Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.32: Everything is About Conflict

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Maurice Broaddus, and Howard Tayler

Everything is about conflict? Really? Well, yes. Maybe not in the action-movie sense, but conflict is everywhere, even among people whose goals, objectives, and methodologies are in alignment. This, of course, means that it exists among your cast of characters, and it will inform the way the talk to one another.

Liner Notes: We mentioned this famous Monty Python sketch about wanting to have an argument.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write a scene in which two characters try to decide whether or not to commit a crime. One has done crimes before. One has not. Halfway through, reverse their positions on the matter.

Thing of the week: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (currently requires a subscription to Paramount+).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How does conflict affect dialogue? Start with an overarching conflict of your narrative. Then each scene reflects that conflict, and every dialogue needs to reflect the conflict of this scene. Sometimes it’s conflicting agendas, sometimes it’s a juxtaposition of two ideas. Pacing has a lot to do with it, and where you are in the story. Try-fail cycles, and the rule of three. Yes-but, no-and. What is at stake in this dialogue exchange? Deflections! 

[Season 17, Episode 32]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Dialogue Masterclass Episode Five, Everything is About Conflict.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Maurice] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Maurice] I’m Maurice.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] Everything is about conflict. 

[Mary Robinette] It is not!

[Dan] I think this… 


[Dan] Yes it is. How many times do we have to go over this?

[Mary Robinette] Fine.


[Dan] Maurice.

[Maurice] Yes.

[Dan] How does conflict affect the dialogue that we write?

[Maurice] So I actually had this whole idea reframed for me not too long ago because I was… This sounds… Again, with my wierd stories of my life, but… So I was on a mission trip to Romania. Like I say, I will turn anything into a writing opportunity. So I’m sitting around, I’m talking to these groups of missionaries. One of them turns to me, he’s like, “So I’m the top playwright in Romania.” I’m like, “Oh. Of course you are, and of course you happen to be in this circle right now.” So he and I end up having this whole conversation. He’s also a professor, so he was determined to like give me his entire course over a three hour breakfast. But he starts talking about the whole idea of conflict, and how everything starts with an overarching conflict of your narrative. If you understand what your overarching conflict is, then when you come to write a scene, each scene touches into that conflict. Because that conflict is played out in each scene, now he says, now I get to play with time, because it doesn’t even matter what order I arrange things in, because each scene is playing out that conflict over and over again. So that’s something that’s kind of stuck with me moving forwards is just the whole idea of, like, okay, everything starts with identifying one of the overarching conflicts in the story, but then I start pushing that out a little bit, so when my two characters are engaged with each other, so what is the conflict in this scene? Sometimes that conflict is the whole conflicting agendas item, and then sometimes it’s just a matter of like them tying into the greater theme of the book. I’m not sure if I’m explaining this really well, but that’s kind of where my headspace goes to when I start talking about it all starts with conflict.

[Mary Robinette] I think, for me, it totally makes sense what you’re talking about. I have lately been thinking about the idea of conflict as being… I think that when we think about conflict and use that word, we think about a fight. I really think it’s about attention, and that fights are about the easiest way to explain that idea of conflict. But that overarching tension or conflict that you’re talking about is often like a juxtaposition between two ideas, which a conversation between characters can expose. There’s a thing that I think ties into what you’re talking about that I learned from a PR firm that we used with… When I was president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association that… This was from Kevin Lampi of Kirk Lampi Worldwide. Great people. Anyway, but one of the things he did was that he had us do a crisis management exercise. We had to write down in these blocks what we thought of ourselves. What we thought of ourselves, then… This is an us and them thing. What we thought about them. What they thought about us, and what they thought about themselves. What was interesting about that was the act of trying to put yourself into someone else’s mindset also started to expose where the opportunities for more disagreement were and also where the opportunities for compromise were, where the overlapping things were. Oh, look, here are the things that we actually do all have in common, the same common goals. So when you’re thinking about this conflict between the characters, if you think about, okay, what does your character think about themselves and what do they think about the person that they’re in the conversation with. And vice versa, like what does the other person think about themselves and how do they think about the character. A lot of times, there’s just kind of natural areas for this conflict, because things are so out of alignment.

