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Dialogue guide - part 4

Last, but certainly not least, is this section on more advanced parts of writing dialogue. I'll delve into subtext, subtlety, how to force exposition in natural ways, and so on. Of course, knowing how to do it and actually doing it are two different things entirely, but knowing how to do it will at least help you on your way.

More exposition

As mentioned earlier in this guide, it's easy to be on the nose with exposition and to give too much in one go. The latter doesn't have to be true, but it does require weaving the dialogue in subtle ways to disguise exposition as regular conversation. To do this you want your conversation to start at one topic, end at another while passing through as many other topics as you want. But they key is to make the transition from topic to topic smooth and natural. George RR Martin is probably the most well known writer ho does this, so you may already be familiar with this technique to some degree, even if you haven't noticed it specifically.

As an example, let's say two characters are talking. One of them is in need of a horse to ride, the other is a stabler and can thus provide one. The conversation could be super simple and worked down to just a line like "He managed to find a horse strong enough for the 15-day ride ahead, even if it took some haggling."
A perfectly fine line, but depending on what's going on in the story at this moment, there's a chance to offer more world and character exposition.

Instead we could weave the dialogue from a point of horse purchasing to horse comparisons, to kingdom comparisons, to racism or similar hatred, to character conflicts, to a potential violent conflict or paying a higher price for a horse, and so on. How? By steering it along the lines of:
- Buyer approaches seller and asks to see the horses.
- Seller's kind enough at this point, shows all the horses with pride. Claims they're the best around like any good salesperson would.
- Buyer asks if there's any horses from Kingdom C, they're the fastest and he's in a rush.
- Seller says he doesn't, they don't deal with Kingdom C filth in this area, and gives a politically charged reason.
- Buyer feels compelled to defend Kingdom C for character reasons, does so by insinuating Kingdom D, the one they're in right now, is worse than C.
- Seller is offended and wishes to get the sale over done with, but not without making the buyer pay more than is fair. The buyer is in no place to haggle anyway, the buyer said he was in a rush.
- Buyer is even more offended and faced with a choice of simply stealing a horse or paying the higher price.

What could've been a simple throwaway line on how one character arranged travel has now been turned into exposition on tensions between kingdoms, exposition on which one has the fastest horses (could be relevant in upcoming battles or chases), how the common folk sees the conflict, and we're given more character exposition as the buyer is making a choice of giving in to injustice or using violence or theft as a form of personal justice.

This can be done with many conversations and in far broader ways. The trick is to find connecting links so you can smoothly go from point A to B to C to D, and so on. If you skip from A to C, it'll come across as bad writing. For example, if the seller had stated from the beginning he didn't have any Kingdom C horses because Kingdom C is filth, it would've been too abrupt of a shift. There was no reason for him to bring it up.
The difficulty comes in finding enough links to get from point A to X, or, perhaps more importantly, to find as few of them as possible to keep a conversation as concise as possible.

Subtlety

Even when it follows other rules, like advancing the story, dialogue without subtlety quickly stands out as being on the nose. It's a mistake inexperienced writers make often, usually out of fear the reader will miss information or perhaps out of insecurity their writing isn't strong enough to do it differently. Neither one is true in most cases. The majority of readers are intelligent enough to pick up on subtleties and your writing doesn't have to be that of a legend to be strong enough to carry a story.
In real life everybody speaks with subtlety to some degree, so it only makes sense for fictional characters to do the same. It can range from trying to figure out whether somebody likes you without them knowing about it to trying to be polite when somebody asks if you think their baby looks cute and you don't think they do, or range from trying to steer a conversation to an ending that allows you to leave to trying to get that last piece of cake without looking like a glutton.

Subtlety can also be used by intelligent characters to try and sway a conversation one way or another, to manipulate other characters or to trap characters into accepting something they cannot refuse. For example, let's say person A wants person B to come to a party. Person A knows person B likely doesn't want to come if they ask them directly, so Person A will talk to person B when person C and D are around too. By talking to person C and D, person A can make it look like it's a group decision to get person B to come, rather than their personal plan. Or, if person A is more nefarious, use person C and D to peer pressure person B to come.

Subtext

Subtext is a difficult part of dialogue to master. It's like the "show, don't tell" part of writing, but within just the dialogue. It's the meaning behind the words of a character within the grand scheme of the story. Or put differently, subtext is like a dialogue hidden within the actual dialogue.
Let's take the horse buying example from earlier to illustrate subtext, but with a few changes.
"You don't happen to have any Kingdom C horses, do you?" said Buyer.
"I told you, I have the best horses in the world. Kingdom C horses, fine as they may be, are not the best in the world," said Seller.
"I beg to differ, my kind man. Kingdom C horses are fast and clever. Faster even than the mightiest of hares and, I dare say, more intelligent than even the wisest of foxes."
"If that were true, I would have room for no other horse but those of Kingdom C. But experience has thought me they're stubborn as a mule and as lazy as a fat king at the end of his reign. So alas, I have none to sell."

At surface level these two people are arguing about which horse is better, but the hidden dialogue is about which kingdom is better while throwing insults left and right. This works even better if the sigils of these kingdoms include hares and foxes, but this also risks being on the nose. The same goes for one of the kingdoms potentially having a lazy, old king. But this does show how context and the story overall matter when writing subtext. Subtext allows you and/or your characters to reference the story world itself, which in turn is a powerful tool for foreshadowing, character development, world building, and so on.

Do note that not every single conversation needs to have deep layers of subtext. Sometimes subtlety is enough, sometimes a thinly veiled layer of subtext and other times you can be super straight forward, like when it comes to moments of important reveals. "No, I am your father!"

Final

Dialogue is a tricky beast to tame, but with practice you'll get the hang of it and improve over time. It can be helpful to take it slow and in iterations, which is the case for many writers when it comes to their stories overall anyway. The first draft is rough around the edges, the second improves everything, and a third might fine tune everything to what they want it to be. So, too, you can enhance dialogue over time and iterations, especially when, at the beginning, parts of the story will likely still need to be figured out. After all, you can't reference to the reader what hasn't been written yet.
If you want to practice everything covered in this guide so far, continue to the exercise part for some focused exercises, or simply apply it to your existing writing to see what you can improve.

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