We at RU met K.M. Weiland when our blogs were picked as Write to Done’s Top Writer’s Blogs. K.M. hosts her own ab fab blog at Wordplay – a must read for writers!
When Arguments Are a Good Thing: Conflict in Dialogue
Most authors and their readers will agree that nothing beats a good bout of dialogue. Witty, poignant, romantic, angry—it’s all good. We all love it when characters open their big mouths and let fly. But creating good dialogue isn’t as easy as saying the first thing that pops to mind. Good dialogue is all about conflict. So how do we harness the conflict in our stories and make it power our dialogue in effective and compelling ways?
How to Use Conflict in Dialogue
- Keep it on point. It has to matter to the plot. Random arguments won’t give your story the conflict it needs. Readers only care about conflict between characters insofar as it advances the plot or reveals interesting things about the people.
- Maintain an arc in the conversation. Conflict should rise to a crescendo, then taper into a climactic (semi-)resolution. Likely, you won’t fully resolve the arguments and the issues fueling them until late in the book, but each argument still needs to come to believable conclusion.
- Keep the character arcs in mind. What are the characters’ motivations and goals in having this discussion? People never mindlessly argue. They always have a reason, a goal, an agenda. So what are your characters trying to accomplish? What are they trying to get from each other that’s worth the confrontation?
- Vary the tension. Not all arguments have to be screamers. In fact, they shouldn’t all be screamers. You can utilize subtext to make even a calm chit-chat have dramatic undercurrents of conflict. To keep things interesting, you have to include a variety of tension levels in your dialogue scenes.
- Utilize subtext. Use your conflict to reveal things about your characters. For example, that argument about who forgot to let the cat out could really be about something else entirely—like who’s responsible for their failing relationship.
- Remember the power of the action beat. Sometimes a good action beat can effectively take the place of a whole page of dialogue. Instead of a drawn-out argument, have the angry wife hit her husband with the lobster she’s preparing for dinner.
How Not to Use Conflict in Dialogue
- Don’t let your arguments meander purposelessly. Starting out talking aimlessly about the weather and ending up screaming and cursing is possible, but not probable.
- Don’t leave the dialogue hanging without context. Let the narrating character show us his reactions (which perhaps are entirely different from his words).
- Don’t resolve things too quickly. Jumping from “You’re a boring pig!” to “I love you” isn’t going to work 99.9% of the time. Arguments must have a natural rise and fall, and if you’re going to get readers all worked up, you can’t disappoint them by resolving things too quickly.
- Don’t let your characters fight out of context to their personality. Someone who believes in truth and justice is going to have to fight fair. Someone who’s a bully, on the other hand, is likely to hit as low and as hard as he can. Your character’s fighting style has to be consistent with his personality and his values. If he fights in a way that goes against either of these things, there had better be a good reason.
If you can keep these important dos and don’ts of dialogue in mind as you write your next character conversation, you’ll be able to create arguments that sizzle. Readers won’t be able to stop eavesdropping!
RU Readers – got questions on how to make an effective argument? Ask away!
Join us on Monday for C.J. Redwine!
Bio: K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for March 26 – March 30, 2012
- Writing the SECOND Book with Susan Sey
- A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Art of Writing Dialogue with Maria McKenzie
- C.J. Redwine – How to Escalate Conflict in Your Novel
- Keep ‘Em Hooked by Laura Griffin