The Art of the Conflict – Keeping your Pacing while keeping your reader engaged.

Recently I was speaking to some writers, and the topic of “art in writing” came up.  We were talking about art in conflict, and I think some people didn’t quite “get it”.

Writing sometimes can get “stale”.  I know, I’ve caught myself doing it.  It’s really easy to get caught up in your dialog, especially during a conflict.  The dialog will start shooting out of your fingers.  This character says this, that character yells that.  You have a clear vision of the scene, but you just type out the dialog part.  Problem is, since you have the “clear vision” you “see” what is happening when you read it back to yourself, and you might not realize that the “art” is missing.

One of my beta partners called me on this about 8 months ago.  He told me that it sounded like my characters were sitting there on each side of a table reading lines of a script to each other.  There was nothing else happening but dialog.

I was a little surprised by the comment.  After all, they were raising their hands, slamming their fists, throwing things… weren’t they?  Well, honestly… only in my head.  That’s the way I envisioned it, but I forgot to add that to the “art” of the conflict.  When I read it back… he was right.

My challenge was then, to go back and CREATE the art.  In doing so however, I needed to make sure I didn’t SLOW DOWN the conflict.  I needed to keep it flowing.  I needed to keep the pacing.  I needed to keep the intensity of the scene.

Much easier said than done.

That is why it is an “art”.  It takes trial and error, and practice.  If your “art” pulls your reader out of the story, and reminds them that they are reading, or even worse… makes them start skimming to get to the good stuff… you have spoiled your story for the sake of art.

The author who can create art, and keep the reader engaged, is a true storyteller.



30 responses to “The Art of the Conflict – Keeping your Pacing while keeping your reader engaged.

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  3. This is actually how I create the dialogue in my novel. I type out the conversation and then I go back and describe their facial expressions, tones of voice, and movements. Good of you to point this out to other writers! Great post!

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  5. Great Post Jennifer, I use dialouge a lotand have that problem of more talk and less action, but it is always on the mind and I try to add it in. Thanks

  6. Dialogue vs. actions and description is so tricky for me, and something I can’t even begin to tackle in first draft. To see that others have a similar issue is quite helpful.
    And I love the blog! Not only are the articles informative, but the comments are insightful as well. 🙂

  7. A good beta is hard to find…hold onto that one! One of my biggest challenges is also working action into dialogue smoothly. I don’t have a problem including it, but it always comes out clunky the first time. I guess that’s why we having the editing process!

    • Yes, sometimes it takes a few tries to get it right. After a while, though, it will fly out of your fingers… but for me, it is normally in the second draft. Like Brinda commented below… first comes the dialog, then add the action. That’s the easiest for me.

  8. Yes, sometimes when I’m writing I allow myself to do the “talking heads” thing and then I go back and imagine the scene. Then I add the action. I think it’s easier to write my dialogue that way.

  9. Nice post, loved the summation at the end about being a storyteller– that is the ultimate goal and I fear I’m not there yet, so much to learn! Sounds like you have a good Beta reader!

    • Everyone is at a different point in their journey. You will get there. I still find little silly things wrong in my own writing… but most of the time someone has to point it out, or I don’t even see it.

  10. Ah, yes, the Talking Heads Syndrome. All talk, no action. I always look for when an expressive gesture can replace dialogue. Then you keep up the pace, slip in some action, and engage the reader’s video screen in her head.

  11. I actually had to go in the opposite direction, which can be a problem as well. I was interjecting too much narration about their tone, their facial expressions, etc., which can break up the flow considerably. The trick is to recognize when the additional “setting” information is needed and when it is not.

  12. great advice

  13. Nice post. I love dialoge. I think I have a pretty good ear for it and I use a lot of it in my writing. I am going to have to go back and look to see if I have been fully fleshing out the scenes or if I have been essentially writing a screenplay….

    Good tip.

  14. You’re right. It’s a delicate balance, oh-wise-one (aka Jennifer).

    There are times readers want dialog run-ons–the back-and-forth of snappy repartee. But, at some point, the author will have to add a dialog tag lest the reader lose track of who says what.

    Margie Lawson teaches dialog cues in her craft classes. Writing fresh dialog cues that show the reader what the POV character sees or does. I overplay with my rhetorical devices (Oooh! New toy! Let’s use that sixteen times in the next two pages!).

    I had a crit partner who caught me up short on letting the dialog snap back-and-forth. She was right. I had to pick which fresh dialog cues (toys) I could keep, and which had to go back in the toy-box.

    Great post again. Heavy sigh. When I grow up in Globville*, I want to be JME.

    *Intentional. Yep. It’s still The Year of the Glob at my place.

  15. Funny you say that. I always find myself skimming over stuff, no matter what book I read. Even the HP books I skimmed. However, I did not skim the Hunger Games or Divergent.

    • So, what was it in Hunger Games and Divergent that kept you reading? Look at it, and emulate it.

      BIG NOTE: Just because a book sold a zillion copies, doesn’t mean the writing was spot on perfect… or that it is something that you would even want to emulate (not thinking of any novel in particular)

  16. Dear Jennifer,

    A good article. We all need to be reminded of this.



  17. Nice article. This is why beats are so useful in dialogue! 🙂

    Thanks for the link.

    • Beats? Ha Ha! Everyone run out and get yourself some beats!

      Sorry, Sundance… I couldn’t resist. Yes, BETAs are very helpful.

      • You’ve never heard the term “beat” in writing?

        A beat is a small piece of stage action—puffing on a cigarette, sniffing, shifting one’s gaze—that transfers the focus from one person to another.

        For example:
        “What are you doing?” John said.
        Jane sighed and turned towards him. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

        “Jane sighed and turned towards him.” is the beat in that passage of dialogue, although there are likely different terms for it.