3 Ways to Increase Conflict in Your Dialogue

One of the biggest problems I see in fiction writers’ dialogue is a lack of conflict. (Come to think of it, one of the biggest problems I see in general is a lack of conflict, but that’s another blog post.)

Good dialogue, like a good story, should be rich with conflict. There are exceptions – most notably in a story’s ending or in brief, interspersed moments when you want to slow down the pace. But as a general guideline, dialogue without conflict gets boring very quickly. Here’s a classic example:

“Hi,” Lisa said.
“Hey,” José said.
“How are you?”
“Fine. You?”
“Doing all right.”
Lisa handed José a turkey sandwich. “Would you like a sandwich? I made two.”
“Sure, thanks.”

Okay, that’s enough. I won’t continue to torture you. Not only is there no conflict between the two characters who are speaking, but there’s no conflict anywhere to be seen.

The bad news is that if you write something like this you will bore your reader to tears.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to add conflict to dialogue and once you know how to do it you can make just about any scene pop with tension.

Of course, you don’t want to add conflict just for the sake of conflict. Whatever conflict you choose should be relevant to the story as a whole, to the scene, and to the characters.

#1 Have your characters say “No” to each other

One of the easiest ways to give conflict to a scene like this is to have your characters say No to each other, metaphorically speaking. In other words, to push back against the first character instead of just agreeing with them and refuse to have the conversation on the terms that the other character is proposing.

This is sometimes called giving characters different scripts.

Doing this creates an immediate power struggle that not only creates a more interesting story but can be really fun to play with. Here’s an example of how this idea could improve the scene between Lisa, Jose, and the sandwich:

“Hi,” Lisa said.
“You forgot the mustard,” José said.
Lisa thrust the turkey sandwich across the counter. “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”
“I don’t want it.”
“I already made two. You should’ve said something earlier.”

Did you catch all the “No”s in that dialogue? Here it is again with my notes:

“Hi,” Lisa said. [Lisa is offering a friendly exchange.]
“You forgot the mustard,” José said. [José refuses the offer and changes the subject.]
Lisa thrust the turkey sandwich across the counter. “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” [Lisa refuses to change the subject to the mustard, offers the sandwich as-is, and – bonus points – answers a question that hasn’t been asked.]
“I don’t want it.” [José refuses to take the sandwich that’s been offered. Interestingly, though, he doesn’t try to take the power back in the situation by offering a new proposal, so he opens himself to a power grab from Lisa.]
“I already made two. You should’ve said something earlier.” [Lisa acknowledges what José has said, but refuses to give into him by, for example, offering to make him another sandwich, add the mustard, etc.]

A big improvement, right? Dialogue like this makes us lean in and ask: What’s happening? Why are Lisa and José so testy with each other? What’s going to happen next? Will they make up? Will they come to blows?

If a scene like this comes midway through a story, we might already know that José is mad at Lisa because she didn’t come to the opening of his play last Saturday, and that Lisa, let’s say, has a bad temper and a history of throwing punches at José, in which case the dialogue becomes a great example of subtext.

Instead of having Lisa and José talk directly about the issue at hand (also called on-the-nose dialogue), we watch how the tension surfaces in their everyday interactions.

We get to become observers – flies on the wall – to their dramatic experience. In classic terminology, we are shown and not told the story.

Another thing to notice about this example is the use of gesture to enhance the dialogue’s conflict. Notice how when Lisa thrusts the turkey sandwich across the counter, it gives us information about her emotional state and implies a tone for the rest of her lines that we can hear without having to resort to clunky devices like “Lisa said sarcastically,” “Lisa said bitterly,” etc.

# 2 Use gesture, action, thought, and setting to add conflict to your dialogue

Gesture, action, thought, and setting can all be great ways to give conflict to a scene. Used well, they can create context for the dialogue that makes the actual words carry a lot more weight than they would if all we had were two talking heads.

