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On Dialogue, Part Two: Exposition and Subtext

Last time we examined the three components of good dialogue, which is incredibly difficult to do no matter your medium. We all speak/ write with our own sort of style, so it's rather difficult to differentiate our characters so they don't all sound exactly like us, which is one of the major complaints I see from readers in the coverage company I work for. The next two reader complaints I see the most are about unnatural Exposition and not enough Subtext.

Exposition is simply getting pertinent information across to the audience, and can be done in many different ways, from a narrator’s voice over, to the opening text crawl, to just straight-up spelling it all out on the page in what's commonly called an infodump. There are dozens of other visual ways to get info across in movies, but for this article we’re just going to focus on exposition that occurs in dialogue.

In a lot of ways, exposition is like a steak in that, if cooked right, it’s delicious and a part of a well-balanced meal. But too much of it, or if it’s poorly cooked, and you get the gout. Using exposition in small doses to reveal backstory, or to get across your core conceit, is fine. I mean, how would Star Wars function as a film if Obi Wan didn’t sit Luke down and explain the ways of the Force or how Vader killed Luke’s father? Can you imagine Back to the Future without Doc and his 1.21 gigawatts?

Which just goes to show how useful an ignorant character can be when it comes to organically getting exposition across through dialogue. This is frequently used with medical, scientific or teacher characters spelling out all the pertinent information the audience needs to know about the situation by flat-out explaining it to the ignorant characters.

Probably the best example of a knowledgeable character delivering acceptable exposition to an ignorant character would be Hermione in Harry Potter. This verbal tic was built into her character from the get-go as a know-it-all, as well as Harry’s character in that he’s utterly ignorant to the ways of magic. So she functions as a little exposition bot, able to spoon-feed Harry, and the audience by proxy, pertinent information when convenient while staying true to both her character and his. Sure, it got right up on the edge of acceptability after a while, which is why that scene in Deathly Hallows where Ron gets to explain stuff to the two of them was so great. Because the writers were aware of Hermione’s function the whole time and decided to play with it.

But the most egregiously bad use of exposition in dialogue is when a character says something to another character that both should already be aware of. Something akin to, “Father died three years ago today, Brother.”

That sentence is trying to do a lot there, and is getting a hernia for all its efforts: 1) the two characters are brothers, 2) their father has been dead three years, 3) they’re estranged because otherwise the brother would know this was the anniversary of their father’s death.

The problem is, both characters should already know all this info, which means it’s being spoon-fed to the audience rather than the author (me) coming up with a better, more organic, non-verbal way to get all this info across. In screenwriting we get to rely on visual clues, and the best example of purely non-verbal exposition is the scene in Grosse Pointe Blank where he angrily walks up to his father’s grave, empties a bottle of whiskey upon it, then walks away. Again we’re getting all that pertinent info about his father’s death and their relationship, but no one had to say a word.

Subtext is basically saying something without overtly saying something, and it gives screenwriters fits trying to do effectively. I’m too lazy to look it up, but I think it’s McKee who points out in Story that the lyrics of What a Wonderful World spell out subtext the best with “I see friends shaking hand, saying how do you do/ They’re really saying, I love you.”

This is subtext because there’s nothing more boring than actually hearing a character overtly state “I love you.” So instead, they exchange mundane pleasantries, though the audience is aware of what’s really going on underneath their words and gestures.

Which also goes to show that exchanging greetings can work for dialogue, so long as it means something else. Archer is a master of this with his constant, “Hello, Mother.”

But the best example of subtext is probably from my new favorite show Schitts Creek.

Now that scene could have been so boring/ informative/ preachy as she asks and then he explains his views on human sexuality. Instead, neither character overtly stated their thoughts; yet both question and answer were emphatically given while staying true to the characters’ personalities.

And, you know, again, hilarious. Which never hurts.

But the worst example of lack of subtext comes from my least favorite phrase in anything, “What do you want?” My wife can attest how I audibly groan each time I hear it (along with calling someone "freak" as an insult), which means I groan a lot because it shows up EVERYWHERE! And the reason this is my personal peeve on a long list of pet-peeves is that if a scene is written effectively no character should ever have to ask that and spell it out for the audience.

Because the audience should already be damn well aware of what each character wants!

So stop right now and go do a search through whatever you’ve currently written for the phrase “what do you want?” Did you find it? Well, that’s not good, and you should see if there’s a better way with more subtext to get that info across. Then go through anything within a quotation mark and see if it could be construed as unnecessarily expository. Sure, this will make your writing more difficult, but it will also make you a better writer. Because good writers never take the easy way out, and audiences will appreciate the effort, even if they don’t overtly notice it.

Because the best writing is that which does not get in the way of the audience’s experience, letting them remain immersed in the story from start to finish.


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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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