Exposition and Dialogue: How to Get the Perfect Mix

I will never forget finishing my first novel, or how quick I was to show it to all my English teachers, hoping for feedback as to whether it was good or needed some TLC — never even thinking that I might kill the project in the future (which I did, though I reminiscence fondly on it).

One of them opened the manuscript and flipped through it before telling me I seemed to have a “good mix.” Of course, I didn’t get it, so he explained it was a common mistake for young writers to either have too much exposition or dialogue; however, mine from sight didn’t appear to have that problem.

At the time, I was young, inexperienced and had no idea — or at least a very vague idea — how important balance was to achieve. Too much exposition and your audience is yawning while with too little they are left with talking heads. With the right mix, you draw your reader into a rich world filled with interesting details, emotion, and gripping action that will keep them reading from cover to cover.

So you have a finished manuscript, flip through it, pausing on random pages. What do you see? Is there a lot of white space or are there blocks of black text? If the answer is yes to either of these, you probably have a balance issue as my English teacher explained to me: You don’t want too much of either.

I hate to pick on fanfiction writers, but too often than not, they make perfect examples of imbalanced writing, especially since the majority are young writers and thus prone to make beginner errors. In most cases examining them, I notice fanfic writers use dialogue like a crutch — they expect it to carry the story. The truth is dialogue can only do so much. I remember telling a writer they needed to ground their work: fill out the setting, have characters interact with their environment, and just have their characters move. Dialogue can convey a lot of emotion, but pair it with action and you can make a scene just pop.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have writers go into too much detail. We’ve all read a book or amateur work with blocks of exposition — we’ve all skimmed or just skipped sections to get to the meat aka the good parts. It cannot be stressed loud enough to writers that we do not need to share everything with our readers and most certainly not all at once.

Combat Imbalance

So how does one correct imbalance? First, look at other people’s work. Hop on to a site like fanfiction.net and pick a random fic. Got it? Good. Open it. What is the first thing that strikes you? Is there a lot of white or is there a lot of black, or perhaps you picked a gem that has a good balance? Consider the fic, see what was done wrong (as far as exposition v. dialogue) and what was done right.

Make a list of how you would correct the imbalance; maybe pick little sections to practice rewriting (Do not post these rewrites elsewhere as that is plagiarism and just plain disrespectful — this is simply meant to be a personal writing exercise that will not be seen by anyone but yourself). Possibly tackle a few more chapters of the same fic or move onto the next. Once you get a handle on correcting imbalance, it’s time to move on to the hard part: looking at your own work.

Correcting problems in our own works is often the hardest. It is easy to tell others how they can improve their work, but when it comes to our own, we can often be short-sighted. Flip the pages and highlight pages that seem imbalanced. Take what you learned while correcting other’s works and implement it into your manuscript.

Also be sure to open your favorite books and see what your favorite authors have done to create balance between exposition and dialogue in their work… or possibly failed to create in some sections.

Keys To Balance

While going about correcting imbalances, consider these nuggets:

  • Intertwine action and dialogue to create emotion or interaction between a character and their environment or with other characters. This grounds a character and also allows a writer to convey little nuggets of detail without the dreaded information drop.
  • If you catch yourself describing a room all in one paragraph, stop yourself. Consider other ways that you can convey the information over the course of an entire scene.
  • Be creative and try things that you might not normally in a imbalanced scene. Consider creating numerous versions of a scene, trying different angles.
  • Tackle imbalances by scenes to make it a more manageable workload — plus less daunting.
  • Include action with bits of exposition to break it up and to keep the reader invested in a paragraph and/or your story.
  • Consider finding readers/fellow writers read your manuscript or just problem areas to see if they might be able to provide suggestions on how to correct any imbalances present.

Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

2 thoughts on “Exposition and Dialogue: How to Get the Perfect Mix

  1. Great post! I agree with your points. Perhaps this is why I can’t stand reading fanfiction. lol.

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