where the writers are
QUESTION: 'Must Dialog Include Conflict?'

DAVID EUBANKS (a fellow writer, tho one far more thoughtful than I) Writes: "Every now and then some writers consider the requirement for conflict to be at the center of their story. Some dispute it. Others wholeheartedly say it’s so. 

  I wanted to take a closer look at conflict in dialog. Some experts say that dialog should present tension of some sort to keep the reader’s interest. They say that flat dialog alone—the mere exchange of information (“What day is it?” “Tuesday.”)—will discourage the reader from reading on. 

So I conducted an experiment—at home. (You can too, it’s not dangerous.) I took a half dozen books off the bookshelf behind my desk (all novels) and thumbed through them, stopping randomly where I found dialog on the page. I generally selected the first or second sampling I found. I scanned the facing pages into Microsoft Word and used the Comments feature to mark where I found some level of Conflict in the dialog. 

You can check the attachment for the results. 

Conflict is a broad term used in this context. The word generally calls to mind something heated or bloody. But in this context it represents something more expansive like: the presence of opposing ideas or actions."


EARL Responds: Interesting analysis, Dave-- and a good selection of passages. 

Often, concepts such as "conflict" become --certainly, when discussed by writers-- the essence of conflict itself. 

Example: If only as an intellectual musing, one could fairly say that bringing any two different "things" to contact or close proximity invariably creates some reaction or result. (With a purloiner's apologies to Locard, and probably to Mike Tyson too.) 

Different metals, for instance, usually generate an almost imperceptible electrical current between themselves; but even subtle nuances in the ideas of any two unique-by-nature individuals, when brought together, create a similar reaction. 

At least broadly, these reactions can arguably be defined as "conflict." 

I'd posit that, as you note, it all depends on the all-important context involved. Take your information-exchange example, with a little contextual tweaking (at least implied): 

"What day is it?" 

"Tuesday," he grimaced. (Emphasis mine.) 

If we already know --or will shortly find out-- that Tuesday is the day a gambling debt is due, there's the contextual conflict. It need not even be conflict between the two speakers; the conflict may be with the leg-breaker who has promised to return to collect (or inflict) on that day. 

But the conflict exists-- or does if the writer isn't wasting words in the piece. The reader gets a double-bonus: a time-setting (Tuesday) and a far more potent contextual message. It's a triple-whammy if a five-word exchange communicates something about the personalities or mindsets of the speaker or speakers-- be it anxiety, fearfulness, shallowness, boredom, etc. 

As a writing tactic, adding the otherwise-incongruous "he grimaced" to the otherwise-mundane reportage of the day-of-the-week will keep the reader reading, just to find out why Tuesday evokes such an odd reaction. 

IMHO, going deeper than the superficial is part of the job of any writer... and it's important to use each word we write to say more than the sentence might otherwise communicate. Many of the examples you present do this nicely, which is why most of 'em are classics. 

Is "conflict" the requirement at the heart of any story? Again, IMHO it is essential... and the good news is that it's intrinsic in any narrative-- if only we see it, and write it so the reader does too. 

In heat, there is (usually) light. <grin> Lord, don't that sound pre-e-e-etentious? 

--Earl "They Shoot Intellectuals, Don't They?" Merkel 

(REDROOM'ERs: Feel free to join the discussion with your comments. --EM) 


(EDITOR'S NOTE: Sadly, David's markup won't copy-and-paste here with his margin comments; MS Word befuddles me again. But if you want to look at it, send me a request with your e-mail address and I'll forward 'em to David for reply. --EM)