Make-Write Monday: People, Not Puppets

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Courtesy of geralt @ pixabay.com

Dialogue in fiction is hard. Dialogue in film is harder. But overall, dialogue is just plain hard. It’s hard to make your characters be informative and interesting at the same time. And it’s especially hard when you want your reader to know as much as they need to without resorting to the dreaded “information dump” prologue.

How can writers create a healthy medium between informative and interesting? How do we get “meh” dialogue and take it to great?

Well, first we need to understand what expository dialogue is.

What is Expository Dialogue?

Expository dialogue is a bit of a paradox. All dialogue is expository in some fashion, in that it should reveal information and move the plot forward somehow. Whether revealing character motivation, setting details, or past events, dialogue should be working hard to tell the story you want to tell.

However, when dialogue gets labeled “expository” in a critique setting, or maybe in a comment from an editor or beta-reader, it takes on a negative connotation.  The label “expository” implies that the dialogue reveals exposition to the narrative’s detriment. In essence, it is when dialogue is so front-loaded with exposition and information that it makes the narrative sag and taxes the reader’s attention span.

Here’s a passage from the first chapter of Architects of Destiny by Amy DuBoff that shows both good and bad examples of dialogue:

I must leave tonight. I can’t stay here any longer— Cris Sietinen ducked to avoid the electronic rapier swinging toward his head.

“Stay focused.” His tutor jumped to the side as he stabbed at Cris’ torso.

Cris parried the blow, a challenging glint in his cobalt eyes. “You haven’t hit me yet.”

“You haven’t struck me, either.” His tutor circled him, steel-blue eyes locked on Cris. “Get inside your opponent’s head, just as Marina taught you. Movements can deceive, but what’s in the mind can’t be faked. Trust your intuition.”

Clearing his thoughts, Cris prepared for a telepathic assessment. “It’s not intuition, Sedric. Science has told us that much.”

Sedric Almar sighed. “Telepathy, clairvoyance, call it what you will. You are one of the few with the gift. Use it.” He took a swing toward Cris’ right leg. Though decades past his prime, he still possessed the same youthful vigor as the day he joined the Tararian Guard. Now a trusted Captain, he remained a formidable opponent in any close-quarter combat, gray hair or not.

With his mind cleared, Cris reached out to read the thoughts grazing the surface of Sedric’s consciousness—catching a glimpse of his next move. Before his instructor could complete his swing, Cris deflected the attack. “If it’s such a ‘gift,’ then why does everyone treat it like a curse?”

“Don’t be so dramatic.” Sedric jabbed toward the main sensor on the chest of Cris’ training jumpsuit.

As he dodged the attack, Cris brought his own blade to Sedric’s collar in one fluid motion. The sensor lights illuminated red. A kill hit.

Sedric held out his hands in defeat and nodded his approval. “Next time I won’t go easy on you.”

Cris took a step back to rest. “I can’t solely rely on telepathy to win. There must be a reason the Priesthood condemns the use of such abilities.” His covert lessons from Marina were defiant enough, flirting with the boundaries of legality.

Sedric reset his jumpsuit using the controls on the sleeve, and the sensors returned to blue. “It’s not our place to speculate about matters regarding the Priesthood. Not even yours, my lord.”

“But you have to wonder,” Cris pondered. “On Tararia and most of the colonies, there’s nothing but anti-telekinesis propaganda. Yet, an entire division of the TSS is dedicated to honing the abilities of those rare ‘gifted’ individuals, and the Priesthood does nothing.”

“The Tararian Selective Service is unique in many ways,” Sedric replied, dismissing the dispute with a shake of his head. He gripped his sword and took an offensive stance. “Now, we have a lesson to finish.”

Cris was resolute, determined to finally get an answer to the questions his teacher was always so eager to dodge. This is my last chance before I leave.

Now, let me ask you some questions:

At any point, did you feel the narrative start to sag?

Did you want to get on with the story?

Did you feel like you were being spoon-fed information a little bit near the end?

