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Randy Ingermanson dishes on dialogue

One of the areas fiction writers find to be a challenge is dialogue. Below, award-winning writer and "Snowflake Guy" Randy Ingermanson talks about why dialogue is war.

Creating: Dialogue is War

by Randy Ingermanson

Nothing is worse than dialogue that's going smoothly.

I've said this before and I'll say it again many times: Dialogue is war.

Fiction is about characters in conflict. That means that in most of your scenes, for most of the scene, your characters need to be in conflict.

It can be high-level or low-level conflict, depending on your taste. But the conflict needs to be there. This does not mean that the characters need to be opposing each other directly, butting heads. That can happen in a high-tension scene.

But the more common way to show conflict is to have your characters working at cross purposes.

Which means they'll be talking at cross purposes. Ignoring each other's comments. Pursuing their own agendas.

An example will make this clear.

Here are the first four lines of dialogue for two scenes. Both of them feature two geeky guys who share a cubicle in an office:

"Morning, Aberforth! How are you today?"

"Great, Dragomir! Everything's perfect. How are you?"

"Marvelous. The project's on schedule and Bossbert is pleased with our progress."

"Well, let's get to work then and make sure things keep rolling along according to plan."

* * *

"Morning, Aberforth! How are you today?"

"Don't ask."

"Whoa, did you get any sleep last night? You look--"

"Any idea where I can get a gun that can't be traced?"

* * *

Which of these two scenes would you want to keep reading?

Good, I knew you'd say that. The vote's unanimous.

Let's look at Version 1 and figure out what's wrong with it.

In Line 1, Dragomir asks Aberforth how he is. This is a vanilla opening, but it won't sink the scene.

In Line 2, Aberforth answers the question. Straight ahead. No evasion. On the nose.

That's how people behave when all is well. Already, we have zero conflict, which means the scene is going nowhere.

In Line 2, Aberforth continues on with a question of his own, and Dragomir responds to it in Line 3. Again, right on the nose. This is boring as dirt.

In Line 4, Aberforth runs on with more of the same happy-happy-happy stuff. The scene is now officially in the toilet and circling the drain. The only thing you can do with this scene is to flush it.

Now let's look at Version 2 and understand what makes it work.

In Line 1, just as before, Dragomir asks Aberforth how he is.

In Line 2, Aberforth refuses to answer. In fact, he tells Dragomir straight out that the subject is off limits.

That's conflict. Anytime one character doesn't respond in the way the other expects him to, it's conflict. Lying, evasion, changing the subject -- all of those are conflict.

In Line 3, Dragomir carries the conflict forward. Instead of dropping the subject, as Aberforth asked, Dragomir gets even more personal by asking if Aberforth got any sleep. This is exactly the direction Aberforth doesn't want to go.

In Line 4, Aberforth again ignores the question. Instead, he interrupts with a question of his own that takes things in a new direction -- where can he get a gun?

Aberforth and Dragomir are talking at extreme cross purposes.

Notice that the stakes rise with each line of dialogue. In Line 1, we're in the ordinary world of Cubicle City. In Line 2, we've got a refusal to communicate. In Line 3, we see that Aberforth has a serious personal problem that might affect his job performance. In Line 4, he's become a desperate man.

The reader doesn't need to be told this. The reader infers it from the dialogue.

The scene's had a promising start, but the conflict can't end here.

It would be a horrible mistake for Aberforth to willingly explain what sort of trouble he's in and for Dragomir to help him find a gun. There's not much conflict there.

Instead, Aberforth will refuse to explain his problem. Dragomir will try to squeeze some of the truth out of him, but Aberforth will lie and it'll be up to Dragomir to figure it out if he can.

Furthermore, Dragomir will try to dissuade him from doing anything stupid or illegal, but Aberforth won't be listening because he already knows there's only one solution to his problem.

Aberforth may get his gun, but Dragomir will do his best to prevent him.

At some point, Dragomir may join forces with his friend. But not right away. Not until we've introduced some other character to carry the conflict.

Until that happens, Dragomir needs to be fighting every move Aberforth makes. He'll do that either by opposing him directly or by working to drive him to another course.

Either way, that's conflict.

Conflict drives fiction.

Dialogue is war.

Don't let it stop until the end of the book.

When the war is over, your story is over.


This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 32,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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