The Curse of Expository Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There are times when I need ten minutes of The Three Stooges. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve spent a long day writing some tough pages. Or you were bottled up in your cubicle at work, untangling your boss’s mess. Or maybe you were caught up in the latest news cycle, and you find yourself neck deep in the blues.

That’s what the Stooges are for. You don’t have to think. In fact thinking is precisely the wrong thing to do when watching the boys.

Now, I know the Stooges are not everyone’s comedic cup o’ noodles. Moe is often hard to take. Anything could set him off and get you a slap in the face or, worse, two fingers in the eyes. I had my run-ins with bullies as a kid, so Moe always made me uncomfortable (in real life, Moe Howard was a delightful man—who I met—and a great storyteller about the film business and the history of the Stooges).

But there is always Curly to save the day by giving us a nice, hearty belly laugh. (When Curly suffered a stroke in 1947, he was replaced by his and Moe’s real brother, Shemp. Most of my kid contemporaries didn’t like Shemp, but I did. While no one could ever replace Curly, Shemp is funny in his own way.)

Anyway, the other day I was in need of a respite from brain work and went to a Stooges short I’d recorded on the telly. It was We Want Our Mummy (1939). As you might guess, it’s about the boys, playing detectives, going to Egypt to try and find a mummy on behalf of a museum.

Well, the opening made me laugh, but for another reason. It was a full-on example of expository dialogue. Of course, these were short comedies that were produced like pancakes, and had absolutely no pretensions about being anything else. Still, it provides me with an illustration for teaching purposes.

The short begins in a museum of ancient history. Two professors in stuffy garb speak to each other in the Egyptian Room.

Prof 1: Bad news. The police aren’t able to find any trace of Professor Tuttle. His disappearance has them completely baffled.

Prof. 2: That ruins our hopes of ever finding the tomb of King Rutentuten. Professor Tuttle is the only man alive who knows its exact location.

Prof 1: First Professor Dalton dies mysteriously, and then Tuttle disappears. Something terrible happens to anyone who tries to explore that tomb. I’m telling you, it is the curse of Rutentuten!

Prof 2: But unless we secure the mummy of King Rutentuten, our entire collection is worthless. We must find Tuttle!

Prof 1: Well, I’m doing the best I can. I sent for the three best investigators in the city. And they are our last hope!

Okay, King Rutentuten is funny. But the dialogue, as you can see, is there merely as set-up material. It’s blatantly obvious, and I’m sure the writers, Elwood Ullman and Searle Kramer, snorted as they wrote the lines.

But in our fiction, such dialogue is a drag. It always sounds phony, which turns the reader against you. They are investing their time (and perhaps some discretionary income) on your book. You want them into the story, not catching you in a cheat.

The primary way to avoid this is: Do not have characters reveal information that both characters already know. Here’s a ham-fisted example of what I mean:

“Sally! I didn’t expect to find you here at Central Market.”

“I often come here at lunchtime, Molly. Doing research for the senior partners at Dewey, Cheatham & Howe really creates an appetite.”

“Does your husband know his petite, thirty-year old wife enjoys greasy hamburgers?”

“Bill? What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Being a cop on the street, he has enough to worry about.”

Ouch. Most of the time you’ll find such dialogue on the opening pages of beginner’s manuscripts. They think they have to get a bunch of exposition out there so the reader will understand what’s going on. Not so. Act first, explain later.

On the other hand, dialogue can be used to reveal information when the info is hidden within a tense exchange.

Let’s say the key bit you want to reveal is that Sally is married to a cop. The scene might go this way:

“Sally! What are you doing here?”

“What does it look like?”

“I’m just surprised. A hamburger?”

“So?”

“You’re usually so careful.”

“What do you want?”

“Are you meeting Bill?

“No.”

“Is he on duty?”

“Is that your business?”

“Got to be hard.”

“What?”

“Being a cop’s wife. Nervous time. I can understand—”

“Thanks for your concern. Can I finish my meal in peace now?”

So relax about exposition, and get your characters into more arguments. Readability will go up, and reader trust in you as an author will not be compromised. And you will be able to sit back and utter a satisfying nyuck nyuck nyuck. (Further dialogue techniques may be found here.)

For giggles, you can watch the opening dialogue below…and the rest of the short if you so desire. Excelsior!

We Want Our Mummy (1939) from Patrick J Mele on Vimeo.

