Over-reliance on dialogue continues to be rampant in the manuscripts that come across my desk. In fact, over the past year it’s supplanted perspective issues as the #1 issue that plagues the not-yet-published, at least from my vantage point.
When writers rely on dialogue too much, problems can really cascade. There’s often not enough physical description to conjure a sense of place, cramming exposition into conversations is invariably clunky, and, honestly, it’s not always interesting to read a series of scenes with two characters who are just sitting around having very contrived conversations.
Even novels that have a lot of dialogue need to supplement the chatter with other storytelling elements. Colleen Hoover fans, look at the way she peppers her conversations with judicious thought processes and physical description!
There’s a particular subset of this issue that I’ve seen quite a lot lately: characters asking leading questions that don’t make any sense just so the other character in the conversation can deliver exposition.
The leading questions chat bot
You’ve probably read conversations like this in novels, where an otherwise flesh and blood character suddenly transforms into a hollow leading questions chat bot:
“I need to deliver a lot of exposition!” Nathan said. “Here’s a whole lot of information that could have just been relayed by the narrative voice, but I am bending over backwards to smush it into dialogue because I haven’t yet gotten comfortable giving the reader the information they need without a conversation taking place.”
“What else do you need to tell me?” the leading questions chat bot asked.
“I’m so glad you very conveniently asked me that question!” Nathan said. “Let me now include some empty banter to show my wit and how familiar we are with one another.”
“Empty banter?” the leading questions chat bot asked.
“Yes,” Nathan said. “Empty banter. Thank you for asking me to repeat myself even though what I said was perfectly clear the first time around.”
“There’s no reason to ask this based on my motivations and participation in this scene to this point,” the leading questions chat bot said, “but what about that time you posted recently about avoiding constructing scenes solely around the information authors think they need to impart, of which this advice seems to be a subset?”
“Yes!” Nathan shouted. “Thank you so much for setting aside any reason you had for asking that question so I can tell you more about it!”
Yeah. Don’t do this! And particularly don’t do it to your protagonists.
Every character in a conversation needs their own coherent motivations
The biggest problem with turning a character into a leading questions chat bot is that, as my nickname implies, they stop feeling human. That’s because they stop wanting something clear and instead subsume themselves into becoming a bizarre exposition receptacle. They bury their nominal motivations while the author shoehorns them into facilitating an information transfer.
Every character within a conversation needs to have a clear goal in mind, and it may not be totally aligned with the protagonist’s goals, even when they may broadly be in agreement. That’s why good conversations in a novel often feel like a joust rather than a neat and orderly chat.
But also, if you’re doing an info-transfer-via-dialogue, you may already be missing bigger opportunities. Does the conversation even need to happen in the first place?
Turn the acquisition of information into a scene
If your anchoring POV character or the omniscient voice already knows the exposition you want to impart to the reader, you can just deliver it via the narrative voice.
Otherwise, do everything you possibly can to avoid constructing a scene solely around dialogue. Think about how you can crystalize the stakes in the scene and turn the character acquiring the information into a more fully-realized scene.
Is it more engaging for your protagonist to ask their compatriot a bunch of questions, who very conveniently is an expert on your kingdom’s history, or do they need to break into a library to figure out what they need?
There are times when it really does need to be a conversation, and that’s fine, but think first about whether you can convey the information in a more engaging and active way.
Whatever you do, don’t turn your characters into exposition machines.
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Art: Weber am Webstuhl by Johann August Ernst Niegelssohn
This is so useful. It’s made me rethink some of the decisions I’ve made in a couple of short stories I’m working on at the moment. Thanks for sharing!
When it comes to dialogue issues, I am guilty as charged. Thanks for this excellent and timely reminder!
Misha Burnett says
Also, stop to consider if the information being conveyed is really important for the reader to know. A lot of exposition–particularly in Science Fiction and Fantasy–is more for the writer, to show off how much background she or he has done on the world. Such things as the invention of interchangeable parts and assembly lines were instrumental in making motor cars affordable for the masses, but if I were submitting a report on an auto accident to an insurance company I wouldn’t start with the life and times of Eli Whitney.
Raymond Walker says
I don’t really go for this, sorry. Imagine “Silence of the Lambs” which is dialogue (almost a screenplay in book form) There are many other examples I can conjure without the net. William Peter Blatty, Robert Heinlein, June Rutherford.
Dialogue carries you to another place, brings you right into the characters’ heads. No more Dickens bumpkins, but rather real people with real anxieties.
Nathan Bransford says
I don’t think you’re actually remembering what is and isn’t in SILENCE OF THR LAMBS.
Open it up again and start reading from the beginning. What do you see?