Conflict Through Dialogue: 5 Ways to Create Havoc

Yes, I have one more post based on the dialogue workshop I taught for Imaginarium in July. Missed the first two? You can find them here:

He Said, She Said, Who Said? Punctuating Dialogue

Writing Dialogue: Defining Characters' Personalities


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In this post, I want to focus on how you can use dialogue to build conflict. People create conflict through what they say. Sometimes they do it on purpose. Sometimes, we create it by accident. In fact, over the years I've seen more conflict arise from accidental misunderstandings than by purposeful intent.

Wait a minute? Conflict can be created by accident? Sure!

How often are our words misunderstood?

Maybe we don't know the proper word or pronunciation. Maybe we can't recall the word we want to say--a phenomena I'm experiencing more and more. Most often, we believe we're stating our thoughts clearly, but the other person perceives and interprets it differently.

When our communication is unclear, people probably think one or more of the following:
  • This person has no clue.
  • What did he mean by that?
  • Did she really just say that?
  • That's hilarious.
  • I wonder what I'll have for supper?
  • Nothing. They think they understood you.

Of course, this list isn't all-inclusive, but it gives us an idea on how we can create confusion through dialogue. (Not to mention, it can help us in our every day lives, too.)

Miscommunication forms the groundwork for many conflict 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:

The character refuses to share information.

We leave things out for many reasons: control, stubbornness, forgetfulness, or we don't consider it important. This approach can tell us a lot about the character, too. Maybe they want to trip up the other person, or they hold back information for fear of being blamed, or they want to beat the other person to the punch on solving a crime. The reasons are endless.

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. This relies on a pesky little thing called perception. We believe we understand, but we're filtering the message through our own biases. That means you can state something and another person might take it to mean something else. We filter based on our personal history, our fears, and our desires.

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.  Also, the character might choose to mislead others by not being clear. They point the dialogue to the wrong meaning on purpose.

The character overhears part of something and assumes it applies to her.

We love 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.

The character didn't listen to the whole message.

Listening takes effort. Most people focus on other things while attempting to listen: background noise, the pain in their back, the odd person who just walked by, what's for dinner, or what we plan to say in response. These people are not focused on the other person's words, so they miss key details. FYI, I've noticed this in email communications, too. People scan emails, especially it they're long, so they often miss essential parts of the message.

How do you use dialogue to create conflict?

Now you have five ways to create conflict in your dialogue. These are just a few. I'm sure many of you have other methods you've used or seen. Please share your favorite methods for creating conflict through dialogue in this post's comments.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at


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