First in what I hope to be a ongoing series on the technical aspects of writing fiction, particularly genre fiction, and even more particularly, SF/Fantasy fiction.
A challenge to all writers, and SF/Fantasy writers in particular, is the troublesome need to get across all the important background details that the reader needs to make sense of a given fictional world. It can be the past history of the world and/or individual characters. It can be details of feast days or religious festivals. It can be how a starship drive works. Whatever it is, the reader has to know it to fully understand the story. . .
There are many tools in the exposition toolbox, and one of the oldest and most misused is dialog. Beginning writers are advised to avoid the dreaded “Maid/Butler Dialog,” which can be defined simply as having characters tell each other things solely for the reader’s benefit. (Named for the cliché in which the servants gossip about the Lord and Lady of the manor for the purpose of informing the observer of the Lord’s recent service in the army and the Lady’s inappropriate attentions to the gardener.) There’s nothing that can be more destructive to suspension of disbelief then having characters tell each other things they already should know.
However, pitfalls aside, dialog is still one of the major tools in the toolbox. After all, if it wasn’t for dialog (and monologue) there’d be no exposition (or much else) in Shakespeare.
So what do you need to do if you’re interested in expository dialog? Just follow the three cardinal rules:
- The characters need to have their own reasons to say what they say.
- The characters need to speak in their own words, not the author’s.
- The characters need to speak to other characters, not the reader.