Information dumps happen to the best of us. Hell, sometimes they’re even useful, and warranted. Take your typical TV procedural. The network shows demand a certain format, with each act separated by commercials. To refresh the viewer, you’ll often find the cops giving a quick review of events up to this point, e.g.,
“We can’t find the rapist and we’ve combed all of Central Park. 1PP is all over this, and we’ve only got the spotty ID from that wacky birdwatcher.”
You get the picture. For the sake of immediacy, the writers recap the information you may have missed if you’ve just tuned in, or forgotten, because of the commercial break. It’s clunky, but useful in cases like this.
But that’s rarely the case.
Inexperienced writers will lean on information dumps, often slipping it inelegantly into either a dialogue or monologue. A novice writer I was coaching had a nasty habit of having characters introduce themselves, while giving their entire family history:
I’m Cathy, your bartender. And you guessed it, I’m John and Susie’s daughter, and soon to be married to Bill, your driver. My mother’s folks grew up in this little town, and my father was on a missionary trip. It was love at first sight…etc.
These aren’t the actual words, but I wish I could say I was exaggerating. I’m not. The author actually went on like this for two paragraphs. The writing is DOA, and you begin to feel sorry for the poor sot who just wanted a beer.
And don’t be fooled, some highly regarded writers also fall victims of this story-telling crutch. Take this snippet from Christopher Nolan’s big hit, Interstellar. The earth has become uninhabitable in the future, and a farmer and ex-NASA pilot, Joseph Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) argues with a high school principal who believes the lunar landing was faked, just to bankrupt the soviets. The “useless machines” were endemic of the wasteful 20th century. Cooper has a few choice words to counter this cockamamie talk:
One of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI. If we had any of them left the doctors might have been able to find the cyst in my wife's brain before she died, rather than afterwards. And then my kids could have been raised by two parents, instead of me and their pain-in-the-ass grandfather.
I won’t argue the film’s other obvious merits, but I point to this because it’s lazy, and any quick rewrite could sharpen the dialogue. Clearly, Nolan wants us to know that science could have saved his wife, the audience should have sympathy for the poor single father, and he has a tough time raising the kids with his cranky old father. An argument could be made that Nolan has a much bigger story to tell, and he was just dispensing with information so he could get onto what really interested him.
Exposition as ammunition
When used purposefully, exposition in dialogue can have a tremendous impact. When used as ammunition—the bullets and grenades of your drama find their targets. Revered film expert Robert McKee sums this up with one simple line of dialogue:
“Luke…I am your father.”
Darth Vader wants his estranged son to join him on the infamous dark side, but faces a lesser-of-two-evils dilemma: Kill his own child, or be killed by him. To escape this dilemma, Vader uses one of the most famous pieces of exposition in film history as ammunition to disarm his son: “I am your father.” But, instead of saving his son with his revelation, he drives Luke to attempt suicide.
Suddenly, the truth hidden behind the first two films shocks and moves the audience to compassion for Luke and fear for his future. This biographical fact used as ammunition delivers massive retrospective insight into deep character and past events, floods the audience with feeling, and sets up the trilogy’s final episode.
——From Dialogue, by Robert McKee
So, what if you don’t have light sabers and evil villains? What if you just have regular people dealing with the everyday trials and tribulations of life? Say a quarreling married couple? They both share most of the same memories, albeit with different perspectives. Just how much do you have to provide of their history for the audience to understand the depth of their feelings? Noah Baumbach dispensed with the facts in his script for Marriage Story, giving us the outline. And in this argument, the outline is all we need:
First of all, I love my mother, she was a wonderful mother. Secondly, how dare you compare my mothering to my mother! I may be like my father but I am not like my mother!
You are! And you’re like my father. You’re also like my mother. You’re all of the bad things about all of these people!
We don’t need to hear either character go on about the litany of their family history, their past experiences with parenting. It doesn’t matter. The topic of “mother” and “father” and “mothering” are radioactive enough without spooning in the details. Does the dialogue make logical sense? Not really. But are most arguments? We don’t need to know what all the “bad things” are, because we see just how triggering the very nature of the words are for these two.
And of course there are other viable ways to use dialogue as ammunition. Just think of all those murder mysteries, where the detective reveals the clues that ultimately point to the murderer. The ransom note, the stopped clock, the purloined letter…they’re used at just the right moment to build suspense, and provide that final moment of “ah-ha!” that the reader cherishes.
We have a lot to learn from mysteries, because how we “reveal” our story adds to the excitement. You might consider all stories as mysteries: how we reveal the details of the character, the history, the facts of the story…when done correctly, we hook the reader or the viewer.