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In my story there is a scene where a character narrates some past to another character. And this past consists of 600 - 900 words.

How do I write this? It is like a story within a story, but it only happens in the conversation between the two characters.

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  • Believe it or not, almost the whole of the novella The Time Machine is one long quotation of a character talking to others, including a first-person narrator without much personality. – J.G. Mar 4 '18 at 18:13
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If the back story is important, then the mystery should be enough for both your character who wants to hear the story and the reader reading your book. So first, you do some ground work to foreshadow the upcoming story. Then, it is a relatively simple nest. You take the character who is going to tell the story and he becomes the narrator and a few decisions determine direction.

Questions: (no correct answers)

Will this be an interactive session?

If it is then you'll still describe the current world, and have back and forth dialogue, but your teller will be giving all the details in dialogue tags.

If the answer is no, then you can have a giant monologue block, but instead you may want to transition (double return) and just tell the whole thing without quotes with your teller assuming the role of narrator.

Do you want to show or tell?

Story telling is a grand tradition. It's an opportunity to let your character embellish or exaggerate in their own voice, which can be informative and compelling. But most authors try to show when proactive things are happening. Showing changes the way the speaker talks or encourages you to lose the dialogue tags and break away.

Length matters: how do you want it to affect pacing?

You've indicated a fairly short passage. Which means you want to consider your pacing as well. Which direction you go changes whether momentum kicks up or slows down.

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Create some conflict between the character hearing it and the character telling it.

Don't just infodump the history. The exact nature of the conflict depends upon the relationship of the characters; but make the character hearing it question the decisions, the motives, ask questions to clarify setting or who is who. This could be two people on a first or second date, a conversation on a trip (plane, train, hike to another town in a less technological setting), or an expert trying to understand the history (a doctor, or mercenary).

If Alice is trying to tell Brie her story, Brie should not be a passive receptacle, oohing and ahhing and nodding and wincing and sympathizing. That might be how real life unfolds, but it is boring fiction.

Brie should be actively trying to understand the relationships in Alice's story, even arguing about the details or the motivations of the characters or why they knew what they did or did what they did, or arguing about her memory of the sequence of events in some part of the story.

In some way you need a challenging listener. This doesn't have to be hostile (it could be, in an argument, or a conversation with somebody that doesn't really want to hear the history), it can be a friend: "That is the stupidest thing I ever heard, what in the world were you thinking?"

It can be a person averse to the emotions in the story: A judge, a lawyer, a doctor, a police detective, a cop.

Infodumps (of any kind) tend to be boring, You can defeat the boredom by adding conflict, which turns your "history lesson" into a present-day conversation / argument that isn't boring. It may be twice as long, but the conflict is what it takes to hold the reader's interest.

My secondary advice would be to not meander too much in this history with irrelevant detail; a challenging listener can help with that. One way to "tighten" a story is to limit what we tell readers to things that will have, or have had, consequences that influence the tale. That is not an ironclad rule for me, I like describing scenes with details that won't matter to the plot, but I think are entertaining.

But in your case, if you are worried about the length of this history, tighten it up to just what is necessary without frills, add emotion to the speaker with a challenging and not-too-sympathetic or solicitous listener.

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It can be a nice way to show the past from a different point of view. As long as it's not only a long exposition of things that the other character should already know this can be very interesting for the reader. Imagine for example two friends talking about the good old times and remembering funny or interesting character traits of the other - how these changed, which of these persisted. How their present knowledge would have helped them and how they interacted with each other.

You should make sure that character 1 doesn't tell character 2 how they felt or what they should already know, like the fact that they have lived somewhere for the first ten years of their life. Character 1 should talk about how they perceived an event and tell character 2 about remarkable things they told them. For example character 2 could have said something encouraging while the two of them were exploring an old cavern - maybe character 2 has already forgotten all about this little remark, but it stayed with character throughout their life. Showing the impact of one character on the other one is a good way to give the reader the feeling of a real conversation and helps to show important character traits and the relationship of the two characters.

Depending on your style and your goal with the interaction you could also inform the reader about how reliable one of the characters is. Humans have the tendency to mix some of their past memories, so showing that a character can be fallible is one possibility by letting them state something and the other character correcting them. This should not be something big, like whether the event really happened if you don't have some topic about mind-altering drugs, time-travel or similar things - it should be something like whether the sun was still high in the sky or already on its way down. Whether the tree was 5 meters high or 6. Things that could easily be slightly misremembered.

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Dialogue can be a nice way to do exposition, but it contains the potential to commit one of writing's worst crimes - the "You know - Jane, your sister, who left home when you were five years old" clunker which authors and writers of screenplays and games still seem unable to avoid.

It's worth thinking about how much of the past the second character already knows - or could be expected by the reader to already know. It's also worth considering why the first character thinks it's important they should know this - and perhaps most significantly why they think they should know it now.

Problems are as likely to occur in the responses of the second character as in the telling of the past events. It has to feel genuine to the reader, so comments like "what an idiot", or the second character laughing or shaking their head will be as valuable as questions that lead on to the next disclosure of information - if every response appears to solicit the next revelation, the reader will smell a rat.

There are devices to avoid the obvious pitfalls. The second character could remain silent throughout, or the exposition could be given a section or chapter to itself where the first character takes on the role of the story's narrator for a while (the same thing, but done differently).

But if you do dialogue well, and don't lose sight of the second character's thoughts, that's one of the best ways to reveal additional information.

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