Dialogue Part 1: Well That Escalated Quickly

Soap Opera Syndrome. It’s a totally real term that I did not make up just now. It refers to drama for the sake of drama, but, more than that, it’s dialogue escalation due to a lack of something better to do. You know the type of dialogue that goes something like,

“Why’d you do that?”

“Chill out. It’s not that big of a deal.”


You stumble backwards, tripping on the previous paragraph to see if you were skimming and somehow missed the build-up to this explosion. Most of the time, of course, it’s not quite that dramatic of a tone switch, but there is still such a thing as escalating a dialogue too quickly.

In my highly dubious opinion, it’s not actually rapid escalation that’s the problem, but a lack of good reason for it. So let’s look at a couple of bad reasons to take it up a notch.

    1. The plot was getting boring. I’ve done this before. You’re writing, it begins to feel stale, alarms start going off and your first instinct is, NEED CONFLICT. Quick, throw in an argument! Create some dramaaaa. The problem is, the staleness was probably not due to the fact that your characters weren’t fighting, it’s that you’ve lost sight of the true conflict and need to work your way back to that.
    2. I wanted to shock the audience. A well-done unexpected outburst is very satisfying. But you have to explain it after. You have to make sure the audience realizes that it was not, in fact, unexpected, but rather they were looking at it from the perspective that wouldn’t have seen it coming, i.e., from a third person narrator who doesn’t have access to that character’s feelings, or a first person narrator who is not the person who had the outburst. Additionally, there has to be damage control afterwards. That can be in the form of quickly sweeping the drama under the rug if your character(s) are the avoidant type, or having them talk about “hey, what the fuck was that?” There’s nothing more jarring than a character suddenly exploding, and then watching literally everyone move on like nothing happened. It’s the same technique as when creators kill off a character for shock: the writer wants the reader to experience a jolt of surprise, but they don’t want to deal with the fallout of that surprise.
    3. My character is a hot-head. Okay. I really dread social situations, but that doesn’t mean I always hate talking to people. People have certain character traits due to their environment, not because they are given them by, say, some all-powerful writer who has breathed life into them and their world. And while quick-tempered people are certainly more likely to be snappy and or have a sudden onslaught of anger, over-use can be annoying, or more oft than not, mess with the tone of the scene. Were things tense to begin with? Are they in a stressful situation? Even a hot-head isn’t going to blow up if they’re lying in bed and watching ASMR videos when someone knocks on their door to ask them if they’ll come help with dinner.

So, solutions? Well, that’s a little trickier. Despite the ease with which I can describe the problem, actually knowing when it’s an issue verses when it’s appropriate is far more difficult. The simplest advice I can give is just to look at every argument (quickly escalated or otherwise) and ask yourself,

  1. why your characters are fighting,
  2. how it moves along the plot, and
  3. if you’ve properly set up the conflict.

So like… the same questions you ask yourself with pretty much any problem you’re having in your narrative.

Thanks for joining me for part one of my dialogue series, join me in two weeks for tips on awkward dialogue!

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I'm Em/Herb. MFA Student, fiction writer. Find me on Twitter @masteremdash if you're into gays yelling at the void.

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