In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,
Characters should and do deliver information to one another, but it needs to sound like human speech, be in character, and work in the context of the plot. If you don’t know where to stick backstory, avoid the temptation of putting it in dialogue.
One of the ways your writing will be rejected immediately by agents and editors is if the dialogue doesn’t sound true and authentic.
I remember a literary agent saying on Twitter once that after he requests a manuscript, he doesn’t necessarily read the first five pages or the first chapter. He doesn’t start with sentence one. Instead, he goes straight to a scene of heavy dialogue and reads that. If the dialogue sounds awkward, if it doesn’t sound realistic, he passes.
I thought that was an interesting revelation. I always just assume literary agents read your manuscript from the beginning, but some might actually jump to a scene later in the novel, possibly even chapters later, just to get a feel for the writer’s voice, and a feel for the way that writer employs dialogue in the story.
Dialogue is absolutely one of the trickiest elements of fiction writing. Some who aren’t great at it will go long stretches without any dialogue. Some who do have a good way with dialogue with have long scenes of almost nothing but dialogue.
The challenge, as always, is to try to blend dialogue with action and description as best you can. To have a mix of everything and not have too much of any one element.
Another challenge? To avoid exposition whenever possible in your dialogue.
I read once that dialogue should do at least one of two things, if not both: further the storyline and reveal something about one or more of the characters.
I think about that every time I begin writing the first draft of a new scene of dialogue in my short stories and novels. What’s the reader going to discover about the story and/or the characters by the end of the scene? Why does this scene have to be here?
Sometimes when I’m zipping along I don’t ask myself the hard questions and I ultimately have to edit down or complete cut the scene later in further drafts.
Especially with your longer scenes of dialogue, you have to be ruthless in your editing. Look at every single line of dialogue and ask yourself if it needs to be there. There are matters of pacing, sure, but is that line of dialogue doing anything for the story or the characters?
Dialogue is so tricky, and sometimes when you get in the middle of a scene of dialogue you might find yourself wanting to give information to the reader. Exposition that might not be clear in the novel yet. And sometimes you’ll feel compelled to stick that exposition right there in the middle of the dialogue.
Here’s an example of exposition in dialogue and why it’s ill-advised…
“Hi, Jimmy,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s been five years today since your brother died.”
“Thanks, Michelle,” he responded. “I know, can you believe it’s been that long? And for it to happen so close to Christmas, too.”
“Hadn’t you just picked up a Christmas tree? Like, just minutes before he got in that car wreck?”
“That’s right.” Jimmy scratched the nape of his neck. “ I can’t believe you remember that! So many things were different then. My brother was still alive, my parents were still together. Christmas will never be the same.”
“Well, Christmas is next week. Are you going to be all right?”
“Now that my dad’s in jail and can’t come near my mom again, it should be. How about you? Is your grandmother Caroline still coming home for the holidays?”
“I don’t know,” she said, rolling her eyes. “The truth is Grandma can be a bit much sometimes. I wanted to be a writer until she told me art was a worthless pursuit. Maybe I should take her advice and just go into business next year at UCLA instead.”
OK, that’s it, I’m getting a headache. You see how you’re learning things about the two characters but it’s done in such an awkward and forced way that you almost want to burst out laughing?
You want to laugh because nobody in the world talks like this. Nobody talks in that kind of ridiculous exposition. Yes, you’re giving readers elements of backstory, but this is just not the way to do it.
Find other ways to include exposition. Leave it out of dialogue, and you’ll have more success!
There are so many reasons agents and editors will say no to your work, and one of the big ones is if your dialogue doesn’t ring true.
You might be able to get away with a single line of exposition here and there in your dialogue if you truly believe it’s something the character would say, but even then, you’ll want to ask yourself if there’s any other way to express that information to your reader.
My newest novel actually does have a main character whose older brother died in a freak accident five years prior. But I guarantee you that backstory doesn’t come through in awkward dialogue. It comes through in his thoughts, in occasional moments where he reflects. In behavior from him and his parents, and rarely through dialogue.
Exposition is necessary in your fiction writing. You’re going to have to include it somewhere. The trick is to artfully blend it into your prose in a way that feels realistic and compelling, not awkward and stiff.
Find a way to write dynamic dialogue that avoids exposition and instead moves your story along and reveals information about your characters, and you’ll be well on your way!