Writing Excuses 15.19: As You Know, This Episode Is About Exposition
Key Points: As you know, Bob, maid-and-butler dialogue is all about exposition, and not very convincing. The good news is that at least you’re thinking about exposition. Levels? First, dialogue is more fun to read than an infodump. Second, natural dialogue, not exposition dummies. Third! Too much dialogue, using it for everything. Answer? Symbols! Make sure your scenes have a plot movement as well as dialogue. Only tell the reader what they need to know, and tie it to conflict and character. Context! Be careful not to add actions and beats to every line of dialogue. Write your dialogue outward from the point. Why are these people having this conversation? All conversation is combat, is conflict. Focus on the details of what each character wants and notices. Use the person coming into the conversation late to fast-track exposition. How do you add description and exposition? Write five sentences, then pare it down. Try emulating screenwriting, setting the scene with just enough for a director or artist to know what to do, what the mood needs to be. Consider spatial intimacy. You don’t paint an entire city, you paint one room, one street. You may build an entire house and decorate it, but give the reader just a glimpse, enough for them to infer the rest from the reflection off your iceberg.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 19.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, As You Know, This Episode Is About Exposition.
[Victoria] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re Bob.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Victoria] I’m Victoria.
[Dan] I’m not Bob.
[Howard] As you know, Howard…
[Howard] Sorry. That’s the classic, as you know, Bob. The maid-and-butler dialogue where two people talk about a thing that both of them already understand, but they talk about it so they can exposite to the reader. So, fair reader, listener, if you didn’t get the joke…
[Dan] Don’t do that.
[Howard] Yeah, don’t do that. If you didn’t get the joke, now you do.
[Victoria] Can we talk about how meta it is that you just like explained the entire show?
[Howard] Expositioned it… Expositioned it. Well, because it’s… Never mind.
[Brandon] It’s actually kind of nice to see in my students. As you know, Bob, or whatever, I call it maid-and-butler dialogue, it’s nice to see in one way because they’re at least thinking about exposition, right? Like, your first level up is when you realize dialogue is just way more fun to read than a big infodump. So I’ll put this into dialogue. But then, your next level up is realizing that dialogue needs to feel natural and you need to construct a scene in such a way that the dialogue feels like it’s coming from real people rather than exposition dummies there to give the exposition.
[Dan] If you want to see this done wrong, CSI Miami was shocking sometimes at the level that two forensic scientists would sit there and recite textbooks at each other while looking at a body or whatever.
[Brandon] Now, most of our questions, or most of our episodes this year are coming from questions from readers. There’s actually a really… Readers? Listeners. There’s a really great question starting this off, which is the next level up moment. This listener says, “I’ve noticed that a lot of my scenes are little more than conversations, typically with other actions used to set in a secondary capacity, if at all. Back story, plot revelations, growth, all shown through conversations.” I’m going to assume this character… This read…
[Howard] This listener.
[Brandon] This listener, noticing that, is not writing maid-and-butler dialogue. They’re writing good dialogue, but they’re noticing, I’m doing… Making my dialogue do a ton of heavy lifting on this. I’ve noticed this in my own writing as well. So it’s something that I worry about.
[Dan] So, this is something that can be handled really well with symbols. I don’t mean symbolism in the AP English sense. I mean that you assign a visible thing or an action to a thing. The really obvious one is Luke, you’ve turned off your targeting computer. Right? We don’t have to come out and say Luke has learned that he needs to use the Force. Because he turns off his targeting computer, and everyone goes, “Oh. Okay, I understand what this means. They establish that earlier. With the blast shield down, I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight? We get that same thing, reversed. Another really beautiful one is actually in the movie Toy Story where the first scene is we’re going to spy on the little boy’s birthday party and see what the new present is. It’s all… Woody’s in charge, and he’s doing this thing, and he wants to make sure he maintains his position as the favorite toy. The final scene is that exact scene re-done, but now he has a friend. Now he’s with Buzz, and they’re partners. So without coming out and saying, “I have learned the value of other people and that friendship is important and I don’t have to be the favorite toy to be valued,” we get all of that through the use of this really stark visual symbol that just relays it to us.
[Victoria] Two things. I personally feel like this is a plot problem. I feel like this is a reflection, if the only purpose of your scene is this dialogue, then you need to separate out the verbal content of the conversation from what you’re trying to accomplish in a plot sense of the scene. If the only forward movement in the scene is through the dialogue, then I think your scene is not working as a holistic scene, moving the overarching plot forward as well. I come from the anime school of worldbuilding. The anime school of worldbuilding states, basically, we do not infodump because we don’t tell you anything except what you need to know going in. Everything that you learn, be it dialogue or exposition, is tied to conflict and character. So when I see scenes like this when I’m teaching or when I’m reviewing for people, and I see these large chunks of conversation, then that starts to happen in a vacuum in my mind. They’re just hovering there in space. So I start to ask those authors, those writers, to start separating out the two lines, almost as if you’re making a song, and you would separate the musical instruments or separate the lines and say, “What else is this scene accomplishing?” Because the nice thing about conversation, the beautiful thing about dialogue, it can happen in a context and then some. You get twice as much out of your scenes when there’s a physical underlying context to the scene as well as a conversational context.
[Brandon] Let me ask you this, though. One of the things that I’ve just started becoming may be hyperaware of, too aware of, is that people using non-dialogue beats and actions and things in order to replace writing better dialogue.
[Brandon] It gets really bothersome when I see my students and every line of dialogue is modified by a sentence saying what they’re doing. They’ve learned that if someone slams their coffee cup down, it helps add an exclamation point. So every character with every beat is doing something.
[Victoria] But that is the equivalent of somebody thinking that they’re revising by moving commas around. That is not actually fixing the motion of the scene, right? Those are crutches of the scene. So I actually think it’s a lot better, I’ll advise students to create a block of the scene and then a block of dialogue. Like, work us between the two. I actually think that a paragraph of the scene bracketing the dialogue is a lot more efficient than slicing up your bracketing scenes as notes throughout the dialogue.
[Brandon] I tend to agree with that as well. I like it, personally, with reading when you go into dialogue, the dialogue has been tightly worked so that it just gets across emotions and things without… With as very little outside the dialogue is possible, and then you transition back into motion and…
[Victoria] It also comes down… I know this is a tangential thing that relates to this, but let’s talk about dialogue for a moment. Because I’m shocked by how many people think that when you write dialogue, you begin at the beginning and you go to the end. When, like, the truth is most conversations have a point. So when I write dialogue, I build outward from the point. What is the thing that the two or three or four people engaged in this conversation are trying to get to? I think when you build out from the point, instead of the hello, hello, goodbye, goodbye of it, then you start to understand why they’re having the conversation. Really, like, we don’t have conversations in a void. We have conversations in a context. So often when I see a lot of dialogue happening, a lot of information being conveyed this way, I start to wonder why there’s an absence of context. Sometimes the context can replace some of the dialogue. Absolutely, it’s a balance that you find in the writing. Like so many things that we talk about, you learn the right balance by doing it wrong and by doing it right. But I think… I mean, this is the time where you have to remember that all writers are readers. Find the things that really work. Find the good examples of it, and study them, the way that you would study anything.
[Howard] I think it’s important to recognize that… And I use this as a punchline in a Schlock Mercenary strip a decade ago. Good Lord. The punchline was, “Captain, all conversation is combat.”
[Howard] The Captain’s response is along the lines of I think I’m going to enjoy it a lot more now. The idea that we converse because there is a… There are competing ideas, and at the end of the conversation, those ideas will have changed in status. At a almost theological level, the religion of the sharing of information, conversation is conflict.
[Howard] Even if we agree, there is conflict here, because if there wasn’t conflict, we wouldn’t need to talk. So, as you know, Bob, is broken because there is no conflict, there’s no reason for me to tell you what you know. But, if I’m saying a thing… If I’m trying to explain a piece of worldbuilding to someone who doesn’t know it, the disagreement… The conflict there is not I am providing information that you need. The more interesting conflict is I’m providing information that you don’t believe, and you’re now going to refuse or refute. It becomes an argument. You layer that atop character conflict, atop other things, and suddenly… I will read page after page after page of that, because it can be fun.
[Victoria] I think the pointedness of exposition is important. Either the fact that in dialogue, no two people come together to have the same conversation. We each come to a conversation with an idea that we want to convey to the other. So often, what’s the interesting part of dialogue is when we miss each other in the conversation, when each of us is trying to basically have a monologue to the other one, and we have to have that collision point. I also, on the character building exposition side of it, I feel strongly that… This so often gets put into first person, but when you think about writing, regardless of whether your writing third person or first person or second person, you are writing a perspective. Every single character will notice different things. Every single character that you write is moving through their world and their environment differently. They see the world differently, they have different philosophies, and they’re going to notice different things. So often, unless you’re writing a purely omniscient world, you can tie the details of the things that we notice, of the things that we perceive that are relevant, to the attention of the character that you are writing about. So remembering that each of us has a bias, a way of moving through the world, each of the characters that you write is going to perceive different things about the world around them. Honing it into those details can help it from feeling infodumpy, can help the exposition from feeling it doesn’t serve a point.
[Howard] One of my favorite stupid tricks is the person… We have this happen all the time, all of us. Someone walks into the room late and tries to join the conversation, but they don’t know what’s been said yet. Everybody is now instantly mad. “We just covered this!” “Yeah, but I wasn’t here.” “Why do we care that you know?” “I care that I know.”
[Howard] One, there’s comedy inherent in it because we’ve all been there, we’ve all been annoyed, and we are now watching the lessening in status of the person that we would like to see drop. One of my… One of the rules of comedy. But the other thing is, it allows you now to fast-track the exposition and give them the equivalent of the as you know, Bob, in a way that has conflict just running… Just oozing off of it.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week.
