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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Tips #10 for Fiction Writers: There Must Be Resistance in Every Scene

Tip #10: There Must Be Resistance in Each Dialogue
By Peter Gilboy

Let's say you're writing your story.  And, your protagonist needs help. So he calls for help:

Mary:  "Tom, I need your help!"
 Tom:  "I'll be right there, Mary."

How was that?  Interesting. No.  Moves the story forward?  No.  It does almost nothing at all because there's no resistance in the dialogue.  No opposition.  That part of the dialogue might as well be left out. 

Our stories are about conflict. All of them. And with our stories our characters must meet resistance. Resistance moves the dialogue to a different place, and the story too. Try these instead:

Mary:  "Tom, I need your help!"
 Tom:  "Mary, I'm just walking into a job interview." (He probably doesn't care.)
Mary:  "Tom, I need your help!"
 Tom:  "Why do you keep calling?"  
             (She's been harassing him.)

Mary:  "Tom, I need your help!"
 Tom:  "Mary, I can't come every time you call."
            (There's been a long history of this."

Mary:  "Tom, I need your help!"
 Tom:  "I told you never to call me at home!" 
            (They're having an affair.)

See how the story advances? 

Point: With each and every line, a writer reveals something the reader didn't know before. And it's done through resistance. 

Here's a famous telephone scene from a film.  It's when Joe Turner (Robert Redford) calls the CIA for help. Yes, it's from Three Days of the Condor.  Joe is a reader for the CIA. That's all he does. He reads and reads looking for tips and tricks that can help the CIA.

Then one morning Joe returns to work at their downtown office- a CIA cover, and everyone is dead. Slaughtered.

          He runs out the door to a pay phone. Dials 911.
"Police Headquarters." 
(Realizing they can't help, he hangs up.) Click. (He dials a prearranged number he has memorized.)
"Hello," he says.
"This is the Major."
"This is Joe Turner.  Listen . . ."
Product Details"What? I told you, My name's Turner. I work for you. Something's happened. Somebody came in and . . ."
"What is your designation."
"This is . . . Oh! . . . Condor. Section 9, Department 17. Everyone's been hit!"
"What level?"
"Level of damage."
"Total. Everybody! Janice. Dr. Lappe, and Harold was in the--"
"Are you on a company line?"
"I'm in the street. It's a payphone near--."
"You're in violation of secure conversations, Condor."
"You stupid son of a bitch! I'm telling you, I came back with lunch, it was raining, and the whole house was murdered! Everyone's dead!"
"Right. Has the incident been discovered by anyone outside the company?"
"I don't know. I don't think so." 
"Are you damaged?"
"Damaged? ... uh, no."
"Are you armed?"
"I've got Mrs. -- what's her name? Nightingale?  She was afraid of being raped. She kept a gun--"
"Identify the armament."
".... 357 Magnum. Will you get me in? I'm not a field agent. I just read books!"
"Leave the area."
"Should I head downtown now?
"Negative. Find a secure location."
"Avoid any place where you are known. Do not go home. Repeat--Do not go home.  
"Then where? Where's secure?"
"Condor, look up an old friend."
"A schoolchum. Someone you've lost touch with, haven't been seeing. Try the phone book. Surface again and call the Major in two hours. . .that'll be 14:30 your time. Do you have it Condor?"
"Walk away from the phone, Condor. Don't hang up."
He says he didn't do it.Sure.

Okay, this is a thriller, and the conversation is thrilling.  And it's telephone conversation. But maybe it's a regular conversation, face to face, you're writing, and it's a drama, or a love story, or a comedy. Is there still conflict, friction, resistance?  Yes.  

Here's from When Harry Met Sally. (Again, I'm using a film as an example, because we've seen more of the same movies than we've read the same books.) 

You remember one of the first scenes: Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) have just met and they have to share a long drive together, from Chicago to New York.  Pretty simple, huh?  Take a look at the opposition in the scene?  What do we learn about the characters? Does this scene push the story foward? 

Product DetailsHarry: "I hope this isn't going to be one of those trips with a lot of long, awkward silences."
Sally: "Me too."
"Why don't you tell me the story of your life." 
"The story of my life?"
"We've got 18 hours to kill before we get to New York."
"The story of my life isn't even going to get us out of Chicago. I mean, nothing's happened to me yet. That's why I'm going to New York."
"So something can happen to you?"
"Like what?"
"Like I'm going to go to journalism school and become a reporter."
"So you can write about things that happen to other people?"
"That's one way to look at it."
"Suppose nothing happens to you. Suppose you live there your whole life and nothing happens and you never meet anyone and you never become anything and finally you die one of those New York deaths where nobody even notices for two weeks until the smell drifts out into the hallway."
"Amanda mentioned you had a dark side."
"That's what drew her to me."  
Even in comedy there is opposition. How much do we know now about the characters here? What kind of people are they? Do you like them?  And note how each sentence is so carefully written that we don't even have to be told who is speaking. We know from the previous sentence or because it's within the character of the person who is saying it.

Point: Opposition moves the story foward. 

Point: In opposition we learn more about each character. 

Point: Every scene should have opposition, or else it's boring. Yes, boring.  


Choose a script, any script. Just Google the script for your favorite movie. Godfather? Okay. Love Story? Okay. Shakespeare? Even better. Or choose your favorite character - Whoopie, or Denzel, or Hamlet, or anyone, and look at how the story moves on the pages. See how there's oppostion in each scene. Watch how the oppostion moves the story without the viewer/reader even being aware of it. 

Then we go back to our own writings. See where our stories aren't advance because of no opposition. Maybe people are just doing stuff. Make it better. Bring out the opposition!

  And, Happy Writing.

Peter Gilboy is a former ditch digger, short order cook, bartender, truck driver, soldier, counselor and academic.  He has been in jail only once. Peter almost always takes his meds.  
His website is    You can contact him at

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