Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Including an argument in your story can sound like a sure path to an easy win – two or more characters airing their dirty laundry, getting mad, and saying exactly how they feel. It’s drama in action, a moment around which you can build a whole story, and it’s also incredibly easy to get wrong.
Reading a great argument is like watching amazing sport, but reading a bad one is like being stuck in a car with an unhappy couple. That’s why, in part 1 of this two-part article, I’ll be sharing the secrets to writing a thrilling argument. I’ll touch on how to make an argument feel dramatic and compelling, and how to make a character’s argument sound better or worse depending on how you want the reader to feel.
I’ll start, though, by sharing a vital analogy that many writers have never considered.
An argument is a fight scene
When I say that an argument is a fight scene, I don’t mean that arguing should lead into physical combat. Rather, I mean that in terms of their mechanics, writing an argument follows all the same rules as writing a fight scene.
Each point is a punch, each rebuttal a block or reversal. An accusation unanswered is a bloody lip, and all the while, the reader needs some idea of how much each combatant can take, and what they want.An argument is a fight scene – what works for one will benefit the other.Click To Tweet
The most important rule that fight scenes and arguments share is to remember that this isn’t a movie. Your reader will not be enthralled simply by witnessing a fight/argument. Verbal dexterity and clever rhetoric are enjoyable, but they can’t satisfy a reader on their own. That’s why my first piece of advice is…
1. Wait until the reader cares
In writing, arguments (and fight scenes) are all about the result. Many writers get a long way into their career before they realize this fact, and they can’t be blamed; the same isn’t true in visual media, and pop culture bombards us with scenes that are enjoyable without needing context.
Authors will giddily write a chapter-long tirade or page-spanning battle, totally confident that the reader will be rendered breathless by the skill and passion on display, and completely wrong in that assumption.
In fact, it’s the drama that fascinates readers, and drama thrives on context and consequences. Arguments are great because they’re a series of quickfire, unpredictable actions that rapidly restructure the fate of a character. The breathless drama is in guessing and second-guessing the consequences – will they be okay, and what does each new moment of the argument mean for their overall goal?
Because of this, arguments are most effective when the reader already knows a character and understand their goals. Not only do they want that character to be okay (or want them to succeed), but they understand what each moment means as it happens.
In Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, soldiers arrive to threaten Marina, wanting her to kill the wolves in her care rather than reintroduce them to the wild. General Rakov expresses disgust for the animals, and especially for Marina’s daughter, Feo, who he threatens to have taken away.
Marina sends Feo out of the room as the argument escalates, but the tensest moments come when the young girl rejoins the argument, first trying to bargain with the soldiers and then insisting their orders won’t be followed. The scene is so effective because the reader understands the specific threat the soldiers pose, and how Rakov will perceive Feo’s objections.
For an argument to be truly compelling, the reader needs to understand every line of dialogue as a force pulling the characters towards a specific outcome. Different lines may pull towards different outcomes, but each is significant because the reader wants one outcome more than another. When Feo interjects, the reader understands that she’s getting closer and closer to being sent away.For an argument to work, the reader needs some idea of how it could end.Click To Tweet
Vitally, each of the statements in an argument make up a journey. One point leads to another, and the consequence doesn’t come from tallying up how many good or bad points each character made, but in where their argument as a whole led them. This is why it’s so important to…
2. Escalate the argument
If each statement drags the characters towards an outcome, then each statement has to matter. Getting locked into debating the same detail over and over might be realistic, but it isn’t compelling; imagine a fight scene where one character keeps blocking the same blow from another. It would be ridiculous and, worse, boring.
Robin Childs, creator of the webcomic LeyLines, puts it like this:
In a well constructed fight scene, each blow changes the nature of the game, & no blow comes more than once. Same goes for emotional drama.
— Robin Childs (@RobinofLeyLines) July 7, 2016
Your characters are trying to do something – they’re arguing for a reason – and so they should use different tactics to get where they want to go. In A Visit from the Goon Squad, the second-person protagonist attempts to turn his friend (Drew) against another friend (Sasha).
He begins by imagining a future where she doesn’t exist, removing her by implication, but when this doesn’t work, he moves on to implying dark secrets. When this fails, he panics and actually shares the secret, offering concrete details when he doesn’t get the desired effect.
‘I wish we could live in that cabin. You and me.’
‘The one you built. In Wisconsin.’ You see confusion in Drew’s face, and you add, ‘If there is a cabin.’
‘Of course there’s a cabin.’
Your high granulates the air, then Drew’s face, which reconstitutes with a new wariness in it that frightens you. ‘I would miss Sasha,’ he says slowly. ‘Wouldn’t you?’
‘You don’t really know her,’ you say, breathless, a little desperate. ‘You don’t know who you’d be missing.’
A massive storage hanger has intervened between the path and the river, and you walk alongside it. ‘What don’t I know about Sasha?’ Drew asks in his usual friendly tone, but it’s different – you sense him already turning away, and you start to panic.
‘She was a hooker,’ you say. ‘A hooker and a thief – that’s how she survived in Naples.’
As you speak these words, a howling starts up in your ears. Drew stops walking. You’re sure he’s going to hit you, and you wait for it.
‘That’s insane,’ he says. ‘And fuck you for saying it.’
‘Ask her,’ you shout, to be heard above the howling. ‘Ask about Lars the Swede who used to play the flute.’
– Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
As each new tactic fails, it’s replaced by something that the protagonist hasn’t yet tried, but also something more extreme. Part of this is common sense – make the scene more interesting as it progresses, not less – but it’s also the logical extension of an argument in which both characters want to win.
3. Write characters who are trying to win
A series of statements resulting in a definable ‘winner’ isn’t an argument, it’s a debate – a rigidly structured contest that bears as much resemblance to an argument as a fencing duel does to someone trying to cut your head off with a scimitar.
In real arguments, both parties are trying to get something, whether it’s respect, acquiescence, permission or a gold bar. This is actually one of the most important tips for writing a compelling argument: Both parties should want something from the other.
Often, if your story follows a protagonist, it can be tempting to have them run up against obstacles that are just there to slow them down or make their goal harder. In a really compelling argument, the other character isn’t just an obstacle; they want something of their own. Your characters might be talking at cross-purposes, but they’re both trying to bring about a specific outcome that they believe is mutually exclusive with that of the other character.
That’s why they’ll escalate when one tactic doesn’t work, but it’s also why their argument shouldn’t be a simple line from the least compelling point to the most convincing argument. No-one who really wants something holds back like that.
In dialogue, every blow needn’t be deflected, every jab answered. Let your characters jump ahead, eager to use their best weapons #2amt.
— Stephen Gregg (@playwrightnow) September 1, 2016
We’ve all seen that drama where a character says the unsayable, blurting it out and bringing about devastating consequences. For that moment to work, it has to come as a sign of desperation – the big gun they were hoping not to need, but which they couldn’t resist when it looked like they’d lose.
This is how you can escalate and have characters rush to win; use each stage of the argument as a way to get them to the place where they’re willing to up the ante. In the earlier extract from A Visit from the Goon Squad, the protagonist grows more and more desperate; he says things he would never have revealed on their own in order to bolster the subtler arguments he’s already made.
The same is true with accusations and insinuations – imagine someone accuses you of picking your nose, being lazy and having murdered your wife. It may seem obvious that you’d jump straight to refuting the final accusation and ignore the earlier charges, but many authors would feel the need to answer every point.
It makes no sense to do so, and that’s because your characters should be trying to win. Remember: this is an argument, not a debate. In Ed McBain’s The Empty Hours, the protagonist (Hawes) argues with a hotel concierge (Mr. Wollender) about the status of his room. He’s annoyed that the rooms he’s booked won’t be as described, and has a battery of accusations, but the concierge knows he’s already won. There are no other sensible accommodation options, and the angry customer will soon calm down and accept things as they are.
In this argument, both characters want something, and want different things: the protagonist wants a better room, while the concierge simply wants his opponent’s inevitable resignation to come as quickly as possible. The arguments don’t matter, so he doesn’t argue them, pressing ahead with the idea that there are no other options.
‘Let me have my deposit back, Mr. Wollender. We’ll find another place to stay.’
‘Well, sir, to begin with, we can’t make any cash refunds, but we’ll be happy to keep your deposit here against another time when you may wish…’
‘Look, Mr. Wollender,’ Hawes said menacingly. ‘I don’t know what kind of…’
‘And of course, sir, there are lots of places to stay here in town, but none of them, sir, none of them have any private baths at all. Now if you don’t mind walking down the hill…’
‘All I know is…’
‘… and sharing the john with a hundred other skiers, why then…’
‘You told me on the phone…’
‘I’m sure you can find other accommodations. The lady, however, might enjoy a little privacy.’ Wollender waited while Hawes considered.
‘If I give her 104…’ Hawes started and then paused. ‘Is that the room with the bath?’
‘Yes, sir, 104.’
‘If I give her that room, where’s the bath for 105?’
‘Down at the end of the hall, sir. And we are right at the base of the mountain, sir, and the skiing has been excellent, and we’re expecting at least twelve inches of fresh powder.’
– Ed McBain, ‘Storm’ in The Empty Hours
Notice that by this point, neither character is bothering to rebut the accusations of the other. Hawes tries threat, outrage and bringing up a prior conversation, but Wollender wants to win, and he has nothing to benefit from engaging with these topics. Instead, he makes it clear that there are no other options and then, once Hawes starts coming around, offers incidental positives so he can feel better about giving in.Your characters aren’t arguing for show, they’re trying to win.Click To Tweet
If you’re going to have a character interrupt another in this way, make sure you know at least the next two lines of their argument. When a character is going to be interrupted, authors often don’t give them a whole line – why bother, after all, when they’re not going to speak it? Unfortunately, the reader can usually tell they didn’t really have anything to say. Where was Hawes going with his ‘I don’t know what kind of…’? It’s hard to imagine he’s framing what he thinks will be a persuasive point at this moment, but instead throwing up some noise so Wollender has something to interrupt.
Of course, not every character who thinks they’re bringing out their ‘best weapon’ is right, and it can pay to have your character make a mistake or two. That’s exactly what I talk about in 6 Secrets To Writing A Thrilling Argument – Part 2, as well as the way to influence which ‘side’ your reader takes in an argument, and an easy way to write sustained verbal conflict that still feels realistic.
Check out Are Your Characters Talking At Cross-Purposes? Why Not? and Here’s How To Write A Damn Good Fight Scene for more on writing direct conflict, and let me know what you think of the tips above in the comments.