I Can’t Believe You Said That- Using Dialogue to Build Conflict

September 11, 2016 | By | 4 Replies More

Headshottypesmile-683x1024Dialogue is a critical component of your novel. It shows character, provides an opportunity to move the plot forward, and increases your pacing by breaking up large narrative blocks. This article focuses on how dialogue can also help build the conflict in your novel.

All novels require conflict. Agents, editors, and readers rarely feel that a book has too much conflict- rather the lack of conflict can make a story lag. When a character is in conflict, readers will turn pages to see how they will get themselves out of the problem.

How well your characters communicate, or fail to communicate, provides a natural place to increase conflict. To understand how you can do this in your pages, here is a list of seven real life communication killers and ideas of how you can use them in your dialogue.

1. Not listening: Too often we hear only a portion of what someone says, because we instantly beginning to formulate what we’ll say in response. We’re thinking about how we’re going to explain just how wrong they are, or why they don’t know the full story, without hearing all they have to say. We may also miss information because our mind is elsewhere.

a. What is your character thinking about when others are talking?
b. What information do they not hear? How can this missed information later cause increased conflict in your story?

2. Making Assumptions: What an individual hears is not always what someone has actually said. We often infer meanings which may, or may not, be there. For example, a teen girl comes downstairs ready for a big date and her mom asks: Are you going to wear that? The girl may interpret this comment to mean that she looks bad and that her mom disproves.

The mom may have meant that- but she may also could have meant that she thought it was too cold outside for a tank top or that the outfit the girl is wearing was in the wash. Another example, someone who is very insecure may hear: I can’t talk now, I’ve got to run as a rejection. Someone who is very confident may assume the person really is busy, but would otherwise want to talk to them.
a. What does your character hear versus what is actually said?
b. What emotional baggage/past history does your character have that acts as a filter when they hear information

3. Failure to heed non-verbal cues: What we say is also as important as what we don’t say. You can show subtext in dialogue by having what the person says in contrast to their physical reactions. For example, a person who says I’m fine, may be interpreted differently if they have their arms crossed and jaw clenched, versus if they’re leaning forward and laughing.

You can also show this as an internal reaction. For example, if you have a character say I love you, but at the same time you use this description: She said, her stomach turning with acid. This gives the reader a hint that the words coming out of their mouth don’t the full story.
a. How do your characters physically respond to what is being said?
b. Are there places in your manuscript where you can show the subtext of a discussion by using non-verbal cues?
c. Are there verbal cues that your main character is missing? How does that impact the interaction?

4. Past history: It is easy when having a disagreement to drag in past history into the current debate. For example: You were always mom’s favorite. This is just like when you did X, Why should I believe you now when you lied to me about Y last year?

Conflict often builds on past conflict, each small thing building up to become something larger. As a writer this has the extra advantage of giving you an opportunity to bring backstory and character details.
a. What past history does your character know about others?
b. Is there a way to bring in past conflicts to highlight or amplify the current?

5. Word Choice: As writers we know the importance of using just the right word, but our characters may not. If people use absolutes (You always do this, you never help out) or highly emotional words (betrayal versus letting me down, disgust versus dislike) you have the opportunity to raise the stakes and emotions in a scene.
a. Review your manuscript. Are there places where you can change the words used in the dialogue to have a larger impact?
b. How do your characters respond to these more emotional laden words?

6. Cultural/ Age/Gender Differences: One of the keys to creating realistic dialogue is understanding that different people communicate differently. An eighty-year old war vet from England will say things that a nine-year old girl from the South will not. How a teen boy discusses his feelings about a fight with a friend is often quite different than how a teen girl would do it.

It also means that while we may both be speaking the same language, the differences between us can lead to some very interesting conflicts.
a. How do your characters communicate differently from each other? Can the reader see/hear those differences on the page?
b. What misunderstandings arise from their different world views?

7. Conflict Location: Where a discussion takes place changes that conversation. A couple who is fighting about possible infidelity have a very different discussion in they are at home alone versus at a work holiday party. Where you place a dialogue scene gives you the opportunity to increase the tension and stakes.

Timing also makes a difference. A woman telling her partner that she doesn’t think she can go through with the wedding is one discussion months before the event and a very different chat if they are in the back of the church as the music has started and the guests are waiting.
a. Review where (and when) key discussions take place in your manuscript. Is there space to move this discussion to have more impact?
b. Would your dialogue have more impact if there were other people present for the discussion?

Use the dialogue in your manuscript to its maximum capability. Not only should it be interesting, but it should move your plot forward, tell us about the characters, and be an opportunity to increase the conflict in your piece. If you do all these things, you’ll have readers madly turning pages eager to know just what your characters will say next.

malice_coverEileen Cook is a multi-published author with her novels appearing in eight different languages. Her books have been optioned for film and TV.

She spent most of her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere else, which is great training for a writer. Her newest book, WITH MALICE, came out in June 2016. She’s an instructor/mentor with the Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio Program.

You can read more about Eileen, her books, and the things that strike her as funny at www.eileencook.com. Eileen lives in Vancouver with her husband and two very naughty dogs and no longer wishes to be anyone or anywhere else.

On Twitter (way more often than she should be) @eileenwriter


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Category: How To and Tips

Comments (4)

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  1. Heather says:

    Great advice on ways to increase tension and built conflict using dialogue!

  2. An excellent round-up of advice on using dialogue – thank you Eileen.

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