Dialogue without conflict is talking heads. There, I’ve got it out in the open. In commercial, or genre fiction, dialogue makes up half of the novel with narration as the other half. This is why learning to craft great dialogue matters.
Inexperienced writers tend to overcompensate for lame dialogue by inflating it with fighting words, believing that the bigger the conflict, the stronger the dialogue. While dialogue without conflict is boring, dialogue with falsely melodramatic dialogue is disappointing to the reader. And no, using extra exclamation points doesn’t impress readers. When the dialogue presents a level of conflict appropriate to the characters in the situation, then the reader will believe the story.
So, how does the writer achieve this balance? Dive deeply into the characters. Like an actor, step into the character and see the world through his eyes. Write the scene or chapter from the point of view of one character, expressing and acting on that character’s goals and motives.
Every character in the story operates on his own long-term and short-term motives. So, after the first draft of the scene is done, go back and revisit the scene by exploring the motives and goals of every character in the scene—one by one. You will discover more sources of conflict, because each character can be an obstacle to the other characters unintentionally.
What do your characters want or desire in this time and place? Because everyone wants something, there will be a power struggle.
Everyone has his own motives and goals—his agenda.
This doesn’t mean the characters all have the same goal, like two men interviewing for the same job. And it doesn’t mean that the characters have opposite goals, like two football teams that want to win by defeating the other team. Sometimes the conflict arises organically from the basic nature of the people in the scene.
Here is a small list of organic character elements that can create tension or conflict between people: impatience, misunderstanding, bureaucracy, differences [gender, race, culture, age, language], experiences, attitudes, and secrets.
Let’s say we have a young mother doing chores at home with her toddler. The doorbell rings, so the mother goes to the door with her child clinging to her leg. A salesman is at the door. We can identify the agendas of each character easily from their basic nature. The mother wants to do laundry. The salesman wants to sell a vacuum cleaner. The child wants mother’s full attention. How does power shift during the scene? Ideally, the protagonist will lose the power struggle and be driven to take greater risks next time.
The writer has inside knowledge of every character’s goals and motivations—but the characters conflict because they don’t have this knowledge. To craft the appropriate level of conflict for the scene, let’s examine a few examples of dialogue.
The lowest level of conflict is the absence of it. This is known in the publishing world as chit-chat, talking heads, plot stoppers and so on. An example of everyday chit-chat:
“Hi, Susie,” said Anne.
“Hello there, Anne,” said Susie.
“Thanks for coming.” Anne said. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you.”
“Oh, me, too. I want to hear all about your date with Mark.”
Unless this conversation offers something meaty soon, the reader will start skimming pages. If the conversation sounds like air kisses then it is chit-chat. Who wants to eavesdrop on a conversation between two best friends in cheerful agreement about anything? Yawn. If your critique partners note that your chapters seem “a little long,” perhaps they mean that your dialogue doesn’t propel the story forward. With all the books out in the world to read, readers can and will drop boring ones. A test for chit chat—strip down a scene to pure dialogue, no attributions (Bill said) and no narrative or character’s thoughts. If the naked dialogue isn’t intriguing, consider cutting it out. With nothing remotely interesting or newsworthy in this snippet of dialogue between Anne and Susie, we move on.
Taking the same Susie/Anne chit-chat to the next level, we shorten the greeting to one line each and then drop in a note of discord, just a note–still civil, but with a hint of confrontation.
“Hi, Susie,” said Anne.
“Hey,” said Susan.
“Get over it.” Susan sighed. “Tell me about your date with Mark.”
Feel that twinge of discomfort? An entire scene can be cooked up with this level of simmering conflict. Think of people at work who have to get along, but don’t particularly like one another. I believe the term for such a relationship is a combination of friend and enemy–frienemy. Ever deal with distant relatives from the shallow end of the gene pool? Or the neighbor who spouts fierce political opinions without being asked? Draw from experience and pay attention to the signs of simmering conflict at the next social gathering. I don’t suggest taking notes, but watch and learn.
Conflicts have winners and losers. Can you identify the victor in a segment of dialogue? Even friends poke fun at one another. Men often verbally spar to demonstrate their Alpha Male qualities in front of women. Siblings draw from a lifetime of stories to tease and provoke one another as an expression of intimacy.
Here’s an example of verbal sparring from Janet Evanovich’s High Five. Stephanie Plum is an inexperienced bail bondsman sent to pick up a man who skipped his court date.
“What’s the matter?” he said. “You never see a short person before?”
“Only on television.”
“Guess this is your lucky day.”
I handed him my business card. “I represent Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. You missed your court date, and we’d appreciate it if you’d reschedule.”
“No,” Briggs said.
“No, I’m not going to reschedule. No. I’m not going to court. It was a bogus arrest.”
“The way our system works is that you’re supposed to tell that to the judge.”
“Fine. Go get the judge.”
“The judge doesn’t do house calls.”
“Listen, I got a lot of work to do,” Briggs said, closing his door. “I gotta go.”
“Hold it!” I said. “You can’t just ignore an order to appear in court.”
The man then shuts and locks his door. So are the conflicting agendas clear? Is it easy to declare a winner in this power struggle? Evanovich’s characters speak their minds boldly and without apology and her readers adore her for it.
This level of conflict keeps tension taut without car chases, bombs exploding or the usual B-movie tactics. The reader keeps turning pages to find out if the conflict escalates. An argument, by the way, is a slick way to sneak in morsels of back story as long as it sounds natural and conversational. During an argument people often dredge up old issues and events for debate.
Screenwriter Joss Whedon mastered dialogue in physical confrontations. See his television shows and movies, such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “The Doll House”, Firefly, Toy Story, and The Avengers.
His characters notoriously maintain their agendas (goals and motivations) throughout the action. In “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” the character of Buffy is a valley girl, hormonal, moody, obsessed with fashion and oh, by the way, she has a supernatural gift for locating and killing paranormal creatures, especially vampires. During one scene, Buffy and her friends battle vampires in a graveyard while arguing about the challenges of finding a prom date. Buffy remains a valley girl no matter what she’s doing.
The key to writing believable dialogue for a fight scene is to remember each character’s agenda. While action and narrative overshadow dialogue in fight scenes, the dialogue still matters.
A showdown takes two-thirds of the novel to set up. Generally, one can apply an inverse ratio of conflict to dialogue—the more intense conflict, the less the need for dialogue. Ah, but that’s because by the time the showdown happens, the reader should understand why the fight matters to the warriors. The stakes have been spelled out clearly and the showdown is the natural and inevitable response to the previous smaller battles in the story. Fighting for the sake of violence should be reserved for madmen and fools. The level of conflict in the story should suit the value of winning and the value of losing. Remember to clarify for the reader why the protagonist and antagonist take the actions they take.
In the showdown scene even a brief sentence can strike like a blow. A parting example from Star Wars–“Luke, I am your father.” Dialogue that matters has power in meaning.
This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website in 2012. They have revamped their website, so I am posting it here so it remains available.