Latest News

Avoiding the Council of Elrond: Combining Exposition and Dialogue Without Boring the Hell Out of Everyone

Sometimes, especially if you write fantasy or science fiction, you end up with a whole heap of important information that just has to GO SOMEWHERE DAMMIT. And you want to put that information in dialogue, because dialogue is just more fun, and also dialogue usually moves the story forward faster than description. And if you're writing YA, you naturally want your story to feel like it's moving forward with every sentence you write, because YA is all about movement and momentum.

That is, until you realize that the word count is stacking up and your characters have been talking for pages and pages with no end in sight, and everything is turning into that Council of Elrond scene from The Fellowship of the Ring. Not the film version. The book version. You know, the scene when all the characters sit down for a big meeting and spend approximately four hundred years discussing the history of the ring, why it needs to be destroyed, the whereabouts of Gollum, what they had for breakfast, etc. It is important information, mostly, because we learn why the ring is so dangerous and just how high the stakes are, but I don’t think anyone other than the most hardened of Tolkien fans ever actually reads all that stuff, because seriously, it goes on. And on.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you realize your exposition has overwhelmed your dialogue and your main character is on the brink of volunteering to take the One Ring to Mount Doom just to MAKE THIS GODDAMN SCENE END ALREADY HOLY CRAP, here are some questions to ask:

Is this information really necessary? Sometimes when you've built a world from scratch, it can be hard to see which details are interesting and necessary and which are, well, not. What would happen if this information was left unexplained? Would it leave your readers with a deeply lessened understanding of what your story is about and why everything happens the way it does? Or would it make no difference? Maybe it doesn't need to be explained in this stretch of dialogue, because it's something a reader can pick up on gradually from the context of everything around it without having the information laid out, or maybe it would fit even better in a different conversation. Or maybe it doesn't need to go in this dialogue because really, it doesn't need to go anywhere. After all, not every detail of your world building has to make it onto the page*. Think of the each thing you leave out as an extra layer in your world's atmosphere, a layer which makes the story and its universe richer and more real, even if you're the only one who knows about it.

Is this dialogue organic to the characters and the story? Does it make sense that these characters would be having this conversation, in this place, at this point, in this much detail? Are people explaining things to each other that should, in fact, be totally obvious to anyone who lives in their world? Are they still speaking as people, each with their own motivations, conflicts, contradictions, secrets, and emotions? Or have they turned into cardboard cutouts who exist solely with the express purpose of Explaining All The Things?

Can this information go somewhere else and/or be communicated more effectively by other means? Maybe that exposition might work better if it's not shoehorned into a conversation where it doesn't fit. The film version of Fellowship of the Ring moves a whole heap of the most important information from the Council of Elrond scene to the prologue sequence and other parts of the film, allowing the council scene to be stripped down to its most important conflicts without confusion. (Or boredom.) Sometimes it's worth experimenting with different ways of communicating the exposition too. Would it be better as straight up description? After all, 'Show, Don’t Tell' is a guideline, not a rule. In Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin says, “There's a tendency to fear descriptive “passages”, as if they were unnecessary ornaments that inevitably slow the “action”... [A] landscape and a great deal of information about people and a way of life can be the action, the onward movement of the story...”

What is truly happening here? Does it amount to more than just “people talking to each other”? Because it should. Even if there is little in the way of overt action, there should still be things going on under the surface, and a sense that your scene is building towards something. Are there tensions between the characters and forces beyond them? Tensions between the characters? Tensions within the characters? What are characters saying? What are they not saying? And what would they never dare to say, even to themselves? These things will make your dialogue compelling, and your exposition compelling with it, whether the tensions are overt and explosive, or underground and rumbling like an emotional fault line beneath your characters’ feet.

How do you make exposition and dialogue work together?

*Unless you’re really into writing Tolkien-esque appendices, I guess.
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

Posts by Leila

tumblr twitter

  • Blogger Comments
  • Facebook Comments


  1. Such good points! Especially for teens who are new to fantasy or sci-fi, the question of "Is this information really necessary" is such an important one. There's no better way to turn someone off from these genres than by convincing them that they need to read a history of this new world before delving into the novel!

  2. I once read a book which, in the middle of the entrance to a battle, pulled up in an almost visible arch away from the action to explain who the expected allies were, how they were related, (historical ties to families and all), why they were coming and how far away from the battle they were before landing in a tangled thump back with the main character who hadn't got much further into the battle despite the years of information that had just been dumped on me. I could tell the author had done her homework, but it was quite a 'ye-gads' moment.

  3. Truth be told, I love Fellowship of the Ring, including the Council of Elrond scene. And the reason that scene works--see your fourth point above--is that though there's a lot of dialogue, there are also things going on beneath the surface: conflict between Elves and Dwarves, Frodo's uncertainty about his role in events, etc. So yes, lengthy stretches of dialogue can work if the scene has internal tension arising from sources other than the words the characters are exchanging.

  4. Haha, Boromir's advice might be my new favorite version of avoiding info dump. Great post!


Comments are moderated on posts two weeks old or more -- please send us a tweet if yours needs approval!

Item Reviewed: Avoiding the Council of Elrond: Combining Exposition and Dialogue Without Boring the Hell Out of Everyone Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin