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What are the guidelines on using questions in dialog (between ignorant characters) to expose setting and backstory?

A few exchanges between my characters seem to fall flat. I'm trying to sort out why. I've used a few chunks of dialog in my story to bring in important details. (I used dialog ... because I knew to avoid info dumps.)

One beta reader said something along these lines, too, about some of the dialog seeming to be misused for the sole purpose of exposition.

As I stare at it, I think it's specifically the questions within the dialog. I think those are at odds with the characters. I think the characters, as I've built them, would not be so inquisitive.

I'm wondering what the guidelines are for using questions (and answers) in dialog as a means to expose information.

If this is too broad let me know and I can try to focus in.


Example: Imagine a character on the run, leaving his home in Big City. He takes a new identity and goes to Small Town. He claims to be from Different Big City.

People in Small Town are suspicious. They drill in, asking him questions about his past. He tries to keep his story straight, he tries to ask them questions too, because he doesn't know why they would care in the first place. They have their reasons.

^ using this set up, secrets and suspicions on both sides, I introduce world-building information over a couple chapters (about Big City, Different Big City, and Small Town). I thought it worked in the early drafts, but now I'm editing for flow again (after revisions to heighten tension throughout) and these chunks feel flat. The below gives you sense of the basic structure of this sort of dialog chunk ... which in my actual story would be embellished with details and setting to sound less horrible and more natural.

Small Towner said, "Why do you say you're from Different Big City?"

Guy on the run responded, "We agreed to drop that. Why should it matter?"

Small Towner said, "It matters because (world building detail.)"

If I cut it, i lose the world building detail, which the reader needs. I think maybe Guy on the run wouldn't open himself to the conversation. He wouldn't ask 'why should it matter.' Not sure. And probably the last bit is too on the nose, but not sure where to go with that problem.

Second edit: Using a combination of suggestions here, it is improving, flowing more naturally, and characterization is deepening. Thank yous all around.

  • Can you give an example? – Llewellyn Apr 7 '18 at 17:07
  • Maybe? @Llewellyn see if that edit helps. – DPT Apr 7 '18 at 17:40
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    Small Towner: "Different Big City, eh? Go Bulls, am I right?"-----GOTR: "Sure, Go Bulls." -----Small Towner: "They don't say that in Different Big City, you know. They say 'Rip 'em, Bulls.'" Maybe you should pick a home town you know more about." – Amadeus Apr 7 '18 at 18:43
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    "Pick a city you know more about" is a good jab. Thanks. @Amadeus – DPT Apr 7 '18 at 18:55
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I'm not sure if I am interpreting this correctly, but I would not "mix" character questions with explanatory exposition (or answers in exposition), and I wouldn't make characters too "ignorant," that sounds too "convenient."

A difficult aspect of world-building is to use it and NOT write about it. Sure, I laid out my world, with twenty cities focused on different aspects of commerce. But it turns out my story needs seven of them, and very little needs to be said. Lumber comes from Pickford, that's true, Marble from Ansley, but how far Ansley is from Pickford or how to navigate that distance never matters, really. It's six hundred miles and requires travel on two rivers, but no character ever needed to know that, so it isn't in there.

To me a better solution is knowledgeable characters, in conflict:

"We'll just cart it to Binton and put it on a barge. I priced it in."
"What were you smoking, Jack?" Andy asked, laughing. "You can't put a hundred ton barge on Juvala, it's barely a creek. You'll drag bottom. You need five barges, and you'll be paying five crews, at least until you reach halfway, about Morristown. Did you price that in?"
Jack winced. "No."
"Well, you can cart it across Juvala, another fifty miles to Markham and barge it there, that's likely cheaper. but at the bottom you'll have to cart it back to Santos on the coast road."
"What's that, a hundred miles of carting? What does that cost?"
"I don't know," Andy said, "Go ask Philip."

Another option is mental imagery in a character.

"We're coming from Alvatown," the man said.
Images of Alvatown rose in Bill's mind, the seashore and long docks, the iron ships, the seemingly thousands of hard sailors in gritty bars seeking alcohol and affordable accommodating women, in equal measure. A town where anything could be had for the right coin.

When things fall flat, it is typically for lack of conflict. Create some. Even in exposition; for me, my exposition is done with my POV character in mind. I want to talk about the stone altars of the Ancients (something like our pyramids):

The altar stood a hundred feet tall, built of hundreds of closely fitted granite blocks, Gracie heard they weighed fifteen and twenty tons each. A lot of people saw these fantastic works as a testament to the ingenuity of man, a lost art of stone carving, seen with awe.

She didn't buy it, she saw twenty thousand people in slavery, whipped into back-breaking and lethal labor to satisfy the ego of some psychopathic nut job that thought he could buy immortality. She saw a hundred foot tall pointlessly meticulous monument to the cruelty of absolute power. It wasn't awesome, it was disgusting. The only thing worth praying at this altar was that the man that built it died screaming.

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    One of the good points here is that your approach also allows the competency slider to nudge up. :-) – DPT Apr 7 '18 at 18:48
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    Mulling over that last example. I can imagine that being a 'promise' to the reader. We'll see vengeance in some form. Or a characterization. She's a warrior. Am I tuned up right, here? – DPT Apr 7 '18 at 19:20
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    @DPT Yes, I like female warriors. Like Egyptian Pharaohs, The Ancients are long gone; there is nobody to wreak vengeance upon. But yes it is character building, it sets her apart, and her hatreds of all sorts of endless violent injustices drive her own violent actions: vengeance is wreaked throughout her arc from Act I. Later a "pause" scene like this pays off when a new char asks her if she worships the Ancients. Ha! Her crisis is what to do when she realizes killing hundreds of cruel people has made barely a dent. She can't give up the fight, and knows she can't win it. So what now? – Amadeus Apr 8 '18 at 12:01
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I think it's great if you can work exposition into believable dialog. But the key word here is "believable".

The classic case of unbelievable dialog is the "as you know" conversation. Like:

"I'm from Detroit," Bob said.

"As you know," George replied, "Detroit is a center of automobile production."

Equally bad is when a character asks about something that he would surely know if he was really the person you present him to be. A common technique in fiction is to have a character who is ignorant to justify why other characters must explain things to him. This can be tricky, though, because sometimes it's implausible that such an ignorant person would be present. Having a crew member on a star ship who doesn't know anything about space travel would be a strain. Having a passenger making his first trip on a star ship would be more plausible. Etc.

You can sometimes work "as you know" statements into dialog if they're a step along to the way to a conclusion that is not necessarily obvious.

"Well as you probably know, Detroit is a center of automobile production, and automobiles use a lot of steel, so the recent increase in steel tariffs has really hurt us."

You can also work such statements in as exclamations or expressions of surprise or puzzlement.

"But why would the mayor of Detroit support steel tariffs when Detroit is a center of the automobile industry and the auto industry uses so much steel? Won't that hurt his city's economy?"

Or, to shift the context to one where I can think of an applicable example:

"Sally is getting divorced? But this will be her third divorce in four years!"

It would not be surprising for someone to say that, even if everyone present knew all about her history of divorces. The speaker's point is presumably not to inform his listeners about Sally's marriage history, but rather to express shock or surprise about it.

Or in general, you can have someone relate a fact that the other character's already know if it is presented, not that he is informing them about this fact, but that this fact is a reason for something.

"I could never vote for Governor Jones," Bob said. "He's pro-gun control."

It may be that all the other characters know that Governor Jones is pro-gun control. The other characters may all know that Bob is anti-gun control. But even at that, they would not necessarily know that he considers this sufficient reason to decide how he will vote. A person could make a statement like that to convey information that his listeners don't know, and just "along the way" for his statement to be clear he must refer to things that they do know to put his statement in context.

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Exposition as dialogue is a good way to keep the story moving forward, but only if it still makes sense as dialogue. You can't have two senators discussing the name of the state's capital, but you might be able to sneak it into a discussion they're having about a recent gerrymandering ruling.

In your example "Why do you say you're from Different Big City?" seems like an odd question. If they accepted GotR's explanation of where he's from they are more likely to have asked typical follow up questions related to the place or, in your sketched scenario, give them a mysterious warning to the effect that they don't want to advertise that fact. If they didn't believe that he was from Different Big City they're essentially asking "Why are you lying?" which doesn't always work with close friends never mind suspicious casual acquaintances.

