I wish the following article focused more on how to build conflict in the story at large, rather than just in dialog. I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiment that there should be conflict on every page. Sometimes, you need a transition scene, or a cooling off period in between conflict in order to set something up for later. Despite its limitations, however, this post still serves as a useful reminder that story is conflict, and that nuances in the level of conflict can greatly impact character and plot development. – Scott
An important aspect of any novel, be it romance, mystery, western, fantasy, whatever, is conflict. There are many who say there should be conflict on every page. But how do you get conflict on every page? Dialog offers a great opportunity.
“You sound different today.”
“No I don’t.”
There’s conflict, in seven words.
Now, you might say, that’s not much conflict. That’s okay. Every instance of conflict does not have to be an all out war. But, actually, even this seven word conflict can be as much as you want. It can be slight. “No, I’m fine.” Or you can make it much stronger when the second person is hiding something. Whom that affects, and how it affects him or her, can determine the degree of conflict.
Suppose the first person, a woman, has never met the second person, a man. She has only talked to him on the telephone. Now he sounds different. Is it the same man? Or perhaps the second person has been threatened by a vicious thug who made it clear her child would be killed if she let anyone know about his threat. She is still terrified and her voice is not the same. If the first person pushes it, this can become a full-fledged conflict. But we’ve set it up in just seven words of dialog. Powerful stuff, this dialog.
Think about your novel. How many instances of small conflicts can you add through dialog? Of course, you need to make certain that the conflict fits in nicely with the story. Don’t force it. Look at your characters and determine which ones will be willing to disagree at the drop of a hat. You may have a character who is going through a bad time and is generally mad at the world. He may take exception to almost everything that is said to him.
“That was a great movie.”
“No it wasn’t. It was terrible. I can’t believe you liked it.” (Conflict)
“Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I didn’t mean to push my opinion off on you.”
“Stop it. Don’t be so wish-washy on everything. You liked it. I didn’t. That’s it.” (Heightened conflict)
“Don’t say you’re sorry. There nothing to be sorry about. We disagree.” (Escalating conflict)
They will still remain friends, but we’ve added conflict through dialog. And we’ve enhanced the reader’s understanding of both characters.
It’s me against me!
(I guess grammatically it should be, “It’s I against me.” But, even though correct, it will stop the average reader. Your book has to read smoothly and sometimes, by a conscious choice, you need to violate a grammar rule.)
The conflict can be within one character. In fact, this is often the case. Certainly Hamlet had a pretty good conflict going on inside his own mind. This will most often be expressed for the reader with internal dialog.
He looked through the wallet he had picked up off the sidewalk. There were credit cards, driver’s license, other cards. And a wad of money. I could keep the money, sort of a finder’s fee. Return the rest. Say I found the wallet but there was no money in it. Who would know? He looked at the stack of fifties. I would know.
Here, conflict exists, not with another person, but within himself. And this conflict will further the plot, and allow the reader to know this character better.
So remember to introduce conflict through dialog and maybe you can get conflict on every page.