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.

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The Three Stooges of Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

healthywealthyNo, that’s not a typo. I’m not talking about the three “stages” of writing. I’m talking about the Moe, Larry and Curly inside your head.

You know what I mean. You’re writing along, and then, all of a sudden, slap … poke … bam … woob woob woob! You’ve got a whole lot of Stooge noise going on.

So I thought it best to isolate these boys and deal with them once and for all, lest our writing time become a comedy of errors.

Moe is Perfectionism

Ah, Moe. He thinks he’s the boss. And he backs it up with violence. The two-finger eye poke, the basic slap, and any tool he can lay his hands on. And he’s always angry about something.

So you may be writing or editing, and suddenly you’re smacked with, That’s no good. And neither am I! Who am I kidding, trying to be a writer? 

Or you’ve finished a novel, you’ve done the very best you can, and the next step is submission. But then you get your eyes poked by your inner Moe. You knucklehead! This isn’t nearly good enough! Submit it, and you’ll get turned down and never get another shot! 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of constructive questioning. But that’s far from the ham-fisted Moe! You’ve got to stop that Stooge in his tracks How? I suggest you do it physically (that, after all, is the Stooge style). Slap your cheek (gently!) and say, Stop it! All you can do is all you can do. And all you can do is enough!

Don’t laugh. This is a little trick that actually works. You can interrupt destructive thoughts with a physical move, then replace the thought with a better one, or with some positive action. When I was just starting out I’d sometimes get a Moe in my head, and he was vicious. So one day I slapped myself and, out loud, quoted Cher from Moonstruck: “Snap out of it!”

And then immediately went back to my writing.

Do this and at the very least you’ll be getting more words down on the page. That’s a lot better than letting Moe rule your roost.

Larry is Befuddlement

Poor Larry. He smarter than Curly but dumber than Moe, and is always caught somewhere in the middle. He spends most of his time confused. He can’t do a thing with his hair. When Moe slaps him, he usually has no idea why.

Ever feel like Larry about the publishing business? Should I go for an agent? How do I query an agent? How many agents can I query at once? Should I self-publish? How do I do that and get discovered? Will it hurt my chances of getting a traditional contract someday?

And then one day you’re slapped, and you don’t know why. Why didn’t they like my novel? Why didn’t it meet their needs? Is that just a phrase or does it mean I stink?

Your inner Larry needs get some education. Make a list of the areas you’re confused about. Write them down. Define them. And then you can make a plan to study each area.

Because I was once told I couldn’t learn to write fiction, and then went out and learned, I strongly believe that anything you need to learn to move forward in your career you can learn. The information is out there.

You don’t have to live with Larry in your head.

Curly is Emotion

We love Curly. Maybe that’s because he’s the Stooge who is most like us. He does things out of raw emotion and frequently ends up getting hurt. We’ve all been there.

But remember, Curly is resilient. My favorite Stooge moment is always when Moe clobbers Curly with some nasty weapon, like a pickax. Curly hollers, “OH OH OH OH!” then he quietly goes, “Look.” And the weapon itself is in worse shape than his head. That pickax is folded up like an accordion.

This writing life will hit you over the head. Rejections, bad reviews, unfair reviews, reviews with spoilers … lots of frustration! Sometimes you just want to lie on the ground and run around in a circle, Curly-style.

So realize this: it’s okay to let out an Oh! Oh! Oh! when you get hit.

And when something good happens, to shout out a full-throated Nyuck! Nyuck! Nyuck!

But never stay there. Let something hurt for half an hour, and rejoice over good news for a day.

But then get back to your keyboard!

If you do that, I guarantee you won’t get a pie in the face. You will get better as a writer.

What about you? Is there a Stooge who overstays his welcome in your writer’s mind? What do you do with him?

How Make Living Writer-printed version***

And if you need further Stooge alleviation, please see my book The Mental Game of Writing

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