Posted On March 30, 2012 by Print This Post

When Arguments Are a Good Thing: Conflict in Dialogue by K.M. Weiland

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.

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39 Responses to “When Arguments Are a Good Thing: Conflict in Dialogue by K.M. Weiland”

  1. Hi Katie,

    Welcome to RU! I love your tips and will place them in my keeper file. Subtext and tension are the two biggies I like to experiment with.


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | March 30, 2012, 4:26 am
    • It really is a matter of experimentation. And the great thing about early drafts is that we can go wild – and then delete anything that doesn’t work.

      Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 9:40 am
  2. I think in one book (Scene and Structure) having the characters keep saying the same things again and again (“Am Not!”, “Are Too!”, “Am Not!”) isn’t conflict, since the characters aren’t going anywhere.

    However, I wonder how you could make such a situation conflict.

    Posted by Chihuahua0 | March 30, 2012, 5:46 am
    • I agree. “Filler” dialogue like that rarely accomplishes anything useful – unless somehow the point is to illustrate character or offer humor.

      Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 9:41 am
  3. Morning Katie!

    I have the WORST time with subtext. =) None of my characters (it’s not ME, it’s THEM) know how to use it. =) Definitely something I – I mean they – need to work on.

    btw, I have your Outlining for Success book – spectacular awesome!

    Thanks so much for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | March 30, 2012, 6:57 am
    • Thanks so much for having me! I’m tickled pink you’re enjoying Outlining Your Novel! And I’m with you 100% – those characters just need to learn how to speak!

      Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 9:43 am
  4. Hi Katie,

    I like writing dialogue the most. A good fight is fun. Resolving it takes a while. I use a misunderstanding they can’t explain away.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | March 30, 2012, 7:07 am
    • A good argument is actually one of my favorite bits to write in any story. Nothing gets my fingers flying faster than hissing and spitting characters!

      Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 9:44 am
  5. I’ve been keeping tabs on K.M.’s Wordplay blog for a while so I appreciate being brought here to another valuable resource.

    I’ve often come at dialogue in a rather off-the-cuff manner, letting the conversations spill out of me, and have been fortunate to generally do well in keeping them conflicted and following an arc. I think it has something to do with the types of stories I’ve absorbed over the years as well as a bit of an improv background. My trouble is I worry they go on too long. It’s not unusual to scan a story of mine and see several large blocks of back and forth dialogue, and even though there may often be a lot of action between or even during the speech, I worry that even just visually it looks off to have chunks of short lines flanked by quotation marks taking up a significant portion of the pages.

    I’ve never had complaints about it, actually, but I can’t help but think it just does not look like I have the ratio right compared to other authors. Yet I don’t think it’s just a case of being more ruthless with the editing, since what is being said truly matters, and I have avoided bloat in all other aspects of my writing. It just seems that in a dialogue heavy scene, I end up with a page that looks more like a script from a TV show.

    Posted by JohnMWhite | March 30, 2012, 7:58 am
    • Hi, John –

      As a reader, I’m a huge fan of white space. It tells me the the scene will be a fast (and hopefully fun) read!


      Posted by Kelsey Browning | March 30, 2012, 8:17 am
    • Ditto Kelsey. So long as everything being said matters to the story and avoids being repetitious, readers will love it. Aside from the fact that dialogue is always popular, white space is also a good visual trick for breaking up the page and making it look more inviting and less intimidating. I’d say you’re on the right track!

      Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 9:46 am
      • Thank you, Kelsey and K.M. It is encouraging to know that white space is not such a failing in dialogue scenes after all. Perhaps I have just been comparing myself to writing that is much more dense than what I am actually trying to produce.

        Posted by JohnMWhite | March 31, 2012, 11:49 am
  6. Dialogue, in general, is one of the most difficult things for me to write. I’ll definitely keep your advice in mind. No pointless babbling allowed!

    Posted by Janel Gradowski | March 30, 2012, 8:07 am
    • Don’t be afraid to babble in the first draft. Sometimes we have to get all that babbling out of our systems in order to discover the heart of the conversation. You can always whittle it down when you start editing.

      Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 9:48 am
  7. KM,

    Thanks so much for hanging out with us at RU. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed being at Wordplay a few weeks ago.

    Your mentioning that characters will fight within the parameters of their basic character struck me, especially since I was just writing a subtext-sprinkled scene between my hero and heroine yesterday.

    My hero is basically a down-to-earth and fair guy. However, he says something he knows immediately isn’t fair. He has that internal thought, but then, do you think he would do something overt to make up for that unfairness?

    Perfect topic for me today.


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | March 30, 2012, 8:21 am
    • Back athcha, Kelsey! I’m excited to be here today. I actually just wrote a similar scene in which a character, who is feeling rightfully guilty about something, lashes out by blaming someone else. He realizes what he’s doing and acknowledges it internally. The whole notion definitely opens up some interesting areas of character exploration. I think it depends how far you want to go down the rabbit hole before (or if) you have the character address his injustice.

      Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 9:51 am
  8. Wonderful post. It takes me a while to write these kinds of scenes. I have to write them–sketch them out, really–then go back and add/subtract, even sort of outline them by what’s really going on to make sure everything is in them in the proper order. I try to stay firmly in one person’s head and let him/her react to the other in the subtext. I can never write them quickly.
    What really bothers me about some arguments is when the dialogue goes back and forth for a long time with no attribution to the speaker or clear indication of it. I tend to get lost in the middle of those and have to go back to the beginning and start one of those “This is her,” “This is him,” “her,” “him” things, often pointing to each one as I go.
    I really like the “fight from within the character’s personality.”
    Lots to think about here. Thanks.

    Posted by Ann Macela | March 30, 2012, 9:29 am
    • Argh. Yes, I hate it when authors don’t properly attribute the speakers (ahem, Ernest Hemingway). Tagging the dialogue is such a simple thing, and it can make all the difference.

      Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 9:52 am
  9. Being someone who craves dialogue in their work, this post spoke volumes to me!
    Great points to keep in mind while the words pour out onto paper- and while reading!

    Posted by Kelly Wolf | March 30, 2012, 9:42 am
    • Glad you enjoyed then post! Dialogue is not only fun, but it can also open up so many new story angles. Just talking about it has already got me itching to write my next dialogue scene!

      Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 9:53 am
  10. Thanks so much for having me today, all you RU ladies! It’s an honor.

    Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 9:54 am
  11. Great blog! “Don’t resolve things too quickly” is a good one to remember. I’m bookmarking this!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | March 30, 2012, 10:53 am
    • Thanks, Becke! Writing dialogue, as with every other aspect of fiction, is all about developing a feel for the pacing. If we can sense when a scene needs to grow more – or, conversely, end before it starts dragging – we’ll be way ahead of the ball game.

      Posted by K.M. Weiland | March 30, 2012, 11:34 am
  12. Hi Katie!

    I tend to write dialogue heavy and my pages looked like a skeleton. Dialogue is a great way to show characterization, especially at the beginning of the story.

    Characters do more than talk. They gesture, interact with their surroundings and they have internal thoughts and reactions to what’s being said to them. That helps fill in the white space.

    Staying on point in the conversation and not being redundant is difficult for me. We often speak in a redundant manner, but once the reader has a nugget of information, it doesn’t bear repeating. I constantly remind myself about that.

    Thanks for joining us today.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | March 30, 2012, 2:49 pm
  13. Thanks again for the helpful post:) I am writing an argument write now between the hero and heroine…thanks for the reminder to keep the character arcs in mind. I think I’ll need to rewrite it a bit so that each person’s Conflict, Goal, Motivation in mind.
    Thanks again…

    Posted by Lorna Faith | March 30, 2012, 3:07 pm
  14. Spot on, as always, Katie. I enjoy learning from you.

    Oh–and congrats to both you and this site for being picked in Write to Done’s top blogs!

    Posted by Linda Yezak | March 30, 2012, 3:41 pm
  15. Great advice!! I try, like you said, to use arguments to advance the plot. I never want to bore or disappoint my reader by resolving things too quickly either.

    Posted by Traci Kenworth | March 31, 2012, 4:30 am
  16. “Jumping from “You’re a boring pig!” to “I love you” isn’t going to work 99.9% of the time.”

    I would love to find a situation in which that would work 🙂

    All of this is great, Katie. When I read bad dialogue, invariably, it’s violated one of those rules (with the relatively rarer exception of the “nobody talks like that” mistake). Lack of subtext might go unnoticed (although felt), but the rest of them leave me considering quitting on the book.

    The discussion made me wonder about the plotter v. “pantser” (or perhaps plotter vs. character-er) dichotomy. I suspect that character-driven writers do almost all of this automatically. When I write from inside of a character’s head, I start to feel what they feel and my dialogue is driven by their immediate emotional needs.

    Unfortunately, when I try to write to meet a plotting requirement, I have to think about dialogue much more. Subtext, in particular, tends to be neglected.

    We’ve briefly discussed this on Wordplay or Twitter, but do you have any suggestions for how to get into that character headspace while keeping a tight focus on the plot and/or outline?

    Posted by London Crockett | March 31, 2012, 11:55 am
  17. As you know, I outline extensively. But, actually, I almost never outline dialogue. If something really great strikes me during the outlining process, I might write down a line or two of the dialogue, but this is always the exception. Even the gist of the conversation is usually pretty vague (Sam accuses Lilly of stealing his Chia Pet). Dialogue is something that has to flow while I’m writing, and I’m never quite certain how characters will react until they start talking. I always need to know what I’m trying to accomplish with a dialogue scene (which inevitably means knowing how the characters’ goals and motivations play into the scene), but, other than that, I just let it work itself out on the page.

    Posted by K.M. Weiland | April 1, 2012, 12:26 pm
  18. I love writing dialogue, but didn’t think much about arguments as having to justify their inclusion with the same criteria as an other scene. Thanks for this informative post!

    Posted by Sandy Green | April 4, 2012, 2:23 pm


  1. […] Once you characters have their personalities, what about dialogue? When Arguments Are a Good Thing: Conflict in Dialogue by K.M. […]

  2. […] When Arguments Are a Good Thing: Conflict In Dialogue by K.M. Weiland […]

  3. […] When arguments are a good thing: conflict in dialogue. Most authors and their readers will agree that nothing beats a good bout of dialogue . . . […]

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