[Dan] Book of the week, this week. One of my very favorite things in the entire universe is…
[Dan] When… Well, you’re related to it.
[Dan] When Writing Excuses listeners, students at our retreat, people who listen to the podcast, come to me and show me their book that they wrote and have published. Like, that is just… Makes me so happy. That happened recently. Suyi Davies Okungbowa, who is one of our scholarship winners for the 2019 cruise, has got a fantasy book published. It is called David Mogo Godhunter. He gave me a copy. It’s super, super good. It’s basically the Dresden Files if it took place in Lagos, Nigeria. About a guy who is hunting fallen gods for a wizard. It’s really good stuff. Really well written. He is presenting a very new, unique world that he does a great job of exposing that information to us. So… It applies to our episode as well.
[Brandon] Title and author, one more time?
[Dan] David Mogo Godhunter. The author is Suyi Davies Okungbowa.
[Brandon] All right. So, the other question we have for this week is about adding description. How do you add description when it doesn’t come easily? How do you find the balance between worldbuilding and exposition?
[Victoria] I am one of those people that believe you write five sentences, and then you ask yourself if one sentence will do the same amount of work. That’s not to say that you should underwrite. I think you’re totally fine to overwrite. But I usually believe that if you take a paragraph to describe anything, and then you ask yourself if every sentence in that paragraph is pulling the same amount of weight, you can usually get it down to one or two very powerful sentences. I think sometimes, especially in the fantasy tradition, we think more is more. Sometimes, more is more. But usually… I come from a poetry background. So, usually, what I think is especially in moments where we’re truly setting up world, where the exposition and the description is not actively engaged with any one thing, with conflict, with character, with anything, but we feel the need to set the scene, that in that case, less can be more, when it is done pointedly.
[Howard] I think that the tradition of writing… When I say tradition, the form, the syntax of writing for the screen and writing for comics, where at some point, you are telling the director, you are telling the cameraman, you’re telling the artist what to do. As the writer, there is a line you don’t want to cross, where you may have told them too much. Yet, there’s also this point where all you’ve given them is a white room full of people talking and they don’t have anything to work with. When I talk about writing comic scripts, often what I will focus on, and this is useful for writing other things, is colors and moods and shapes. I’ll say, “Establishing shot, longshot, super desaturated background to show distance, trees in the foreground, characters in the immediate foreground, brightly lit, whatever.” That establishes a mood, where we are close up on the characters and they are in a huge space. Well, if I were to write this in prose, obviously I wouldn’t write it that way. But I would want to talk about the tree that is nearest. I would want to mention that we can see for miles. It feels like we can see to the end of the world. Something poetic that establishes this same feeling of huge space with people in it up close. So, it may be that an exercise for description is to look at screenplays and the way they handle some of these scenes, and then look at how you would write it in prose to accomplish the mood. Rather than to say these are all of the millions of things that were in that picture.
[Victoria] So, this kind of comes back, for me, to the idea of spatial intimacy. Right? You cannot paint an entire city. Not in any way that a person can keep in their mind. But you can paint a room or a street in that city. I have this theory that there are two kinds of fantasy authors. There are… Or really any genre authors. There are authors who build you an entire house, decorate every room of that house, then give you as the reader the key to that house. You now get to explore every room. If you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist there. That’s like the Tolkein philosophy, right? Then there are authors who build the entire house, decorate the entire house, and instead of giving the reader the key, they leave one curtain open. What you can essentially see then is one room, perhaps an open doorway, a hall beyond, and you’re given just enough details to be able to infer the house beyond. I think that when you’re writing fantasy or something where you feel like there’s a lot of room for description, remembering that a few key details instead can have that iceberg philosophy, can show you and be reflective of an entire world.
[Brandon] Absolutely. I like to go back… Going back to what you said earlier and kind of tying this all together, if your worry… One of your worries is you’re doing too much conversation, a few of those very well described tight… Like… This is when one paragraph is better than 17. A really, really like curious paragraph that gives you that window, that gives you that drape, that shows you… And brings you right in there is a wonderful powerful balance to some of these dialogues.
[Brandon] We are out of time on the podcast today. I am going to give you some homework. What I want you to do is I want you to take a favorite piece of media of yours, whether it’s a book, a television show, a movie. I’m going to use Star Wars for this example because it’s pretty universal, a lot of people have seen it. I want you than to make a list of all the worldbuilding elements that are necessary to understand Star Wars. Right? To understand how that movie, how that world works, how that society works. Then, once you’ve got that done, I want you to watch the movie, read the book, the show again, and see at what pace the creators of that media put all of those things in. So you can get a sense for how somebody else is doing it, how they are using their learning curve and their description and their exposition to give that information to you. So, have fun doing that. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.