Telling vs Showing: when dialogue is telling

Once, I overheard a very angry author complaining about a critique she’d received. Apparently, the critique mentioned something about her dialogue being all telling. The author was indignant. “Everyone knows dialogue is showing and exposition is telling!”

She was right, of course. But she was also very wrong. Yes, long exposition, summarized events or dialogue, and anything that involves a long time inside your character’s head and a large amount of indirect quotations adds up to telling. And that’s not what you’re looking for. (For those who are new to this, showing is always your goal.)

But you see, many authors try to find a sneaky way to beat that. They corrupt dialogue, the little devils! If exposition is telling and dialogue is showing, then what do they do? They use dialogue for back story dumping, history lessons, descriptions of physical traits, constant reminders of the character’s name… Anything they want to cut from their long exposition, they fit into the dialogue. You end up with dialogue like this.

“Jane, you need a haircut. Your straight, black bangs are so long they’re covering your beautiful aquamarine eyes. Really, they almost reach your freckled, perfectly surgically reduced nose. Here, wear my headband. Even though I never leave the house not wearing one, you need it more than I do right now.”

“Oh, thank you, Mary. You’re such a good friend. I could always count on you from the moment we met, fifteen years ago. Remember that time John broke up with me? You moved into my house and spent the entire week with me in my bedroom, watching old movies and stroking my hair as I cried. And then when we finally went back to school, you walked up to John and told him he’d better not date anyone else in school until we graduated or he would pay. And I didn’t even know you’d done that! When I found out, three years later, I almost cried. You’re the best friend ever!”

Now, does anyone think that dialogue is showing? Come on! That’s all telling in disguise! We can notice that for a number of reasons, right? Long blocks of dialogue, no beats, long back story, too much description… But what does all that add up to? Easy. The main clue here is that no one in real life talks like that. That’s how you figure out if your dialogue is real or just telling inside quote marks.

Real dialogue, the one that moves that story along and is a major part of showing, must sound natural. When you’re talking to a friend, you don’t say her name all the time. You don’t describe her physical traits in detail. And you definitely don’t describe memories in detail. Why? Because she already knows all that! Unless your friend suffers from memory loss, she knows exactly what she did, and just one sentence will trigger the memory. Dialogue may include hints to back story, but you can’t dump it all in one long paragraph and expect your reader to buy that.

Now, tell me, how would you rewrite that dialogue to make it show rather than tell? How do you write dialogue in your stories? And what questions do you have about dialogue that I can answer here on the blog? Let me know!

P.S. – Black Friday is coming and there will be a sale here! Come back on Friday!

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