Conveying Exposition Through Dialogue

by Ann Marie Williams © 2021

As mentioned in my previous post, after finishing another season of screenplay competition judging, I’m taking a look at some of the more common issues I saw among submitted scripts. However, today’s topic applies as much to novels as it does to scripts. That’s because today I’m look at:

Dialogue Conveyed Exposition

A story or character’s background information (exposition) can be conveyed in a variety of ways: visuals, actions, sounds, flashbacks – basically, anything the audience (or reader) would see or hear can be utilized to convey exposition. But, quite often exposition is conveyed through dialogue (e.g. two characters discussing the exposition topic).  And that presents its own unique set of challenges.

Exposition is necessary to storytelling, but it can easily gum up a story’s pacing, tip the audience off to what’s going to be important later on, and – when it comes to dialogue – sound unnatural and awkward. But here’s the thing:

Often it’s not the exposition that’s the problem — rather, it’s how that exposition is conveyed.  
Why is expositional dialogue so hard to write!?

One of the main reasons expositional dialogue is so difficult to write, is because it typically occurs between characters who already understand the topic. This means, the writer needs to convey information to an audience, that the characters conveying the information already understand. This means, the dialogue requires more detail and explanation for the audience than it would for the characters.

To be clear, it’s perfectly fine to have characters discuss an exposition topic. In life, we talk to people about what’s going on, what just happened, or what’s about to happen.  If my good friend asks “How was work?” I might reply, “It was fine. But I had another meeting with Mary.” In a way, that’s exposition about my day.

The problem is, if this was a story, the audience might need to learn what exactly my job is, how Mary relates to my job, and why a meeting with her affected my day. And those are all things that I — and my good friend — would already know. So, while the following would be informative for the audience:

Good friend: "How was work at the insurance agency today?"

Me: "It was fine.  But I had another meeting with Mary, my boss, about my job performance and why I need to improve.  So, like the last three meetings with her, it didn't go well."

The problem is, that dialogue doesn’t sound remotely natural for an exchange between two good friends.

(I don’t work for an insurance agency or have a boss named Mary, by the way — it’s just an example.)

So, writers are challenged with finding a way to convey informative dialogue in a natural way.

So what do I do about it?!?

Easier said than done. I know.

So, to help, when you come to write expositional dialogue, first to identify the following:

  1. What do I need the audience to learn?
  2. What do my characters in the scene already know?
  3. What do my characters in the scene already know the other character/s in the scene know?

Based on the answers above, try to find a way to convey the answer to question one (what the audience needs to learn) through a dialogue exchange that is natural based on the answers to questions two and three (what the characters already know and know the other characters know).

Easier said than done, right? But the key is to create and organize the dialogue so that you can insert the expositional elements throughout the dialogue, while still allowing the exchange to be natural to the characters. If the audience needs to know A, B, and C, you don’t have to have the character say, “ABC.” The character might mention “C,” then the other character drops a hint about “A” and rounds it out by alluding to “B.”

Okay, enough theory. Let’s take all that and try an example.

Let’s say I’ve got a scene in which a couple (Sky and Tatum) is super nervous about having both sets of their highly critical parents over for dinner for the first time since they bought a home together.  If we take that scenario and use the questions above, I get answers something like this:

  1. What do I need the audience to learn?
    • Sky and Tatum recently purchased a home
    • This is the first time Sky and Tatum’s parents have been to the newly purchased home
    • Sky and Tatum are nervous about their parents’ reactions to the house
    • Sky and Tatum are nervous about their parents’ reactions to the dinner
    • The parents are super critical people
  2. What do my characters in the scene already know?
    • Both Sky and Tatum already know all of the above.
  3. What do my characters in the scene already know the other characters in the scene know?
    • Both Sky and Tatum already know that their spouse knows all of the above.

Now, if I was just interested in conveying the exposition, but didn’t care about how natural the dialogue sounded, I could write something like the following:   

SKY: I’m really nervous about your parents and my parents coming for dinner tonight.

TATUM: Me, too.  It’s the first time they’ve been in the house since we bought it and I’m worried they won’t like it because they never like anything.

SKY: Yeah.  Since they are super critical people, I’m worried they won’t like the food either.

Does that convey all the exposition?  Sure.  Does it sound remotely natural?  Nope, not really.

The truth of the matter is, the real exchange would probably go something like this:

SKY: Honey, I’m super nervous.

TATUM: I know.  So am I.

That would be it!  Both Sky and Tatum would know what the other was referring to (and why) without having to say anything more.

And, honestly, that can work in the writer’s favor if the writer doesn’t want the audience to understand what’s going on yet.  If the writer wants it to be a mystery as to what Sky and Tatum are nervous about, then the above dialogue plays well.

But, if the writer needs the audience to understand why Tatum and Sky are nervous, then the exchange requires more exposition than the dialogue provides in example two, but requires more finesse than the dialogue in example one.  

So, maybe something like the following could be a good compromise:

SKY: I can’t believe how nervous I am.

TATUM: I know.  I keep trying to tell myself it’s just dinner, but --

SKY: But when has dinner with in-laws ever been ‘just dinner’

TATUM: Exactly.  

SKY: Well, look at it this way: the four of them will be so busy picking apart the house and telling us why it was a terrible investment, that they won’t even have time to criticize the food.

TATUM: Pfft.  Your parents maybe.  Mine are never going to miss an opportunity to critique my cooking.

(I personally have nothing against in-laws, by the way.)

This last example isn’t perfect, but hopefully that sounds a little more natural, while still conveying the necessary exposition.

Besides, there’s another bonus to conveying exposition through natural dialogue:

When we write dialogue to not only convey exposition, but to sound natural as well, it provides the opportunity to convey more about the characters, since how a character says something can tell us a great deal about that character.

Finally, as mentioned at the start of this post, you can use a lot more than dialogue to help convey exposition.   For example, simply by setting the scene between Sky and Tatum in a kitchen while they prepare a multi-course dinner would offer some great opportunities to underscore or help explain the exposition. Perhaps Sky’s hand is shaking too much to cut the carrots. Or Tatum is checking for dust bunnies under and behind the fridge where no one would typically see.

But, all that is probably a post for another day.