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A short story I'm writing involves a stage in which the male protagonist talks to a stranger with the intent of asking them to do a favor for his friend. I want them to start having strong feelings for each other in the course of their conversation.

The challenge is that I don't want the reader to scoff at an unrealistic progression of what's supposed to be a stiff encounter. Going into the conversation, both characters shouldn't foresee that such possibility would occur.

Are there certain dialogue tropes or general pointers to help me build a deep, believable first-time exchange?

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    Viewing recommendation: Meet Joe Black, in particular the cafe scene, you'll know the one I mean when you see it. – Ash Jul 19 at 17:54
  • I'd love to try to explain this moment and what, I think, goes into conveying it but I don't have the words to even frame my answer let alone write it, I shall watch with interest. – Ash Jul 19 at 18:06
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I'd say you have a start. The trick is done before the conversation ever starts, at least for one of the characters.

I'll presume "strong feelings" is a euphemism for love or friendship. Also I am not sure if the person granting the favor is male or female. So let's call them Joe and Charlie (a 50/50 M/F name), Joe needs a favor, Charlie can grant it (maybe).

Generically speaking, you need to build the relationship ahead of time, for at least one character and if possible both of them. Obviously Joe has heard of Charlie, so you can start with him: He hasn't just heard of Charlie, he has heard good things, admires Charlie, likes what Charlie has done and thinks Charlie is a good person. Joe will approach Charlie with high expectations and low suspicion.

Joe doesn't have to be loved at first sight by Charlie, in fact it is more plausible if Charlie is reluctant to do the favor. So Charlie asks for details, and about Joe's motivation, why Joe is asking instead of his friend, Charlie wants to know why they would do any favor. Joe is already primed to think Charlie is a good person, he tells the truth and doesn't hold back.

It is this openness and vulnerability of Joe, along with the reasons for the favor, that resonates with Charlie; making her/him sympathetic. Charlie tells her/his own story, and this resonates with Joe. Even if the favor is not done (or it is not possible to do it), it is the exchange of personal details, and perhaps in Joe's reasons for asking the favor elements of heroism and altruism, and Charlie's sincerity and sympathy, that captures each and makes them feel for each other.

If there is physical attraction as well, all the better. But even if your goal is just friendship, positive strong feelings should make Charlie want to help Joe and hear more about him, and Joe should feel like his beliefs about Charlie were confirmed and better than he thought, she/he is a good person he wants to learn more about.

Writing Advice: This will probably be a long conversation; don't make it two talking heads for a chapter. I suggest you invent a setting for this to take place while they are moving and other things are happening, walking on the wharf or beach, walking downtown, playing golf. Even with one of them cooking. You want to avoid a "white room" effect, during long conversations we want to keep our characters grounded in a setting that can keep the reader's sense imagination engaged, things to see, hear, smell and sense (like temperature, humidity, breeze, etc).

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The tropes

In my opinion this is a variation of love at first sight, and of engaging conversation. The latter can be summarised by a climatic conversation ending with a love epiphany, and even a marriage proposal. The trope takes the OP's question to the extreme, but it is fitting nonetheless.

The main drawback is that an 'engaging conversation' trope can sound shallow. The shallowness is that in order to make it believable that one character can fall in love with a stranger during a conversation you would need to provide quite a good depth to both characters, and show the readers that this depth is well perceived by both. The alternative is the equivalent of a teenager crush for a postcard with the portrait of a pinup model.

Progression from a stiff start

Starting from a stiff conversation with a stranger, and ending with a reasonable attraction toward said stranger requires glancing into the depth of their persona. Perhaps even more than glancing. Both the character and the reader need to have a good grasp of the depth of the love-interest.

To show this you could try to:

  • place either of both characters in a situation in which they need to vent their emotions, e.g. happy or sad events, but no one to share them with. The conversation may still begin with a stiff start, but with a well placed trigger, you can switch to the sharing part, during which the interesting part of the conversation begins.

  • have a third character opposing/attacking one of the two characters. It does not need to be a physical attack. The verbal defence of your character should be constructed to show their depth of values and thoughts. Your first character can now pick from there and build a connection.

  • make one character particularly inquisitive, with very deliberate questions. Make the other character thoughtful, and very willing to share. This should be personality traits established in earlier parts of your writing in order to not surprise the reader. During the conversation you can push this further and reach the limit of the comfort zone of an average person: your other character reacts positively to it, and it all turns into a very intriguing conversation rather than an interrogatory.

  • None of the above. Play it naturally, simply through the shape and rhythm of the dialogue. Show the increasing interest of the two characters toward each other by lengthening their exchange, and by choice of semantics: at the beginning their conversation is a rapid fire full of facts and mono-syllables, by the end each of them engages in longer expositions of their thoughts and feelings. In the very end, when they find their connection and may feel shy to reveal it, they revert to long silences, stretched mono-syllables, and future tenses of wishes, dreams and desires.

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