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Dueling Dialogue

Dialogue must be a duel

We have talked about dialogue tags, action tags, and the setting dialogue inside of a larger context of the tale. For the moment I want to strip away all the extraneous and just discuss the verbal portion of dialogue and what the people want. Dialogue should be a duel. Dialogue whenever two or more people are all rehashing what we already know and everyone is in agreement is dull. We want to see the conflict in the conversation where each person is trying to get something they want or convince someone else they are wrong.

To do that we need to go into each of the dialogues we have with some guild lines. Here are five I like to use, among others that are suggested by many venerable authors. I’ll keep some examples to fantasy and magical worlds.


1. Define Clear Objectives for Each Character

Each character in the dialogue should have a clear objective that drives their conversation. This objective could involve gaining magical power, defending a kingdom, or uncovering ancient secrets.

Example: In a debate between a sorcerer and a knight in the traditional “noble,” sense, the sorcerer aims to convince the knight of the necessity of using dark magic to defeat a looming threat, while the knight seeks to uphold the kingdom’s predefined laws and ethics.

Outline each character’s goals and their strategies to achieve them. This clarity will keep the dialogue focused and purposeful.


2. Create Tension with Conflicting Perspectives

The essence of dueling dialogue is the clash of opposing views. Characters should have distinct and conflicting perspectives that drive the narrative tension.

Example: In a council meeting, an elven elder argues for isolationism to protect their mystical forest, while a human diplomat advocates for an alliance to fight a common enemy. Develop strong, well-defined viewpoints for each character. The more polarized their opinions, the more engaging the dialogue will be.


3. Use Subtext to Add Depth

Subtext adds layers of complexity to your dialogue by revealing hidden motivations, emotions, and conflicts beneath the surface.

Example: A rogue and a mage discuss a treasure hunt. The rogue could say, “I’m sure your magic will be useful,” implying doubt in the mage’s abilities if you put the right tags around it. Incorporate subtext through tone, body language, and choice of words to convey deeper meanings and unspoken thoughts.


4. Pace the Dialogue with Tactical Shifts

Keep the dialogue dynamic by varying the pace and intensity. Characters might start with a calm exchange, but as the stakes rise, the dialogue should become more heated and intense.

Example: Two wizards debate the ethics of using forbidden spells. They begin by citing ancient texts, but as emotions flare, their dialogue quickens and becomes more confrontational. Maybe energy flares around them. Threats begin to fly.

Plan the rhythm of your dialogue. Make sure you have beat points to tell you when the individual characters ramp up the tension or the stakes, and make sure you know what the reaction will be from the other party/ies.


5. Employ Rhetorical Devices and Wordplay

Enrich your dueling dialogue with rhetorical devices such as metaphors, analogies, and irony. Clever wordplay can add wit and sophistication, especially when you are fitting it into the grandeur of a fantasy setting.

Example: In a battle of wits between an ancient fae and a human, the fae says, “humans are but pebbles in the steam of time,” to which the human can challenge, “A single pebble can start a blockade of a million pebbles to divert the river.” (Cutesy example but the idea remains.)

Use rhetorical devices to make arguments more compelling and memorable. This also highlights the intelligence and eloquence of your characters, or their lack of it if you go out of your way to create shallow responses.


Here’s a short example incorporating these tips in a short back and forth:

Sorcerer: “You cling to your code of honor as if it’s a shield against the darkness. But honor won’t stop the demon horde.”

Knight: “And you believe that by wielding forbidden magic, you can control chaos itself? Power without restraint is the true darkness.”

Sorcerer: “Power is neither good nor evil. It’s how we use it that defines us. Would you see our kingdom fall to uphold your principles?”

Knight: “Better to fall with honor than to rise with corruption. Your magic may win battles, but it will lose our souls.”

Sorcerer: “And what use is a soul if it perishes along with the body? Survival is the first rule of nature.”

Knight: “Survival at any cost is not living, it’s merely existing. We must stand for something greater, or we are no better than the beasts we fight. How are we so sure you are not as bad as they are?”

This example shows characters with clear objectives, conflicting perspectives, subtext (power vs. morality), tactical shifts in the conversation’s intensity, and the use of metaphors. It raises over the short exchange to direct threat.


By applying these tips, we can create dueling dialogue that is engaging and thought-provoking, while also immersing the reader in the world of our fantasy settings.

Now.... Go write an argument. :)

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Reminds me of the Monty Python Argument Clinic sketch. Who doesn't love a good argument? They do always need some sort of resolution though. In real life it's frustrating to have one interrupted, but it happens all the time in books to suspend the tension, I expect.

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