[Dan] Maurice, I really loved what you said earlier about how, to a certain extent, every conversation in a book is about the overarching conflict. Whether that is overt or indirect. It’s important to point out that pacing has a lot to do with this. Because really, your… If you’re going to be poking at this central conflict over the course of an entire book, you don’t want to resolve it too early. You want to make sure that there is an arc and a flow to it. There are elements that maybe shouldn’t even be discussed early, and certainly not resolved. Maybe those early conversations are a chance to establish that conflict, to avoid it, to come to false conclusions or false compromises. Make sure that you know what the pacing of your overall story is going to be like, because that can help guide these kind of sub conversations that address it.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah, I think that…

[Howard] I am really fond… Oh, sorry.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, no, you go, Howard.

[Howard] I am really fond of the Monty Python argument sketch. Where… It actually gets cited as, in scholarly dissertations, as examples of what arguments are not and examples of how to write dialogue poorly. The… We’ll post a link to it in the liner notes, but… “Ah, is this the right room for an argument?” “I told you once.” “No you haven’t.” “Yes I have.” “When?” “Just now.” “No you didn’t.” “Yes I did.” “You didn’t.” “I did.” “You didn’t.” “I’m telling you I did.” “Oh, I’m sorry, just one moment. Is this the five-minute argument or the full half-hour?” “Oh, just the five-minute.” “Ah, thank you.” “Anyway, I did.” It is brilliant. I mean, it’s a sendup of customer service, customer complaint culture among other things. But the way in which you unpack this, one character’s motivation is to make sure that we never resolve the conflict. They’re always… The argument has to continue. So he resorts to just straight up contradiction and ad hominem and… The other person is looking for, I suppose, a satisfactory experience after having spent a pound on five minutes of argument. I don’t know what they’re looking for. It’s kind of absurd. But it’s enormously entertaining to watch. And… I’m done.

[Dan] Awesome. Let’s do our book of the week right now. Which is actually a thing of the week because it is a TV show. I want to tell you all to go and watch Strange New Worlds. This is the new Star Trek series with Pike and Number One and Spock and Uhura and all of these people. It is kind of sort of a prequel to the original series, but fundamentally, and the reason that I am recommending it to you, is it understands what Star Trek is better than any other series in the last 20 years. I am a hard-core Star Trek fan. I watch all of the shows. There’s five right now and some of them are not good and I still watch them. Strange New Worlds is exquisite. It is wonderful. The way that they are able to do characterization in incredibly small amounts of time. Just a quick camera pan around the bridge and you already know who these people are and how they interact with each other. They’ve done a wonderful job with who these people are, making it feel like Star Trek, and then, also, in many cases, some really fascinating conversations and dialogue to the point of our episode. But, really, my agenda is that I just want you to go watch Star Trek. So, Strange New Worlds is wonderful. Go watch it.

[Mary Robinette] So, my agenda…


[Mary Robinette] Is also to help you understand how to use this conflict. I said earlier that this is about try-fail cycles. So when Dan was talking about pacing… If you understand how to use a try-fail cycle that occurs in another part of storytelling, then you understand how to use a try-fail cycle in dialogue. In brief, if you’re listening to this in and of itself, Western readers are used to the rule of three, that things happen in sets of three. Third times a charm, three times are funny, what have you. So if you do something that breaks that rule, if somebody gets an answer in a two count or they get it in a five count, it’s going to affect their idea of how difficult something was. So when you’re thinking about this conversation and thinking about where you are in the course of the overall story, that conversation is part of a try-fail cycle of trying to achieve a thing. So you can decide, okay, I’m going to… In this thing, my authorial area of intention is that we advance this much and my character’s area of intention is this thing. So I’m going to… And I want it to feel easy. So I’m going to get the answer really fast. Or I want it to feel hard, so I’m going to draw this out, and at the end of it, in the try-fail cycle, if you’ve heard me talk about it in previous episodes, the idea of yes-but, no-and. Do they get the answer? Yes, but they’ve caused a bigger argument. Or, no, and it has exposed a greater crack in the relationship. So you can use those tools, the same tools that we’ve talked about for other things, you can use those and how you structure the dialogue and the conflict inherent in that dialogue.