Here’s the same example with a little bit more context:

When José came back into the kitchen, Lisa was busy making them sandwiches as though nothing had happened.
“Hi,” she said. Her smile seemed fake to him, too sugary. He glared across the counter, where she was adding a pickle to each of their plates.
“You forgot the mustard,” he said.
Lisa stopped what she was doing and stared at him for a moment. I should’ve just let it go, José thought.
But it was too late. Lisa thrust the plate across the counter. It would have flew clean off the edge and smashed on the floor if José hadn’t caught it.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she said. “How are you?”

The best scenes of dialogue, in my opinion, accomplish more than one thing. Obviously there’s a lot more conflict here than in the original example. But we also get characterization (we know a little more about Lisa and José’s personalities based on how they talk and interact with each other), setting (the kitchen, the sandwich), and a sense of Lisa and José’s past (in other words, their back story – something happened prior to this interaction that’s influencing the scene).

It’s still primarily a scene of dialogue, but the actions, gestures, thoughts, perceptions, details, and setting enhance and add layers of complexity to the scene.

#3 Work conflict into the story surrounding your dialogue

One last example. I want to show you how you can use the context of the story to create conflict that’s coming from somewhere else besides the characters. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not necessary to have characters in conflict with each other every single moment.

Not only can it create an exhausting pace (readers need a break sometimes – a lull in the conflict to get their bearings and reorient), but sometimes you might have two characters that are essentially allies to one another.

Of course, you will want them to butt heads at some point so that their relationship doesn’t become flat and predictable (even Harry, Hermione, and Ron from the Harry Potter series get in fights sometimes), but it’s totally fine to have characters that are essentially friends.

In that case, though, you will want to look elsewhere for conflict. In the case of Harry Potter and many other stories, this is the classic two-against-one or three-against-one scenario.

In this example, let’s pit Lisa and José against… Oh, I don’t know. Vampires.

When José came back into the kitchen, Lisa was busy making them sandwiches as though nothing had happened.
“Hi,” she said. Her smile seemed fake to him. There’s no way she could be happy right now. He glanced across the counter, where she was daintily arranging a pickle on each of their plates. She hadn’t even bothered to wipe the blood off her hands.
“I think they’re gone,” he said.
Lisa stopped what she was doing and stared at him for a moment. “They’re never gone, not really.”
“Well, sleeping at least.” He looked out the kitchen window, where the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. It was so peaceful out there. It was hard to imagine that just an hour ago… he didn’t want to think about it.
Lisa gingerly pushed the plate across the counter, like it was the very last sandwich she might ever make for him. “This is insane,” she whispered.
“It’s just until Tuesday. We can make it. We’ve managed this long.”

Alright, so there’s still a little tension between Lisa and José in this scene. I can’t help it. But most of the conflict is coming from outside the dialogue – the blood on the counter, the suggestion of danger lurking outside the kitchen, the way Lisa gingerly gives José the sandwich like it’s the very last one he might ever eat.

As scenes go, this one is pretty subdued, but that’s just my style. You could easily intersperse the scene of dialogue with angry vampires that are trying to smash in the windows while somewhere, in the distance, children scream as their throats are ripped out.

Everyone has own their own style.

I just wanted to show you how to bring conflict into a scene where the characters are more or less allied with one another, and show that it’s not necessary for two people to get into a screaming match in order for there to be conflict.

Due to the influence of modern American cinema, we often think of drama or conflict in terms of car explosions, alien attacks, and shoot outs. While those are totally fine events to include in your novel or short story, if that’s the direction you want to go, they aren’t necessary in order to have suspense and engage readers. In fact, if you go too big too soon you risk tiring out your readers and ending up with a story with lopsided pacing.

But that’s a topic for another blog post.

In summary:

  • Dialogue is more interesting and relevant when it has conflict
  • One way to add conflict is to have your characters say “No” to each other and talk from “different scripts”
  • Use gesture, action, thought, setting and detail to enhance your dialogue and show conflict without having to “tell” the reader what’s going on
  • When your characters are allies, have conflict that comes from outside their relationship

I hope this has been helpful! If you want to learn more about editing your dialogue, check out my book The Complete Guide to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.