposition necessary? And is it necessary just exactly here? And delivered in that particular way?
 
Dialogue can serve a lot of different purposes. If it is being used as a way to sneak in exposition, it's still exposition, and therefore telling.* If the interactions between the characters through their dialogue exchanges move the plot forward, then it is action. If the way the characters express themselves demonstrates what they are feeling, or facets of their personalities, or other important information, then it is showing.

So it all depends on how you use it and how well it's done—and whether it serves the purpose you were hoping it would.

_____
*Which is not always a bad thing if you can make it engaging enough, but too often this is not the case.
 
You can use it for exposition but its a stronger scene if you can use it for more than that, too. Character development, sub plot development, raising the stakes. I love a good in-depth dialogue scene, they’re my favourite things to write
 
Brandon Sanderson talks about this exact thing at 9:00 in this lecture. He basically says what Jo Zebedee said, make the scene work double duty.

I heard another trick, that the best way to describe some world building thing is to break it. For example if you want to explain how a magic engine works, have it break down and have the characters try and fix it. This will be a lot more interesting than info dumpy dialogue such as
'How does this magic engine work?'
'Let me explain....'
 
It does sound like a very clever trick. It would soon cease to be interesting, though, if too many writers adopted it. Imagine how readers would react. "Oh no! Not the obligatory scene where something falls apart and has to be put together again!"
 
The classic error is to insert 'telling' into dialogue in a contrived, unnatural way (for the benefit of the reader but to the detriment of realism): "As you know John, this space station was constructed in 2134 for the purpose of....."

I'm a big fan of show don't tell. Maybe it makes life more difficult for the writer, but there is always a method of doing something well if you look for it.
 
It does sound like a very clever trick. It would soon cease to be interesting, though, if too many writers adopted it. Imagine how readers would react. "Oh no! Not the obligatory scene where something falls apart and has to be put together again!"
That's true, I imagine maid and butler dialogue was once the cutting edge for delivering exposition.
 
First off, I am a big believer that Show Don't Tell is one of the worst pieces of writing advice out there when applied without caveats and thought. I also think the push back against exposition is also very overdone. Sometimes it's not "does the reader need to know", sometimes it should be "if the reader doesn't want to know, what's it doing in here? If the details are guff, then how comes it being in there isn't guff?"

It's not like there isn't successful commercial SFF out there getting published today - well, fantasy at least - that shows a huge love of such details, whether its Miles Cameron sharing all his historical knowledge or Brandon Sanderson's magic systems.

Second, I also believe everything is Showing and Telling something at the same time, and that in the same way every scene can do multiple things, and probably should.

And that there is how you stop things being boring. You layer other things in with the exposition. You add flavours to the cake. Not an original observation in this thread, but true.

That said - if the information is interesting, and the book is well balanced between information and action and drama, then I think you could be worrying too much.
 
I also think the push back against exposition is also very overdone.
Agreed. However, I think using dialogue for exposition is one of the most boring ways to get it to the reader because it takes so much more page space and unnecessary dialogue to make it seem natural.
 
Agreed. However, I think using dialogue for exposition is one of the most boring ways to get it to the reader because it takes so much more page space and unnecessary dialogue to make it seem natural.

And it runs the risk of sounding like those radio commercials where people tell each other about a wonderful new product they have found..
"Jim you're still not using that old thing are you? Here try mine it's got the new dentro-tribullshitomine formula that 90% of sane doctors use on their own children's nostrils..." etc.
 
And it runs the risk of sounding like those radio commercials where people tell each other about a wonderful new product they have found..
"Jim you're still not using that old thing are you? Here try mine it's got the new dentro-tribullshitomine formula that 90% of sane doctors use on their own children's nostrils..." etc.
Exactly. Dialogue should ultimately be about relationships - that's where language really started and what is most natural to us. So it is most naturally used in literature to show the changes in the way characters relate, demonstrate the difference in their worldview, show their emotional reaction to the actions of others or establish a power dynamic.

That doesn't mean that some exposition can't take a ride along with some dialogue about how the characters relate to each other, but an author should be wary of using dialogue to explain the what and why in the plot.
 
Agreed. However, I think using dialogue for exposition is one of the most boring ways to get it to the reader because it takes so much more page space and unnecessary dialogue to make it seem natural.

I agree; sometimes I prefer replacing dialogue with telling how the conversation went in a sentence or two instead of writing it out.

