re: Tricks for “Telling” in Dialogue

posted 6/30/15

Dear Editor…

I tried to explain to a writer friend that dialogue can be “telling” the reader just as much as narrative can. I gave examples of restating events that happened and laundry lists of events that characters will be doing or experiencing. Am I right? Can dialogue also tell instead of show?



Dear Anon….

Dialogue can indeed “tell.” Done occasionally, such telling can be a viable tool. Done too often, too blatantly, or in the ways you pointed out, dialogue that “tells” risks being an unnatural, unengaging info dump. A trick for informing readers via dialogue is to craft the chats so they seem to be about something other than the info being shared. In Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan books, characters often speak of complex geopolitical plot points during cat-and-mouse exchanges, with the characters threatening each other, verbally jousting, and then, sometimes, forfeiting secrets. These discussions are as much about the characters’ constantly shifting power dynamics as the info being shared. In one info-heavy exchange, Westerfeld renders “telling” dialogue palatable by wrapping it in action: a man makes a boy explain political alliances to him while they spar with sabers. The swordfighting makes the scene fun, but Westerfeld pushes the moment beyond info and action by turning the sparring into a lesson about reading enemies’ maneuverings in politics and in life. That’s “telling” well done.

Happy writing!
The Editor

P.S. For more on this topic, read Dialogue
posted by: The Editor
under: Dialogue
Comments to "re: Tricks for “Telling” in Dialogue" | Add a Comment
    1. Bill wrote (on 06/30/15 at 1:14 pm) :

      I took away a lot more than the answer to the question on showing vs. telling. What hit me was your word “craft”. As much as talent is important, the idea of practicing and mastering one’s craft is vital. Intuitively, I knew that, but I think reading this blog entry has made me think of my writing attempts in a whole new way. I needed to hear this. Thanks.

    2. The Editor wrote (on 07/01/15 at 7:14 am) :

      I love hearing how that word hit you, Bill. Must have been the right moment to hear it!