If you did, you’re feeling the effects of reading too much exposition in dialogue.  If you didn’t feel these things, it’s okay. I’m going to walk you through this passage one piece of dialogue at a time, and show you what I think is working well, and what isn’t.

Subtext: The Tip of Your Writerly Sword

When writing dialogue, or looking to revise it to bring out its maximum potential, we want to create that sweet spot between informative and interesting. And that sweet spot is achieved with subtext.

“Sub” means “beneath”. “Text” is “words.” Put them both together, and you have “subtext.”

Subtext is what exists “beneath the words” of your story. Remember the old adage “show and tell”?  Well, exposition is on the extreme end of the “tell” side. Narration of body language and well-craft dialogue is where subtext resides. It’s on the “show” end of the spectrum.

Having dialogue that reveals exposition is not always a bad thing. But when it reveals too much exposition at the expense of your reader’s attention span, it can weigh down the narrative unnecessarily. Subtext is what eases things for the reader.

Here’s the same passage but with my own markings. I’ve underlined what I think are particularly good examples of dialogue with subtext, and I’ve put in bold the parts of dialogue that I think have little to no subtext and too much exposition.

I must leave tonight. I can’t stay here any longer— Cris Sietinen ducked to avoid the electronic rapier swinging toward his head.

Stay focused.” His tutor jumped to the side as he stabbed at Cris’ torso.

Cris parried the blow, a challenging glint in his cobalt eyes. “You haven’t hit me yet.

You haven’t struck me, either.” His tutor circled him, steel-blue eyes locked on Cris. “Get inside your opponent’s head, just as Marina taught you. Movements can deceive, but what’s in the mind can’t be faked. Trust your intuition.”

Clearing his thoughts, Cris prepared for a telepathic assessment. “It’s not intuition, Sedric. Science has told us that much.

Sedric Almar sighed. “Telepathy, clairvoyance, call it what you will. You are one of the few with the gift. Use it.” He took a swing toward Cris’ right leg. Though decades past his prime, he still possessed the same youthful vigor as the day he joined the Tararian Guard. Now a trusted Captain, he remained a formidable opponent in any close-quarter combat, gray hair or not.

With his mind cleared, Cris reached out to read the thoughts grazing the surface of Sedric’s consciousness—catching a glimpse of his next move. Before his instructor could complete his swing, Cris deflected the attack. “If it’s such a ‘gift,’ then why does everyone treat it like a curse?

Don’t be so dramatic.” Sedric jabbed toward the main sensor on the chest of Cris’ training jumpsuit.

As he dodged the attack, Cris brought his own blade to Sedric’s collar in one fluid motion. The sensor lights illuminated red. A kill hit.

Sedric held out his hands in defeat and nodded his approval. “Next time I won’t go easy on you.”

Cris took a step back to rest. “I can’t solely rely on telepathy to win. There must be a reason the Priesthood condemns the use of such abilities.” His covert lessons from Marina were defiant enough, flirting with the boundaries of legality.

Sedric reset his jumpsuit using the controls on the sleeve, and the sensors returned to blue. “It’s not our place to speculate about matters regarding the Priesthood. Not even yours, my lord.

But you have to wonder,” Cris pondered. “On Tararia and most of the colonies, there’s nothing but anti-telekinesis propaganda. Yet, an entire division of the TSS is dedicated to honing the abilities of those rare ‘gifted’ individuals, and the Priesthood does nothing.

“The Tararian Selective Service is unique in many ways,” Sedric replied, dismissing the dispute with a shake of his head. He gripped his sword and took an offensive stance. “Now, we have a lesson to finish.”

Cris was resolute, determined to finally get an answer to the questions his teacher was always so eager to dodge. This is my last chance before I leave.

The Good

“Stay focused.” – When Sedric Almar, Cris Sietinen’s fencing instructor, snaps Cris out of his thoughts and tells him to “stay focused,” his dialogue is short, dynamic, and in the imperative command form. This, to me, signals that he’s a character that takes his job as Cris’s tutor very seriously. And that’s the wonderful thing about subtext: The narration could have easily said “Sedric Almar wanted Cris Sietinen to stay focused,” but it doesn’t do that. Instead, I can glean all of that information in just two words, and without even knowing the character’s name. This is the power of subtext.