Maybe the key is in how much payoff someone gets for the effort. If reading is like climbing a hill, an average person is only going to climb the hills that are either easy or have a good payoff and they'd rather have both.
 
It all depends on the dialogue. and its context. I think you can get away with more exposition if your dialogue also fleshes out your characters at the same time, gives them interiority and individuality; and, as someone else mentionned, it establishes and supports the relationships (of characters to one another, to their environment and to important objects or ideas) I remember reading an early Robert Heinlein, (I forget the title), a hero frozen in time wakes up in the future sort of story. The entire novel is essentially exposition as a designated guide shows him around and explains the workings of this new improved society. It was basically Heinlein's sketching out his own idealized Utopia, more of a weak manifesto than a story, theres no struggle, no conflict, nothing happens; i couldnt finish it. On the flipside ive been watching Reservation Dogs on Hulu/Fx; in the last avail episode of the current season there's a death/wake that brings the community and xtended family together in one house. I was struck by how successfully every person in that house feels like a real, 3D person and not simply an archetype or stereoype. I believe that is a function of the dialogue. I reccommend the show for anyone interested in storytelling; the balance of comedy and hubris is sublime.
 
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I would not worry about categorizing dialog; it could fall into either showing or telling. The key issue is whether the dialog works for the story. Providing background information to the reader is always a challenge and one needs to find a way to keep the presentation interesting and not overwhelm the reader with too much information at once. Unless you have a feeling otherwise, I would not worry about having too much dialog; that may be more a writing style issue more than anything else. Some writers tend to be more dialog heavy than others, but, as long as it is working, it is still good.
 
>And do the characters need to know?
Yeah, this. Very often I hear an author say that the reader needs to know X. And that is not always true. The measure should not be "here's something I think the reader should know".

This is why the "as you know, Bob" stuff doesn't work. Because Bob doesn't need to know what Bob already knows. The author has simply decided that the reader needs to know it.

Try getting rid of it entirely. Chances are, there will be something of what you have that really does need to be in the story, but not necessarily just exactly there and not necessarily in the way you presented it.
 
There will always be something the reader needs to know when dealing with fantasy and science fiction. The trick is to determine what those things are. Sometimes what the author thinks they need to know is something the reader might not care about. But more importantly--there might be things that are best left unexplained.

Sorting it all out can be a bit difficult. Especially if the author is anxious to explain something and can't be dissuaded.
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So when exposition happens it is best to try to fit it into the story as organically as possible.(less noticeable).

Dialogue is one way--however, it can begin to get tedious for some readers if there is a wall of exposition inside a wall of dialogue: it might be good to try to balance the dialogue with narrative. This can look like narrative thoughts with what the reader needs to know interrupted or interspersed with dialogue of what the character needs to know or perhaps a summation of the thoughts.

One thing I recall from reading is where a character starts to explain something and then goes into a flashback or backstory(narrative)that gives the necessary information.
 
Having read all the way through this this thread again I have just remembered something I REALLY REALLY REALLY want to do in the insanely unlikely event I ever get a chance to direct a feature film. I want to start with an opening title crawl that has a shedload of backstory. Lots of movies back in the 30s and 40s started like this which is why George Lucas so brilliantly used it in Star Wars and why a disproportionally large number of bad science fiction films still do to this day (not because old films used to do it but because George Lucas so brilliantly used it in Star Wars and it has become part of the SF furniture).

So the opening of the movie - after a stupidly huge number of swirling glitzty CGI logos (many of which will be made up specially for the film and not have any real organizations behind them followed a huge long list of white lettering on a black background telling you that the names of the logos you have just watched are presenting and producing in association with each other) I will start the movie with long title crawl full of expositional guff that the audience will have to read.

"The year is Xty Twenty-three. The Nauxious Corporation own the Quantillium 57 mining concessions of Altair 4 and are ruthlessly exploiting.... a rebel colony.... robot assassins... blah blah blah... "

At the same time as this is scrolling past the eyeballs of an increasingly frustrated audience, a narrator is reading out a completely different script: "The realm of Fundupore is ravaged by an invasion from the Northlands. Lead by the evil Lord PootyPootynimnim, savage hordes lay waste to all in their path. Princess Stephanie, heir to the Crown and Anchor... blah blah blah..."

By the end of two minutes of this the audience - assuming I still have one - will be so bewildered they will accept any recognisably structured story that appears in front of them with such an overwhelming sense of relief that I should be able to get halfway through the second act before anyone start to question why the film isn't actually very good...

I wish I could tell you I had been drinking.

I haven't.
 

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