When Arguments Are a Good Thing: Conflict in Dialogue

Most authors and their readers will agree that nothing beats a good bout of dialogue. Witty, poignant, romantic, angry—it’s all good. We all love it when characters open their big mouths and let fly. But creating good dialogue isn’t as easy as saying the first thing that pops to mind. Good dialogue is all about conflict. So how do we harness the conflict in our stories and make it power our dialogue in effective and compelling ways?

6 Ways to Use Conflict in Dialogue

1. Keep Your Dialogue On Point

Dialogue must matter to the plot. Random arguments won’t give your story the conflict it needs. Readers only care about conflict between characters insofar as it advances the plot or reveals interesting things about the people.

2. Maintain an Arc in the Conversation

Conflict should rise to a crescendo, then taper into a climactic (semi-)resolution. Likely, you won’t fully resolve the arguments and the issues fueling them until late in the book, but each argument still needs to come to a believable conclusion.

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3. Keep the Character Arcs in Mind

What are the characters’ motivations and goals in having this discussion? People never mindlessly argue. They always have a reason, a goal, an agenda. So what are your characters trying to accomplish? What are they trying to get from each other that’s worth the confrontation?

4. Vary the Tension

Not all arguments have to be screamers. In fact, they shouldn’t all be screamers. You can utilize subtext to make even a calm chitchat have dramatic undercurrents of conflict. To keep things interesting, you need to include a variety of tension levels in your dialogue scenes.

5. Utilize Subtext

Speaking of subtext, use your conflict to reveal things about your characters. For example, that argument about who forgot to let the cat out could really be about something else entirely—like who’s responsible for a failing relationship.

6. Remember the Power of the Action Beat

Sometimes a good action beat can effectively take the place of a whole page of dialogue. Instead of a drawn-out argument, have the angry cook hit the boss with the lobster that was supposed to be for dinner.

4 Ways Not to Use Conflict in Dialogue

1. Don’t Let Arguments Meander Purposelessly

Starting out talking aimlessly about the weather and ending up screaming and cursing is possible, but not probable.

2. Don’t Leave the Dialogue Hanging Without Context

Let the narrating character show us his or her reactions (which perhaps are entirely different from the words).

3. Don’t Resolve Things Too Quickly

Jumping from “You’re a boring slob!” to “I adore you!” isn’t going to work 99.9% of the time. Arguments must have a natural rise and fall, and if you’re going to get readers all worked up, you can’t disappoint them by resolving things too quickly.

4. Don’t Let Characters Fight Out of Context to Their Personalities

Someone who believes in truth and justice needs to fight fair. Someone who’s a bully, on the other hand, is likely to hit as low and as hard as possible. Your character’s fighting style should be consistent with established personality and values. If the character fights in a way that goes against either of these things, there needs to be a good reason.


If you can keep these important dos and don’ts of dialogue in mind as you write your next character conversation, you’ll be able to create arguments that sizzle. Readers won’t be able to stop eavesdropping!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s your go-to technique for creating conflict in dialogue? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. So true. It is all in how you write the dialogue, and in keeping with your voice.

  2. And the characters’ voices! 🙂

  3. That was a wonderful post! All very important things to have in mind 🙂

    It is great how some dialogue can reveal very much of a character, his goals and personality.




  4. We give our characters voices, but the only way they can communicate is through their dialogue. We need to get it right!

  5. We certainly do! And as you very well said, keep them “in character”.

    I found out that something really helpful for characterization is having friends of different ages. Even when people tell me “What? What´s a 26 years old woman doing hanging out with a 17 years old teenager?”

    I found out 50 years old woman can have the same love issues a twenty-some does and I know a 89 years old author who can still write… and drive!

    It´s really very productive.

  6. Great way to mix things up. Those sorts of “off-beat” relationships really allow you to explore some interesting themes as well.

  7. That´s true, things that won´t come up other way.

  8. I sometimes have my students approach dialogue by writing a tercet for each character… For example, if age were the platform, the character would say the line as a child, young adult, and elderly person. I also have them speak. If sentence fluency is lacking, the dialogue needs to go.

  9. Great exercise! That would also be an excellent way to chart character arc over a long period of time.

  10. I was hoping more for actual words and examples from books and films. When I argue in real life, I shut down; I don’t have words, and if I do, I don’t think of them until much later. When I hear an argument in the next room/nearby, I leave the area. Anything I do hear is more or less forgotten, so I have no reference for how to build an argumentative dialog. I’ll check YouTube.

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