[Maurice] Yeah. I think one of the things to keep in mind, so as this dialogue scene’s playing out and is touching on this overarching conflict and everything, one of the things to think about is what is at stake in this dialogue exchange?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Maurice] I mean, that’s the big thing, right? This ties back into what Mary Robinette just said as well as what Dan talked about in terms of pacing, is… Because sometimes, what’s at stake is the reveal that propels, that opens up the door for the next phase of the story. Right? So, keep it in mind, what’s at stake in this scene? That also charges the moment, also. If the reader understands there’s something big at stake, then that moment, this conversation’s charged with an extra energy.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That can also be like why a character doesn’t want to have a conversation, and the conflict is just about trying to get them to have it. Because of the thing that’s at stake… Because they’re aware of how vulnerable that conversation is going to make them. They’ll do anything in their power… Like, if you ask someone who is depressed and has not yet admitted it if they’re depressed, they’re going to tell you no. They’re not… It’s like… They may immediately say, “No. Do you want some tea?”


[Mary Robinette] Immediately deflect and move away. So…

[Maurice] Sorry, I’m going to… Sorry, I’m just going to laugh every time you say, “Do you want some tea?” Because that’s literally what my mother does all the time.


[Maurice] If something gets too heated. She’ll do it as a way to introduce herself to a group of people she doesn’t know, because she leads with hospitality, or, if a moment gets too emotionally charged, it’s like, “Would you like some tea?” as her way of backing out of the conversation.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. That’s a really great characterization thing that you can do is figure out how does your character deflect when they get uncomfortable. Do they crack a joke? Do they offer tea? Do they just gets silent? I know someone, and this is an understanding that we have between us, that sometimes their emotions become too much for them to process, and the easiest thing for them when that happens is to just walk out of the room. Because we have had that conversation, they can, with me, just walk out of the room and I’m like, “Okay. We’ll pick that up later after they’ve had time to process their emotions.” But they can’t do that with other people, so they have to use different deflection mechanisms. So it… There’s so many yummy things that you can do…


[Mary Robinette] To introduce conflict.

[Howard] One of my favorite comedic moments, and I’ve seen it done several different ways, it’s its own trope, is the nakedly undisguised deflection. Conversation gets uncomfortable and somebody says, “Oo. Sorry, I just realized I need to be somewhere besides this room.” Then they leave.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Howard] There’s any number of ways that can be established, but the deflection that is obvious is… One of the reasons it’s funny is because we see ourselves in it. We see ourselves deflecting and not wanting to be discovered in our deflection.

[Dan] Well, I… Deflections themselves are valuable because a lot of authors don’t even realize they can do it. Right? You’ve put these two people in a conversation. Clearly, they have to keep talking until something is resolved. No they don’t. The form kind of tricks us into thinking that there will be a satisfactory conclusion to this, that the questions will get answered. No. People don’t always do that. So giving yourself the freedom… I hereby give you permission to have your characters refuse to discuss the things you want them to discuss. To try to deflect, to try to change the subject, to try to distract. Which I see in so many works by new writers and aspiring writers is they just didn’t realize they could do that.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Again, if you think of it as conflict, if you think of it as physical conflict, of course when you’re sparring, you’re going to block. Of course you’re going to dodge. So letting your characters do that as well, they don’t have to hit every time. They can make other choices.

[Howard] I’m sorry, I just realized that there’s someplace I need to be besides this boxing ring.


[Dan] Okay. So here’s your homework for today. I want you to write… This is a pure writing prompt writing exercise that we’re doing. Write a conversation between two characters, one who wants to commit a crime and one who does not. They are in conflict over that issue. One of them has done this before, the other one has not. The twist is halfway through this conversation, I want their opinions to change. Whoever was advocating for the crime is now advocating against it and vice versa. Give us that conflict, show how it changes. That is your homework for today. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.