Conflicted Dialogue-Understanding & Secrets 205-02

silhouettes of two people shouting at each other

Stories are driven by conflict, and dialogue is no different. When writing a piece of dialogue, recognize what conflicts exist, and what their underlying cause(s) are. For example, here are 4 common source of conflict in dialogue:

  1. Understanding/misunderstanding
  2. Secrets & Deception
  3. Intentions & Goals
  4. Opinions

1. Understanding

Information is the most fundamental aspect of communication. What two characters know about each other, and the extent to which they correctly interpret each other, defines how well they can communicate. Language is often considered the cornerstone of understanding, but I believe there’s something even more critical: values.

Every person (and by extension the culture in which they grew up) have values; a combination of morals, aesthetics, and priorities. For example, many medieval cultures centered around warfare; the most skilled fighters rose to prominence. Over time warfare became less central to daily life, prompting power to shift from military prowess to production, one’s ability to create wealth.

On a more personal level, there are some who value intelligence, while others find it arrogant and off-putting. I’ve known people who use the term “idiot” as a term of endearment, who like the fact that others are comfortable acting foolish.

Speaking the same language is a strong foundation, but it’s still possible for characters to misunderstand each other. For examples, consider the Codex Alera series, and the Kingkiller Chronicles (particularly Wiseman’s Fear), which feature characters from very different cultures gradually learning to understand each other.

Some stories will actively explore the issue of “translation” and understanding, but if the characters do not share a common language, the story will be unable to explore other ideas. This is why many stories involving different languages often struggle with how to handle translation.

Personally, I tend to favor cultures that use the same vocabulary, but their word choices and sentence structure emphasize how that alone is not enough to achieve understanding.


Misunderstandings are one of my favorite forms of character development. Protagonist and audience have slowly developed an understanding of who a character is, only to suddenly realize that they were wrong all along, prompting them to reexamine everything they knew about a character. Examples include Mistborn (by Brandon Sanderson), Harry Potter (JK Rowling), Speaker for the Dead (By Orson Scott Card), and the Belgariad (By David Eddings).

2. Secrets & Deception

The word "truth", spelled out with smaller instances of the word "lies"

In some ways this is an extension of understanding. If one character actively chooses to conceal something from another, that secret will hinder understanding. But secrets are more than just a misunderstanding. They represent an active, intentional effort to mislead someone. At best it represents a lack of trust; at worst it’s a betrayal that completely unravels the relationship.

The most common deceptions are self-serving, the ally or protagonist who pretends to be a kind benefactor, or a perfect partner, when the truth is they have an ulterior motive, or a shameful past.

For example, Aladdin and Romancing the Stone. Both feature a male character who initially hopes to use lies and romance to secure financial wealth, but over time they grow to honestly care about their female counterpart. Fearing they may lose their chance at true love, they continue to conceal the secret that began their relationship.

However, some secrets are more forgivable, even admirable. The most common example is “expectations vs identity”. Almost every culture has ideas and expectations (stereotypes) about “how” people should act and live, and people feel pressured to conform to these expectations, sometimes living secret lives to express their “true” identity. The most common form is the expectations a parent has for their child.

These are the types of personal secrets that are usually accepted as “their choice”. Some may still react with hostility, but often, once the secret is revealed, it deepens, rather than weakens the relationship. The two develop a greater level of mutual trust, respect, and acceptance. Stories where characters struggle with acceptance would include Ender’s Game, Game of Thrones, Frankenstein, as well as anime such as Whisper of the Heart (1995 Studio Ghibli film).


Secrets are a good way to explore issues of identity (if the character is concealing a part of themselves), a good way to save a surprise twist for later (particularly who someone is, or who their parents are), and it’s a good way to complicate a relationship (starting with a lie). Secrets can be a great source of tension, as long as you use them effectively.

If you feel the secret is obvious, reveal it to your audience, and use it. Sharing a secret between a character and the audience is a great way to engender sympathy for the secret keeper.

If you think audiences will never see it coming, keep it from them, save that secret for a moment when you really want to ramp up the tension. Leaving audiences in the dark helps them empathize with the characters who were kept in the dark.

Secrets, like all aspects of storytelling, are about keeping audiences engaged. Few things are worse than getting ahead of the story (in this case, finding out the secret before the story reveals it), and waiting for the story to catch up. That’s when audiences get bored, and question whether “this story” is really worth it.

Next Time…
Conflict in Dialogue- -Intentions, Goals, & Opinions

4 thoughts on “Conflicted Dialogue-Understanding & Secrets 205-02

    • Thank you. As you might have noticed, I’m on a bit of a dialogue kick of late. Received some remarks that one of my stories was a little light on conversation, and it motivated me to spend some time considering what I think of dialogue.

      • Mmm. Balance can be an elusive thing. Fortunately, there are plenty of published stories that excel at any number of facets of good storytelling, and a fair number of exercises designed to sensitize us to a single aspect. And, at a certain point, I think there’s always “something” to work on, which can itself be a source of comfort. The journey never ends, and there’s always something new to discover.

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