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The author, Elmore Leonard, once said,

“All the information you need can be given in dialogue.”

While that may be true, in too many instances doing so would make for a pretty lousy read. You have to be careful not to overdo it so as to make it sound stilted. Here’s a bad example (again provided by Rita Mae Brown):

“As you know, Bob, we’ve been stuck on this desert island for twenty years, eating only the coconuts that grow on the one tree and fish which we catch with our hands.  We have several vitamin deficiencies, and you’ve been picking your nose this whole time.  Stop it, or I’m going to kill you!”

Brown points out that a better tactic would be to dramatise the exposition and use only one line of dialogue, as follows:

“Ted pounded the coconut open with a rock. It wasn’t quite ripe yet, but he was so tired of fish, and his fingernails stung in the salt water where they cracked and peeled. Bob sat on the beach a few yards away. He was picking his nose again. Again. “Stop it!” Ted screamed and picked up the rock he had used to smash the green coconut into meaty fragments.

Do you see how the scene has now come to life for the reader?

Here’s an extended example of dialogue (from Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Wolf Hall), which is skillfully written to reveal a lot without sounding stilted. In this scene, written from Cromwell’s point of view, Alice More, the wife of Sir Thomas More, is visiting Cromwell on her husband’s behalf:

“Well! When I came here before it was a musty old place. My husband used to say,” and he notes the past tense, “my husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the jailers will owe him money.”

“Did he talk a lot about locking me in dungeons?”

“It was only talk.” She is uneasy. “I thought you might take me to see the king. I know he’s always courteous to women, and kind.”

He shakes his head. If he takes Alice to the king she will talk about when he used to come to Chelsea and walk in the gardens. She will upset him: agitate his mind, make him think about More, which at present he doesn’t.

“He is very busy with the French envoys. He means to keep a large court this season. You will have to trust my judgment.”

The lesson? Dialogue can indeed provide exposition for the story, but don’t overdo it.

I’d love to hear your examples of good dialogue that provides exposition.

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