8+

22 thoughts on “The Curse of Expository Dialogue

  1. Good points. “As You Know Bob”, and “Maid-Butler” speeches are definitely things to avoid. What about when one character knows something, and the reader knows it, too, but then Character 1 needs to relate said information to Character 2? Gets a little trickier, doesn’t it.
    And, if it’s not too big of a digression, what about exposition in narrative? I’ve been reading Michael Connelly, and there’s a lot of “telling” but he does it masterfully (at least I think so), so that it seems natural for the characters to be thinking those narrative thoughts.
    I recall one of the Muppet movies where Diana Rigg (I think), after relaying a bunch of information, turned to the audience and said something to the effect of, “Narrative exposition. Someone has to do it.”

    • Yes on Connelly, Terry. That’s the key: it’s what the character would think AND what he would notice, given his situation and emotion in that moment.

      Muppet quotes are always welcome.

  2. Thanks for the reminder. I was watching an old episode of Nash Bridges Friday night. Toward the end, as 2 detectives are about to burst into a home, they explained the why and who while still on the house porch. And I thought about this very topic. Surely, since they clearly rode to the house together, they both already knew this so it was clearly to explain it to the viewer. It was awful dialogue. Hopefully my readers will never cringe at my dialogue.

    • Yes, I see that all the time, Douglas. The characters have spent a lot of time together (e.g., driving to a location) and only when they sit down at the diner do they mention the elephant in the room, when you know darn well that would have been the first thing said.

  3. “Thanks, JSB!”
    “For what?”
    “You know.”
    “No, I don’t. Could you be more specific?”
    “The advice.”
    “Advice on what?”
    “The Three Stooges. You know.”
    “I love the Three Stooges.”
    “I know. That’s why I’m thanking you.”
    “Can we start over? I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
    “Go back and read this dialogue. You’ll get it.”

    🙂

  4. Nicely put, Sir… appropriate for a short, maybe, but a real “really?!?” for a reader (and I was raised on the gospels according to Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp, along with the epistles of Alfred E. Neuman and hymns of Tom Lehrer and Alan Sherman – which probably tells you all – or even more than – you need to know).

  5. Thanks for a great post, and a good reminder. Thanks, also, for the link to your book. Whenever new writers ask me about my journey into writing, I always refer them to your books – Plot and Structure, Super Structure, Write Your Novel from the Middle, then all the others – as well as this blog.

    And…hoping for one on public speaking for writers, in the future.

  6. Expository dialog is definitely a curse, and one I strive to avoid in the first place, but if not, there’s always edits 🙂

    The Stooges on the other hand are a blessing. I’m not surprised you are also a fan. As they used to say on Mystery Science Theater 3000, the right people will get it, My wife is also a Stooges fan, and one of my favorite former bosses at my library job, a very well-educationed, worldly and well-spoken lady, was a huge fan, too. There’s something very elemental about their by-play and the action-reactions between them. Priceless 😀

    • Dale, Moe and Larry spoke at my high school, and I got to be one of the hosts. Larry’d had a stroke and was in a wheelchair, but was a trooper as he and Moe did some old vaudeville schtick.

      “I’m from Texas. They call me Tex. Where are you from?”
      “Louisiana.”
      “Hi, Louise.”

  7. “As you know, your father, the king …”

    I’m grateful that I’m writing novels and not plays (or screenplays). I’ve recently decided to go the whole hog and use “First Person Snark” as my go-to viewpoint, with the narrator explicitly aware that she’s telling her story from a point shortly after the end. She fills in backstory, and uses convenient hindsight as necessary.

    I also like “Third-Person Omnisicient With Attitude” as done by the late Terry Pratchett.

    But of course I’m in total agreement with your main point. Fiction is about conflict, and an expository conversational lump doesn’t have any unless one of the character is trying to gnaw his own leg off and escape.

  8. One problem I see with newer writers is that they think they must spell absolutely everything out or the reader won’t get it. They must learn that part of the fun of reading is picking up the brief clues given by the writer and figuring it out for themselves.

    • Marilyn, I’m learning what great fun that slow discovery is … since I discovered Charles Martin. Reading Long Way Gone right now. What a delicious story!

      I’d like to be like him when I grow up…

  9. Love the Three Stooges!

    Curly: “Got an uncle in Cairo. He’s a chiropractor. Nyuk Nyuk”

    Great stuff!

  10. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 02-06-2020 | The Author Chronicles

Comments are closed.