Maybe your fleshed out version makes perfect sense, but my best guess is that the dialogue doesn't have a purpose beyond providing your exposition (can you give it one? Is this something the readers would care about?) and/or doesn't make sense for the characters in that situation.

  • The larger scene does also provide some characterization and setting - the conversations become part of the rhythm of Small Town. (Imagine between, e.g. with the barista every morning as you're getting your joe.) Sexual tension begins in these conversations. But I think you're right, the small sub-scene reflected in the 'sketch' here does not. If anything tithes snippet flies against a deeper characterization. – DPT Apr 8 '18 at 0:52
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I don't know about any guidelines, but I agree that in your example the main character's reaction seems off.

If you're trying to shake off someone who's already suspicious, saying "stop asking!" and "why do you care?" seems like exactly the wrong way to go about it. Either of these seem like they would increase suspicion and make the questioner more likely to continue asking questions you'd rather not answer.

From personal experience, when I'm lying about something, I will not only try to steer the conversation away from that topic, but I will also actively avoid asking any questions that invite counter questions on the topic I'm desperately trying to avoid.

So yes, unless your MC is a bad liar, I would have him try to avoid such blatant red flags when talking to others. Depending on the importance of keeping a low profile, he could even try to avoid the particularly nosy people entirely.

However, it should be possible to bring up the world building conversation topics without having the MC ask for it themselves. Here are a few suggestions:

Option A: The nosy questioner directly confronts the MC:

"Look, I know you're not from Different Big City because ..."

Option B: When the MC tries to awkwardly change the topic, the questioner could give their reasons without being prompted by the MC:

"You need to answer these questions because ..."

Option C: Introduce another character who doesn't care about the MC's past (maybe because they have secrets of their own) as someone who the MC could ask these questions naturally without being worried about counter questions.

Main Character: "I don't understand why it matters to them."

Other Character: "It matters because ..."

Option D: The MC could witness two or more other characters discussing something relaying the world building information, possibly brought on by his weird behavior.

All of these suggestions assume you need to bring across the information in a direct conversation. There are less direct ways (as pointed out by Amadeus), and you should probably mix and match.

  • I like these. I've used D elsewhere in the story, and B elsewhere, too. I seem to be drifting toward A in the specific case staring at me at the moment. I think this adds a confrontational aspect that is good for conflict. – DPT Apr 7 '18 at 18:52
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Amadeus gave you some good advice on how to include worldbuilding in your text in an unobtrusive manner. There is more advice in this answer to a related question.

What I would suggest is a bit different:

Forget about worldbuilding

That does not mean that you shouldn't worldbuild. On the contrary, you should do it carefully and extensively. But when you write your text, you must stop worldbuilding.

The purpose of your novel is not to faithfully describe a world in all its rich detail, but to narrate the adventures of your characters. And your world is much less important for your story than you think.

When you write, and a certain aspect of your world is important for the current scene, that aspect of the world will shape your narrative. And when a reader reads the scene, that aspect of your world will come alive for them from what how you have told it.

To give an example, you don't have to explain what a "oihdf" is, when you write that your protagonists sits in the oihdf, starts the engine, and heads down the road to Strange City. Of course you can describe the vehicle (because the character looks at it and you can have him take note of what he sees) and you can even explain how it works (if you write from an omniscient point of view), but you don't have to!

The point here is not that you mustn't describe your world, but that you must stop worrying about conveying your world to your readers. What you must convey is the narrative – the events that your characters live through –, and all that is relevant about your world will automatically come along.

And once you have taken out the pressure to convey your world from your writing, you will note that it is quite easy to sprinkle in a few additional details here and there.

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    Of course, :-) and thanks, I think I've got that covered. We don't need to know what moisture farmers are on Tatooine... but ... we do need to eventually know that Luke and Leia are brother and sister. Some details are needed, others aren't, and you're absolutely right - sprinkling is not at all hard. – DPT Apr 7 '18 at 18:54

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