Dialogue Writing II — Introduce Conflict

Dialogue Writing II — Introduce Conflict

introduce conflict

To engage the reader, introduce conflict in the dialogue. To expand realistic boundaries and intensify the dialogue, use idioms. Your purpose is to illuminate the characters and to advance the plot. These are several instructional points in this Lesson on English Dialogue Writing.

The final exercise at the end of Lesson 1 was to make a list of emotions you found in dialogues you wrote in Exercises #1-3. Maybe almost any emotion is more interesting than the absence thereof, but let’s look at an extended dialogue to see it first-hand. This is between two characters in a serious relationship, Anton and Barbara. In the intro, they are hungry and talk about ordering pizza. Note: the Idioms are in bold-italic:

Anton: “I’m starved. We should order some pizza.”
Barbara: “That sounds great to me! I can call it in if you want.”
Anton: “Sure, but I’m in the mood for chicken, what about you?”
Barbara: “That sounds fine, but let’s add mushroom and tomato and pesto, sound good?”
Anton: “I’m not wild about pesto, but I’d do anything to make you happy. So, sure!”
Barbara: “You’re the man. You can scrape off what you don’t like and give it to me!”

Short and sweet. A little too sweet, in fact – no conflict. It’s everyday dialogue with two idioms (phrasal verbs) and yet, contrary to what I seemed to suggest in Lesson 1, those two idioms did not lend much magic to this passage. Why not? No conflict.

Let’s have a look at a few lines of more interesting dialogue after their pizza is delivered. I introduce jealousy into this exchange. It is a very powerful emotion:

Anton: “Do you know him from somewhere?”
Barbara: “What do you mean?”
Anton: “The way you were smiling at him.”
Barbara: “What are you talking about? That was the pizza guy.”
Anton: “You still haven’t answered my question.”
Barbara: “Which was?”
Anton: “The smile. What were you smiling so much for, as if you knew him?”
Barbara: “You’re jealous of a pizza guy?”
Anton: “Jealous? Give me a break. Like I’d ever be jealous over you.”

Not a single idiom in this snatch of dialogue. But it is pregnant to bursting with emotion and conflict. Let’s see how this dialogue continues:

Barbara: “How come you’re always getting agitated every time I talk to some guy, then?”
Anton: “That’s your imagination. I’m just saying you were smiling real obvious-like, and I didn’t care for that.”
Barbara: “Well excuse me for being a friendly person!”
Anton: “You think I don’t know the difference between friendly and flirting?”
Barbara: “Oh, so now I was flirting with him? Get a life, this is ridiculous.”
Anton: “Don’t talk to me like that.”
Barbara: “It’s not me talking like that, it’s you. Where is all this coming from?”
Anton: “All this? All what?”
Barbara: “The sudden third degree, like I did something wrong.”
Anton: “I don’t like you being overly friendly with guys you don’t even know. It’s not jealousy, it’s just watching out for you. Most women would be glad their guy was protective.”
Barbara: “Protective? This is about trust. If you don’t trust me, what are we doing together?”
Anton: “Now you’re sounding crazy.”

Compare this, just a few minutes later, with the mood of the intro. The passion in the dialogue is so high now, this exchange could result in a break-up. Listen to the end:

Barbara: “It’s not crazy. I’m not going through life not smiling at people just because you have ants in your pants. I had no idea you were so uptight.”
Anton: “You’re calling me uptight now? Where did you get the idea you could talk to me like this?”
Barbara: “Why, you mean I can only call you King Anton?”
Anton: “You know exactly what I mean!”
Barbara: “Yes, unfortunately, I do.”

Look at the idioms used to raise the emotion in the dialogue. In Barbara’s counterattack, she calls Anton “uptight” and describes him as having “ants in his pants.” She accuses him of giving her the “third degree.” He tries to defend himself against this insulting barrage by saying “I’m just watching out for you.”

The resignation at the end (“Yes, unfortunately, I do.”) is even more conclusive than continuing anger. If she already sees the situation so clearly, something has clicked inside her and Anton should be quite worried now. But he may still underestimate the crisis he is in.

How did this come about? Conflict. Jealousy. The high emotion of sensitive egos. A passionate disagreement or misunderstanding. Suspicion. Mistrust. Everyone understands this kind of situation.

Let me point out two instructive takeaways. Conflict raises emotion. Idioms can sometimes be used to break free of dreary realism.

I say “dreary realism” because “just the facts” may not be interesting at all. This principle is true not only in life and in writing but also in art. This is why we have brilliant and successful artists like Picasso and Salvador Dali. They break free of dreary realism and give their audience something different, which raises the emotional value of the artistic experience.


We have had a close look at the jealous conflict between Anton and Barbara. One important point to learn was that conflict with high emotion makes dialogue more interesting than dull everyday realism without conflict. We also learned that idioms with expansive ideas and imagery can be used to break through plain unadorned realism.

What else did we notice? We learned something about Anton’s character and probably even more about Barbara’s character. The dialogue revealed that Barbara was not going to accept Anton’s efforts to control her behavior the way many women might. The outcome of their argument will probably lead to a breakup.

Let’s discuss plot for a moment. If you are writing a novel, and the plot or story line concerns a breakup followed by a new relationship and subsequent events, then we can see what the dialogue revealed. The “action” of that intense dialogue revealed not only character but also what might happen afterwards.

This is exactly what you want to accomplish in writing dialogue. You want to reveal (1) the inner characters of the people in conflict, and at the same time you want to reveal (2) a part of the plot. A section of dialogue might also reveal 3) the scene (e.g. the whole novel may take place in the New York slums) and be more descriptive. Finally, it might also reveal 4) something of an overarching theme, the “meta” of the novel — some kind of transcendent meaning.

If you use narrative and dialogue, which combination is definitive in a novel (as opposed to a screenplay), then each scene will advance plot, character, and theme. This scene was confrontational and intense, so the words chosen for any narrative description in and around it would also be confrontational and intense. A different tone might be part of a different kind of moment in the novel, for example a make-up scene: intense emotion still there, but on a positive note, not so negative.

Finally, regarding theme, we don’t know yet from this short scene what the writer’s overarching ideas will be. But they begin at least with one woman’s refusal to accept a man’s effort to control her. She’s fighting back.


1.Write a short dialogue (1-2 pp.) between two angry men. Make the dialogue emotional. Suggest the reason for the conflict but do not make it obvious.
2.Write a short dialogue (1-2 pp.) between two angry women. As before, make the dialogue emotional but merely suggest the reason(s) for the conflict without making it obvious.

Dialogue Writing III-IV
About the Author
Learn Conversational English
480 English Idioms