Writing and Shit – part 20 – Winning dialogue


I am going to give you three models of dialogue, to help you think about what’s going on when people speak to each other on the page.

(If you’ve read the Starting to Write – Lesson 4: Writing better dialogue, you’ll have seen a version of what follows. You can skip it, but this is expanded, and probably worth going through again.)

None of these three models is being presented as The Best. And really good dialogue tends to treat the three as a mixing desk, bringing up one whilst dialling back another.

Mr But: Three? Only three? Surely there are many more kinds of dialogue?

There are some, and I will talk about them after I’ve done the three. But I think that alternatives are limited – you can use them, for a while, but if you try to keep going with them you’ll find they become boring.


 “When two men say ‘Hello’ on the street, one of them loses.”

I used to think this quote came from the hypermacho American writer Norman Mailer. For years, I used it, then someone helped me track it down online. What Mailer said had the same meaning but was less quotable. He said:

If anyone can pin Tolstoy, it is Ernest H. Somewhere in Hemingway is the hard mind of a small-town boy, the kind of boy who knows you have a real cigar only when you are the biggest man in town, because to be just one of the big men in town is tiring, much too tiring. You inspire hatred, and what is worse than hatred, a wave of cross-talk in everyone around you. You are considered important by some and put down by others, and every time you meet a new man, the battle is on.

This is in the book Advertisements for Myself.

This model of dialogue is the one you will most commonly come across in screenwriting manuals. In its laziest form, it will come down to this: If your scene isn’t happening, increase the level of conflict between the characters.


If you go to blockbuster movies, you will come across a lot of Winning dialogue. Characters who have only just met, and who seem to have no reason for not getting along, will almost immediately become extremely angry with one another. Shouting will occur, finger pointing, physical threats, as each tries to win the exchange and get the other to do what they want.

Hollywood wishes it to be known that it understands power. Hollywood does understand, better than anywhere else, a certain kind of power – and it has exported the way this power talks to itself. It has colonized.

There is no doubt this method of writing dialogue works within a macho, straightahead, straight world. (I choose my words precisely.)

The idea behind Winning dialogue is that, in every human encounter, but – more importantly for you – in every fictional scene, there is an outcome. Someone finishes up as top dog. The winner has maintained their status or increased their hold on power. The loser may have lost many things – lost self-respect, lost the respect of others, lost face.

Exercise: Write a dialogue, apparently about general stuff, between two men which both men are desperately trying to win.

Explanation: I’d like you to write a dialogue in which two men – this time through I’d like it to be men  – are having a discussion of a seemingly neutral subject. Through discussing the subject, they each try to win the exchange. The subject is not the main issue between them (the main issue is, always, who is top dog). But the two men stick to the supposed subject, never getting down to their real issues.

The main rule of this exercise is that it must always escalate. Neither man can ever say anything conciliatory. Every bit of speech must be a deliberate attempt to win or to increase the stakes.

You should push this as far as you can go. I am not going to tell you where to stop. Make it extreme, and energetic, because that way you will learn more.

Seven minutes. Off you go.


How did that feel? Is it a kind of dialogue you’ve done before? Is it, in fact, a kind of dialogue you do all the time? Or is it the kind of dialogue you hate and try to avoid reading, let alone writing?

Just make a few mental notes. Or ones on the page, if you feel like it.

What lies beneath Winning dialogue is the belief that all human speech is ultimately to do with power.

Exercise: Do you agree? Are we all incredibly competitive, even when we’re doing ourselves down? What picture of how people are does Winning dialogue suggest?

Next week, I’ll move on to my second model of dialogue.

One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 20 – Winning dialogue

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 19 – Everything is dialogue | tobylitt

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