You haven’t hit me yet. / You haven’t struck me, either.” – Cris Sietinen, the protagonist, acknowledges his opponent’s strength, but he’s cocky. He’s a fighter and challenger, and while he acknowledges his initial blunder when he’s lost focus, he’s still ready to fight. Cool and calm under pressure, Sedric responds with an equally-long, 5-word reply, challenging Cris again. I know that these two are equals, thanks to subtext.

“Get inside your opponent’s head, just as Marina taught you. / It’s not intuition, Sedric. Science has told us that much. / Telepathy, clairvoyance, call it what you will. You are one of the few with the gift. Use it.” – Again, Sedric is using the imperative, urging Cris to “get inside [ his] opponent’s head,” which puts Sedric squarely in the role of teacher and friend. But now, I have something else that pulling me into the narrative: the question of who Marina is and what she has to do with Cris’s telepathic abilities. I don’t know the extent of Cris’s powers yet, but because of subtext and how rare an ability telepathy is, according to Sedric, I know that they will be important later in the story. And I’m also interested in Marina because of her additional role as an instructor/character I haven’t met yet.

“If it’s such a ‘gift,’ then why does everyone treat it like a curse? / Don’t be so dramatic.” – Here, we get the first hints of Cris’s dissatisfaction with what’s going on in his life. By asking why everyone treats his abilities like a curse, he is, in effect, saying through subtext that he feels like he’s being mistreated or ostracized. Sedric, as his teacher and equal companion, picks up on those sub-textual feelings, and tells him to stop being so “dramatic,” thereby disregarding Cris’s feelings. The first two sentences of the chapter are Cris’s thoughts of wanting to leave. Now, thanks to this dialogue, we might not know the exact reason why he wants to leave, but we have a pretty good idea what it relates to, which keeps us reading.

The Not-So Good

I can’t solely rely on telepathy to win. There must be a reason the Priesthood condemns the use of such abilities.  – Here, we have our first example of where the dialogue starts to break away from that subtext sweet spot. Cris’s declaration of not wanting to win using telepathy is informative and interesting, because it reveals his personal values. It not only tells me he wants to win fights fair and square; he is also aware of the broader implications of using his powers all the time.

But what catches me off guard while reading is how he mentions that there “must be a reason the Priesthood condemns the use” of telepathy. The sentence itself shows Cris pondering aloud, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It tells me about the world in which Cris lives. But instead of making me question what the Priesthood is in the same manner I’m questioning who Marina is naturally, I’m forced to wonder about them. When Sedric drops Marina’s name, I can infer that Sedric mentions Marina because he wants Cris to focus more and us his telepathy. I know what Sedric wants, whereas I don’t know what Cris wants when he mentions the Preisthood. I’m told in a thinly-veiled way that the Priesthood is an antagonistic force that I should watch out for.

“It’s not our place to speculate about matters regarding the Priesthood. Not even yours, my lord. / But you have to wonder. …On Tararia and most of the colonies, there’s nothing but anti-telekinesis propaganda. Yet, an entire division of the TSS is dedicated to honing the abilities of those rare ‘gifted’ individuals, and the Priesthood does nothing.” – Sedric’s dismissal of Cris’s inquiry solidifies Sedric as a character for me. His formal language and address of Cris shows me that the Priesthood is not a force to be reckoned with. Yet while Cris’s response to him shows Cris’s desire to understand telepathy’s implications, he tells Sedric that he “has to wonder” why there’s “nothing but anti-telekinesis propaganda,” why “the Priesthood does nothing” when people with telepathic abilities become part of the “TSS.”

Cris’s dialogue is literally forcing me and Sedric to wonder about a potential antagonistic force in the story, which again, is not necessarily a bad thing. As the reader, I should know about this information; it’s clearly important enough for Cris to worry about. The narration even says so, claiming that he’s “resolute, determined to finally get an answer to the questions his teacher was always so eager to dodge.”

