How Do I Make a Verbal Conflict Exciting?

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 What are the best ways to do verbal climaxes, and what are some good examples thereof? I want to write a story where the climax is a conversation between two characters to uncover the truth, or a detective’s denouement, or a courtroom cross-examination ending in the witness slipping up; but how can I do that while retaining the tension and drama of a fight scene or epic battle?


– Anomander

Hi Anomander,

Social conflicts actually work much like other types of conflict such as sword fights. In narration, it’s not seeing someone slash at someone else with a sword that’s exciting; it’s knowing that someone could die at any moment. A battle is usually more exciting yet because the stakes are higher. An entire kingdom could fall and the dark lord could triumph based on the outcome of that battle.

Any other type of conflict is just as exciting if you give it the same ingredients to the same degree: urgency, consequences that matter (stakes), and odds stacked against the protagonist. So if a villain opens a big portal to a hell dimension, and every second more chunks of the world are being pulled through that portal, and the only way the protagonist can save the world is to talk to the villain and somehow convince them to close it again, that’s going to be as exciting as a battle.

A courtroom conversation probably won’t feel quite as epic as a battle because usually just one person’s life or freedom is at stake. But if you get your audience to care about that person, it certainly can be exciting enough for the climax of that story. Many stories never raise the stakes as high as a typical battle.

During the dialogue, you just want to make your protagonist struggle until they have their breakthrough. That maintains the tension up until the turning point.

There are tons of effective social conflicts out there. An example off the top of my head is the movie ParaNorman. That has a very interesting social conflict at the climax, though magic is used to add more difficulty and danger for the protagonist. The Good Place also has lots of important social conflicts. If you want to look at something darker, the Game of Thrones TV show has plenty of riveting ones, though they aren’t usually used for climaxes from what I remember.

Happy writing!

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  1. Cay Reet

    I think that, as with every conflict, the most important thing is to make the audience care about the outcome. As Chris said, there’s few situations in which the outcome of a verbal conflict will have stakes as high as a battle, but if you manage to make the audience care about the conflict enough, then that’s fine. Not every story needs to have ‘save the world’ high stakes. Sometimes ‘save the innocent from getting executed’ or ‘catch the murderer’ can also be high enough of a stake.

    I’ve actually found that a lot of conflicts in the Brian Helsing series are solved through talking – quite often, Brian’s information on the creatures he’s after isn’t correct or it isn’t necessary to kill them all. In the first book, he talks a banshee into finally going into the light, in the second one, he introduces a pack of sea nyphs to human-cooked food instead of raw human. In the fourth, it becomes apparent during a fight that the kappa he’s fighting with doesn’t want to be where it is – it’s forced to obey a human warlock’s orders. In the fifth, it becomes clear that the ‘horrible, children-eating’ witch is actually quite friendly and removes children from abusive homes to raise them in a better environment. In the ninths book, Brian manages to strike a deal with a powerful, godlike being to let the demons leave hell (which, if they came to earth, would destroy earth) and settle in its plane – it doesn’t mind, its world is infinite in size, so it can spare a nice, cosy area for the demons who are in constant pain in their own world.
    All of those stories actually do have quite a bit of action, but it’s not the fighting which saves the day – it’s listening to the ‘monsters’ and finding a better solution than to kill them (doesn’t always work, the werewolves in the third book can’t be argued with while in wolf form and the mummies in the sixth book are past arguing).

  2. Charles

    Lessons from the Screenplay (a Youtube channel) recently published an excellent video on just such a topic, concentrating on the court battle in A Few Good Men. I highly recommend it.

  3. Alicia

    I often find fight scenes and epic battles boring. I find scenes where the stakes are more personal to have higher levels of tension, so don’t feel like your verbal confrontation will necessarily have lower levels of tension. Follow the advice on Mythcreants for adding tension and creating turning points and your scene should turn out well.

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