Adversarial Dialogue: “I love you, stupid”

Here is an easy way to spice up dialogue between characters in your fiction, whether screenplays or novels.

Make it adversarial.
Adam's Rib

That’s a precise word. Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, went for pages trying to communicate the idea (sorry, Donald) that Sol Stein nailed in a single word in Stein on Writing.

It doesn’t mean “confrontational” in the sense of conflict. That sort of dialogue — say, between hero and villain — comes naturally to writers. Hero vs. Villain dialogue is always fun to write (and usually, to read) because it’s exciting when people don’t get along.

But what can kill your story is the dialogue between your good guys while your villain is off-stage.

Say, a young woman and her sisters in a wagon train on the Oregon trail, watching ominous storm clouds. Or a loving husband and wife, discussing a shooting reported in the local paper. Or a mother and daughter on the morning of the first day of school.

First thought: Cut the scene. But maybe you need it for exposition or foreshadowing or character development or to set up a plot point.

Okay then. Make the scene more interesting with adversarial dialogue. Don’t let them console each other too often. They don’t need to be cruel, and they don’t need to be at each others’ throats. But give your characters some biting wit, some dialogue with an edge.

Here’s a video where I talk about adversarial dialogue, and describe a couple of examples — such as a clip from Gilmore Girls, written by Amy Sherman-Palladino.

(This is from Write on the Sound 2009. If you can’t understand what I’m saying, leave a comment below.)

Interestingly, the fiction genre that seems to have adversarial dialogue mastered is comedy. Often, comedy doesn’t have much conflict to fuel the reader’s curiosity. Maybe to compensate, comedy is loaded with adversarial dialogue.

Not that it matters. This is a genre-proof trick.

Here is the segment from the screenplay of Adam’s Rib (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin) I mention in the video. It’s about a married couple of lawyers who, eventually, end up arguing opposite sides of a court case:


AMANDA: Look! All I’m trying to say is that there are lots of things that a man can do and in society’s eyes, it’s all hunky-dory. A woman does the same thing – the same, mind you, and she’s an outcast.
ADAM: Finished?
AMANDA: No. Now I’m not blaming you personally, Adam, because this is so.
ADAM: Well, that’s awfully large of you.
AMANDA: No, no, it’s not your fault. All I’m saying is, why let this deplorable system seep into our courts of law, where women are supposed to be equal?
ADAM: Mostly, I think, females get advantages!
AMANDA: We don’t want advantages! And we don’t want prejudices!
ADAM: Oh, don’t get excited, honey, and don’t –
AMANDA: I’m not excited –
ADAM: Oh, you’re giving me the Bryn Mawr right too.
AMANDA: Well what did she try to do? She tried to keep her home intact.
ADAM: Yeah, by knocking off her husband.
AMANDA: She didn’t knock him off. He’s alive. She didn’t kill him.
ADAM: She tried. She missed.
AMANDA: Well, all right. Now supposing –
ADAM: What do you want to do? Give her another shot at him?
AMANDA: No, I don’t… it’s the kind of thing burns my goat!
ADAM: Your what?
AMANDA: My goat! My goat!

5 Responses to Adversarial Dialogue: “I love you, stupid”

  1. Jacob says:

    Hi Steve,

    I just stumbled upon your blog and i love it! Writing is something that has always interested me. I’ve only looked through a few of your posts, but they’ve been incredibly informative and entertaining.
    Anyway, I wanted to know your thoughts on how Adversarial Dialogue relates to ‘status’ as I understand it from the book “Impro: Improvisation and the Theater” by Keith Johnstone.
    Obviously a lot of it has to do with improv and acting, but Johnstone talks about how what he calls ‘status’ is what makes a scene entertaining.

    Characters are always trying to either raise or lower their status in relation to the other characters in the scene. He cites many plays for examples, specifically Waiting for Godot.

    In a generalized (and bad) example from me:
    tacking on an insult to the end of an otherwise loving or comforting sentence would be raising your status. Or saying something mean and then putting YOURSELF down would be lowering the other character’s status and then immediately lowering yours, thereby raising theirs (kind of like softening the blow of the mean line, since you raised their status immediately after).
    As you can probably tell, this sounds very much like Adversarial Dialogue to me. Are they similar? related? Different words for the same concept?

    Thank you for your time!

    • Steve White says:

      Hi Jacob,
      I’ve read Johnstone’s Impro — that’s a great book! (Scuse me while I run upstairs and grab my copy… got it.) Johnstone starts with improv and acting and goes deep, deep into human psychology — scary deep. That’s the part that’s neat for us writers. There’s insight here as to why the audience will eat up adversarial dialogue. ‘Status’ (both our own and others’) is something we humans are passionately concerned with. Seeing status revealed, or challenged, or changed, gets the attention of an audience (viewers/readers) on a caveman level.

      Also on Impro: The inhibitions Johnstone describes in improv actors are exactly (IMO) the inhibitions felt by writers. We writers are afraid our work will reveal us as Boring, Perverted, or Insane. So we overcompensate by trying to be clever. Oops.

      In general, I love books that have nothing to do with writing that, nonetheless, teach me how to write. Impro is at the top of that list, as is Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, and maybe (haven’t cracked it yet) Gosling’s Snoop.

      Your comment is great — thanks!

  2. Aaaannnnddd… here’s a little more about Impro and other books surprisingly handy for writers.

  3. Jessica says:

    I’m doing a post on this tomorrow and just found your post and linked to it! Great job. I love your example too. Very funny. 🙂
    This looks like a really cool blog and I can’t wait to look around. 🙂

  4. […] Girls. Adversarial dialogue. Watch for the set-up… and the […]

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