March 21, 2016

5 Tips For Creating Conflict Through Dialogue


We took the exit ramp from the highway and came to a stop at the red light at the bottom of the hill.

Our GPS repeated her previous command, "Turn left."

From the back seat, my four-year-old grandson said, "Not yet, Stalker."


At four, he has no idea what a stalker is. He meant talker, but in an odd way, the GPS does stalk us. Without knowing it, his statement held some truth, but out of context I could twist it into something frightening.

How often do we not say what we mean?

Maybe we don't know the proper word or pronunciation.  Maybe we can't recall the word we want, a phenomena I'm experiencing more and more. We can list a multitude of reasons why, but let's explore the results of our poor communication. When our communication is unclear, people probably think one or more of the following:

  • This person has no clue.
  • What did he mean?
  • Did she really just say that?
  • That's hilarious.
  • I wonder what I'll have for supper?
  • Nothing because they think they understood you. 

Of course, this list isn't all-inclusive, but it gives us an idea, as writers, on the need to create confusion in our dialogue.  And for the rest of you, remember this common problem in your daily interactions.

Misunderstandings form the groundwork for conflict in plot lines.

If you're not creating confusion in your dialogue, you might be missing a fantastic opportunity to stir  the conflict pot.  Here are five ways to create communication havoc:

1.  The character refuses to share information.
We leave things out for many reasons: control, stubbornness, forgetfulness, or we don't consider it important.

2.  The character misunderstands someone's actions or words and doesn't realize it.
We make assumptions all day long, especially if we doubt ourselves.  A statement applied this way can make a character change their mind, act differently, turn away from a relationship (just read a romance), stew over it for hours and days, or blow up in anger.

3.  The character says one thing but means something else.
Often, the character believes everyone understands what he just said, but, due to word choice or missing information, it's not clear to others

4.  The character overhears part of something and assumes it applies to her.
We like characters who eavesdrop! It's exciting to read about, but out of context, a message can have any meaning your character wants to give it. The possibilities are endless and often disastrous.

5.  The character didn't listen to the whole message.
Listening takes effort. Most people listen while focusing on other things:  background noise, the pain in their back, the odd person who just walked by, what's for dinner, or what we want to say in response.  These people are not listening, and they miss key details.

Whether you're a writer or not, it's worthwhile to recognize these issues.  Writers, use them in your story.  In our personal lives, we should try to recognize they exist before traipsing down the wrong path to misunderstanding.

Reasons abound for us to misunderstand each other.  What would you add to this list?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at Freedigitalphotos.net.




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