By Becca Puglisi
I’ve been thinking a lot about dialogue lately, because when it’s done poorly, it pulls me right out of the story. There are a lot of issues that contribute to weak dialogue: incorrect mechanics, stilted speech, characters calling each other repeatedly by name (Hi, Bob. Hey, Mary. Could you help me with this, Bob? Sure thing, Mary!)…The list goes on. But instead of talking today about the wrong parts of our characters’ conversations, I want to focus on an important element that’s often missing: tension.
Tension is that gut-curdling, oh-crap feeling you get when you realize trouble’s coming. It’s the rising emotion that emerges at the onset or even the barest hint of conflict. Tension is incredibly important because it stirs the reader’s emotion and builds their interest. It should exist in every scene, and an easy way to add it is through our characters’ verbal interactions.
Think about recent conversations—verbal or written—that have generated tension for you. They probably come to mind pretty quickly. This is because every person is different, and when these differences manifest in our communication, it can result in misunderstandings that lead to heightened emotion. The same should be true for our characters. So if you’re looking for ways to up the tension in a scene, plan any verbal exchanges thoughtfully by incorporating one or more of the following elements.
At her core, who is your character, and how does she communicate? Maybe she’s very efficient—a fixer who quickly and accurately analyzes and applies information. Now suppose she’s talking to someone with a disorganized mind and rambling conversational style. This can cause frustration for your character, who just wants her friend to get to the point already. She responds by cutting him off, or nods her head impatiently while he’s talking. This triggers the friend’s defenses, putting him on edge. When you build your cast with personality and the potential for conflict in mind, those tension landmines are easy to set.
Characters often have conflicting story and scene goals, but what about opposing goals in conversations? We do this all the time in real life—talking to people with a subconscious objective in mind. Your protagonist might be communicating with someone because they want to be heard and appreciated. But what if the other party just wants to prove they’re right? Each character will try and guide the conversation toward what they want, and someone—maybe both parties—will be thwarted. When even our small goals are threatened, our emotions kick in, so this can be a good way to add tension to a scene.
Emotions in Play
We’ve all experienced this situation: you start a conversation with someone who, out of nowhere, bites your head off. Upon closer examination, you realize that the person was upset about something that had nothing to do with you. This universal scenario can be used in our stories. Pile on the emotional baggage just before an interaction, then sit back and watch the sparks fly.
Our insecurities hobble us all the time. We’re sensitive to certain kinds of comments or tones and read unintended meaning into harmless banter. Think about how this might play out with your character. What are his insecurities—in general, but also regarding this particular person or situation? How might they impact him in an upcoming conversation?
How often have you engaged in conversation with an expectation in mind for what the other person will say or how it’s going to go? Sometimes our biases are confirmed, but just as often, they taint our interactions, dooming them to failure before they even begin. We may have a chip on our shoulder that sets a negative tone for the entire exchange. Expecting certain things, we might read into what the other person is saying, misconstruing their true meaning or intent. When it comes to your character, ask yourself: Is there any bias he might bring into this conversation that could result in misunderstanding?
Maybe you’ve heard the old saying about the word assume: it makes an ass out of u and me. How many arguments and mix-ups have come about because of incorrect assumptions? How can we apply this common occurrence in our stories? Think about what knowledge your protagonist may take for granted—something they think the other person knows or doesn’t know. Or maybe they believe that the person shares their opinion about a certain topic when they really think the opposite. How might assumptions like these cause a conversation to go south?
Your protagonist might begin a scene with great intentions, expecting to enjoy a happy chat with one of their favorite people. And everything is fine—until that person starts doing something that grates on your character’s nerves. Frequent interruptions, talking with their mouth full, listening while checking their email, consistently mispronouncing a certain word—it could be literally anything that drives your character bonkers. What might that thing be for your protagonist? What quirks can you give the other party to add an element of tension to the conversation?
A character’s culture is going to impact their communication style, determining what is acceptable and what isn’t, what’s respectful and what’s offensive. Gestures, eye contact, word choices, personal space—these things vary from one locale to another. Your character’s ignorance about these factors could result in all kinds of fallout, from busted business deals and problems at work to the death of a budding romance. This is definitely something to keep in mine in a multi-cultural cast.
I’ve saved this one for last because it plays a very subtle part in most conversations, but it’s so understated, we don’t always pick up on it. Subtext is what you really mean, as opposed to what you say. It’s saying He seems nice when what you really mean is He is a tool of the highest order. We’re not always 100% honest with our words, and the same should be true of our characters. When we take the time to figure out what they really think or want to hide, we end up with interactions that are realistic and nuanced. And the potential for tension and conflict are huge.
These are just some of the elements that can contribute to misunderstandings and tension in our characters’ conversations. Regardless of which you choose to explore, there’s one thing they all have in common: unrealized expectations. The protagonist expects Character B to share her beliefs, want what she wants, have a base of knowledge on which to build, or communicate the same way. When these expectations are shattered, it sets her back on her heels and triggers frustration, embarrassment, hurt, and a range of other emotions. So figure out what your character expects out of a conversation, then block her, and tension is sure to follow.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.