Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Conflicts in Communication

Conflict occurs between characters when there is a breakdown in communication. You don’t need a broken cell phone or a disabled internet to create problems for your characters. When someone’s life or emotional welfare is at stake, breakdowns in communication are treacherous.

Use communication failures to raise the tension and create obstacles that are resolved in future scenes.

1. Mental block

If Jane or Sally offers an important bit of information, Dick may dismiss it outright because it doesn’t fit within his belief system. They can talk all day. It won’t matter. Use this to point Dick in the wrong direction. Later, when he is more willing to listen, their information could save the day.

2. Different meanings

Terms such as coward/courageous, allowed/ forbidden, acceptable/unacceptable, relationship/friendship, good/bad, could have entirely different meanings for Dick, Sally, and Jane. Misunderstandings in this realm create hurt feelings, perhaps the desire for retaliation. Use this misunderstanding to turn a friend into an enemy or a helper into a hinderer. When you want to turn the story around, resolve it.

3. Too much information

Sometimes less really is more. The more options and information thrown at Dick, the harder it can be for him to decide or act. He can’t possibly keep it all straight. Also, when someone goes on and on, you tend to tune them out. Friends and foes can later supply Dick with information he overlooked or details he forgot. The reader may remember and be anxious for Dick to remember. Plant the seed in the first act, sprout it in the third act. It results in exchanges like this:

"I told you this."
"Ages ago."
"I don't remember that."
"Because you never listen."

4. Distraction

Dick may not listen when his mind is on something else, missing the fact that Sally or Jane offered him an important piece of the puzzle. They can later remind him of it when it is crucial, with or without the “I told you so.”

5. Time crunch

If Dick is in a rush, he might forget to say the right thing, tell the correct people, or leave out important facts.  His terse delivery may chafe. This can infuriate and confuse Sally or Jane. It could leave them unwilling to help him or create negative backlash in a future scene.

6. Emotion Commotion

If Sally or Jane approaches Dick in a heightened state of emotion — be it anger, passion, exhaustion, sadness, or drunkenness — Dick may dismiss the content as irrational. In a later scene, you can make Dick wish he had listened.

Communication breakdowns create interpersonal conflict at scene and overall story level and believable tension between characters. Have fun with it.

Read more about using dialogue in fiction.

The Importance of Mystery in Dialogue

Creating Real Characters Through Dialogue

Yakking: Conversation or Dialogue?

For more on crafting conflict, check out Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print and ebook.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. These are great reminders for those of us who have been writing for a while and indispensable information those who are just starting out. Dialogue in all its facets is vital in characterization and in moving a story forward. One aspect of it——internal dialogue—is a great tool for giving a reader insight into certain characters, especially regarding thought processes and motivation. Excellent links, by the way——well worth reading each one of them.

  2. I always think of a line from a movie Labyrinth when Sarah asks which way she should go and the little bug tells her "don't go that way." So she changes course and the little bug mutters, "That way leads right to the castle." :)


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