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Conflict in Dialogue

The word “conflict” is from the Latin verb confligere: con, together; and fligere, to strike. Many writers seem to be at home with the idea of togetherness: we usually create multiple characters in our fiction; we write stories with more than one thread that coalesce toward the ending; we juggle different craft elements—setting, POV, character, to name but a few—as well as different themes, knowing that a deeper story is usually derived from doing multiple things at once.

But focusing on the verb to strike? That feels less comfortable, and yet it’s also an essential element of any good fiction. Many of us try to stay as far away from conflict as possible—in real life, as well as in fiction—only to produce stories and novels that lack energy or that lie dormant on the page. Often, the solution for this is to add conflict to your story, to ramp up the tension. Thinking of conflict as a combination of “together” and “strike” may be helpful in considering ways to heighten conflict in your work.

One of the simplest ways to introduce conflict is to do so in your dialogue. Elizabeth Bowen, in a piece entitled “Notes on Writing a Novel,” says the following:

Short of a small range of physical acts—a fight, a murder, love-making—dialogue is the most vigorous and inter-action of which characters in a novel are capable.  Speech is what the characters do to each other.

Thinking of dialogue in this way can be extremely useful. One of the best examples of using dialogue like this is Leonard Gardner’s iconic novel Fat City. Many of the characters are boxers, and Gardner’s dialogue switches back and forth between them, almost as though they are trading punches. Gardner uses few dialogue tags and almost no interiority; both of these elements would have slowed down the scene considerably. Look at how well this works in the following passage between Tully, a fighter, and Oma, his girlfriend:

“That’s a good one.” Tully placed the meat in the black encrusted frying pan, pushing in the edge of fat until the steak lay flat.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“I heard what you said.”

“Then why’d you ask?”

“You think I’m lying to you.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You don’t trust me, do you?”

“All I’m trying to do,” said Tully, now opening a can of peas, “is make us our supper.”

Throughout this chapter, stretches of dialogue are interrupted by actions. It’s almost akin to rounds in a fight, with the moments of action representing the breaks between the rounds.

Exercise

To infuse dialogue with conflict, find a dialogue passage in your work between two characters that feels somewhat passive and lacking energy. Then try the following steps:

  • Strip away the dialogue tags;
  • take out any interior thoughts;
  • try to extend the passage of dialogue for long stretches;
  • break up these long stretches of dialogue with actions; and just let the characters strike each other with their words.

by Laura Spence-Ash