Conversational Exposition: Execution

So you’re planning to seed a conversation with exposition, and you’ve got the location, the participants, and the general framing. Excellent. Now we get to the hard part: actually planning out the conversation.

There are several important things to remember for this step. First, while you want to get everything across, you don’t want to infodump; it’s better to slip your hints in with a bit more subtlety. Second, you need to match the information to the character delivering it. Third, it needs to be an interesting enough to keep the attention of your audience. The following are the steps you’ll want to take to make sure all of these conditions are met.

The Plan

This is your first and most important step in delivering an expository conversation. In essence, what you’re trying to do here is make sure you know exactly what to say, then ensure that you say most if not all of it. Start by making a list of the details you want to get across. This way, you won’t miss anything. Then look through them, and assign them numbers from one to three, with one being vital information and three being optional but useful. This is your first run through the list. For your second run-through, mark each detail with the character likeliest to mention it, and possibly the second most likely if your conversational unit is a group rather than one or two individuals. On your third, note what sorts of subjects might feed into each of the details. You can allude to a famous legend by having kids argue over who gets to play which part in their game, for instance, or slip in a recent drought by having one of a farm couple gripe about how wasteful the other was during the recent hard times.

Adding Color

This is the part where we figure out how to hook the audience. For an interactive conversation, the easiest way is for one of the participants to be someone the main character/party either already knows or wants to learn something from; this provides a natural incentive to go over there and engage in the discussion. An overheard conversation can be a lot harder, particularly if the characters who are supposed to be learning from this chat aren’t prone to eavesdropping. In that case, the best thing to do is lead off with an allusion to something that matters to the listeners: a name, perhaps, or a furtive question about “that thing last night”. Being a character of interest can also do the job; if the conversationalist is suspicious enough, the group may be spying on him anyway. (A chat between someone who might be tied to an incident and a minor character trying to find out for sure could be a rather effective setup.) If you’re running a game, you can also take advantage of the metagaming principle by making the group roll to hear it; anything that they have to work for tends to suddenly become more interesting.

Now we need to make sure they stay interested. This means frequent intriguing details, decently fast pacing, or humor. If the audience is particularly observation-prone or curious about the people engaging in this chat, revealing less vital details about the participants might also be a good way to hang onto them. Having earlier hinted that one of those involved might know something useful can also help to keep the group’s attention. Figure out which tactic you’re going to use, and make sure you’ve got a way for your characters to implement it.

Contingencies (GMs only)

If you’re inexperienced with conversation-seeding and have to deal with living characters, you may need a little bit of further planning. If it’s an overheard conversation, you may and probably will wish to write a script out ahead of time. If it’s interactive, you’re not going to be able to do that quite as well, since you can’t plan for everything the group’s going to do. Instead, write the first five minutes or so, including points where you can give the players the opportunity to jump in, and for each first-priority detail you have, write yourself three or four potential sentences with the detail embedded. This will make it easier to slip it into the flow of the narrative; all you have to do is keep the conversation from getting too far off track. Once you’ve had more practice, you can start easing up on the scripts, or even the list.

Execution

And now you get to deliver the conversation. Start with your script, if you have it; if you’re improvising, just go with the flow. Make sure you have your checklist close at hand so you can reference it easily, and try to follow your priorities when seeding in details. While you don’t have to mark off each detail as you deliver it, it will make it easier to ensure you don’t miss any. If it’s an interactive conversation, use techniques such as dangling details to prompt the players to ask questions. And don’t be afraid to play it to the hilt! Personality is an important way to hold your audience’s attention. Once you’ve got all the details mentioned, you can either end the conversation, or take your cue from the audience on how much longer to go.

Good luck, and enjoy your chats!

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