But the dialogue doesn’t feel natural anymore. Instead, it feels like I’m being spoon-fed information this information rather than learning about it through Cris’s point of view. Instead of being shown his curiosity, I’m being told about it. And even as I’m told about, I’m not convinced.

Which brings me back to subtext and the principle that I like to call “People, Not Puppets”.

People, Not Puppets

Unless you’re writing some unconventional meta-fiction where the characters are aware of what you as the writer are doing, like in the movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” you, as the writer, have to remember that your characters believe that they are living, breathing people, not puppets that play out your story.

 

So, again, here’s the last little bit of that passage, but with my rewrites (in bold with strike-outs for deletions) to add a bit more subtext and decrease the force of the exposition.

Sedric held out his hands in defeat and nodded his approval. “Next time I won’t go easy on you.”

Cris took a step back to rest. “I can’t solely rely on telepathy to win — not if the Priesthood has anything to say about it. Who knows long it will be before they find out I’ve had lessons with Marina — illegally, for that matter?His covert lessons from Marina were defiant enough, flirting with the boundaries of legality.

Sedric reset his jumpsuit using the controls on the sleeve, and the sensors returned to blue. “It’s not our place to speculate about matters regarding the Priesthood. Not even yours, my lord.”

“But surely you find it strange, Sedric,” Cris pondered. “Surely, you find it odd how on Tararia and most of the colonies, there’s nothing but anti-telekinesis propaganda. Yet, an entire division of the TSS is dedicated to honing the abilities of those rare ‘gifted’ individuals, and the Priesthood does nothing. What gives the Priesthood the right to give the TSS special treatment, but not give it to everyone else?

Characters should not reveal information solely for the sake of informing the reader. If important information must be revealed in a direct manner, using narration or allowing access to the character’s thoughts will do just fine.

But when trying to reveal information via dialogue, especially on the first chapter and between characters who seem to know each other very well, the dialogue has to be a two-way street both within the story and outside of it.

“I can’t solely rely on telepathy to win — not if the Priesthood has anything to say about it. Who knows long it will be before they find out I’ve had lessons with Marina — illegally, for that matter?” – Instead of revealing through narration that Marina had been teaching Cris illegally, I decided to put the information in the dialogue and rephrase the dialogue to accomplish three things: (1) ask questions about the Priesthood and the Priesthood’s authority; (2) create tension and stakes between the Priesthood, Cris, and Marina; and (3) display Cris’s desire to speculate about the Priesthood when Sedric does not want him to speculate about it. In essence, the focus surrounding the Priesthood does not become the reason that they would condemn telepathy users, but rather makes the focus the Priesthood as a mysterious entity that lures in the reader’s curiosity.

But surely you find it strange, Sedric. … What gives the Priesthood the right to give the TSS special treatment, but not give it to everyone else? – For this part of Cris’s dialogue, I chose to have Cris refer to Sedric by name to make their interaction more informal and personal. The fact that Sedric can call Cris “dramatic,” to me, and the fact that Cris sees Sedric as a valuable source of information, signaled to me that they were relatively close. Rather than saying “you have to wonder,” I directed the question directly at Sedric, and also had Cris speak his curiosities aloud. This way, he is displaying his curiosity as well as arguing the strangeness of the Priesthood’s behavior to Sedric. And because Cris is himself is now invested in the Priesthood in the time of this conversation, the reader is invested in the Priesthood.

No curiosity in the character, no curiosity in the reader.

People, not puppets.

Alright, Time to Chill…

If you’ve made it this far, I thank you. This was quite the long post. Longer than usual.

I know that for some of you, I’ll sound like a nitpicker. And that’s okay. I admit that I am. I acknowledge that my rewrites are stylistic and personal changes that reflect my taste/preferences as a writer, and that some of you out there would do things differently.

But I also hope that my rewrites, and this post in general, has been helpful in illustrating one way to get your stories to go from good to great and to help you avoid dialogue pitfalls in the future. If you thought it was helpful, please consider buying me a cup of coffee so I can write even more helpful posts like this one.

If not and I’m completely off my rocker, let me know. I’m happy to talk.

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