Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In part 1 of this guide to writing a thrilling argument, I touched on character motivation, reader interest, and the central truth that an argument follows almost all the same rules as a fight scene. We paused on the idea that your characters should want to win, and they may rush past lesser arguments to their ‘big guns’. Of course, when someone rushes, they’re more likely to make a mistake.
4. Have your characters make mistakes
Sometimes you win because you performed well, and sometimes you win because the other person made a silly mistake. The latter can feel anticlimactic when it happens to you, but it’s yet another tool to consider when trying to write a thrilling argument.
In the ‘Wife of Bath’s Prologue’ from The Canterbury Tales, the titular character explains how she gained power over her husband after he struck her during an argument. Thinking he had killed her, he was overcome with guilt and swore never to lay a hand on her again.
And when I saw he would never cease
Reading on this cursed book all night,
All suddenly have I plucked three [pages] Out of his book, right as he read, and also
I with my fist so hit him on the cheek
That in our fire he fell down backwards.
And he leaped up as does a furious lion,
And with his fist he hit me on the head
That on the floor I lay as if I were dead.
And when he saw how still I lay,
He was frightened and would have fled on his way,
Until at the last out of my swoon I awoke.
‘O! hast thou slain me, false thief?’ I said,
‘And for my land thus hast thou murdered me?
Before I am dead, yet will I kiss thee.’
And near he came, and kneeled gently down,
And said, ‘Dear sister Alisoun,
So help me God, I shall never (again) smite thee!
What I have done, it is thyself to blame (you drove me to it).
Forgive it me, and that I beseech thee!’
Chaucer may be propagating a messed-up message when he puts this story into the mouth of a female character, but he also demonstrates how a character can lose the argument by inflicting more damage than they intended.
Causing more offense or damage than intended is a universal feeling, as is the shame and regret that washes over you when you do it. Have a character experience this and your reader will empathize, even if they don’t sympathize. It’s also a great way to end an argument with a bang while still awarding the ‘victory’ to the other party, and of guiding the reader from an intense moment to one that’s calmer.End your argument with a mistake: a secret, a slur, a punch.Click To Tweet
If you have two characters screaming at each other, how do you get back to the status quo? Cut to the future, let the argument fizzle, slowly de-escalate into agreement, or have one of them go too far and then try to make it better? They can all work, and they’re all another string to your bow. In fact, having someone go ‘too far’ is also a great way to steer your reader’s understanding of the argument itself.
5. Swear for weakness, PEE for strength
When a character ‘goes too far’, they lose control, and losing control usually means they’ve lost the argument. Readers are primed to think that the calmer person in an argument is the most reasonable and logical, even if it’s about a subject where emotion is entirely appropriate.
Because of this, it’s easy to have your reader side with one character over another not by adjusting what’s being said, but the way in which your character says it.
In terms of writing a character your reader will dismiss, I’ve already said that having them get emotional is the key. To be even more specific, consider having them swear, or at least resort to insults.
“You killed me,” he said. “You and Charlie. It was the vinegar, wasn’t it?”
“He’s lying,” she said. “It’s not really him.”
“It’s me,” he said.
“It’s not him.” She scolded the necromancer. “You were paid to get someone to say this. This is someone else.”
The dead man said, “You watched while I fell down.”
“This isn’t him,” she said. “I’d recognize him.”
“It’s him,” said the father. “I can tell.”
“You lying, cheating bastard,” said Jenn to the necromancer. “How much is the old guy paying you?”
– M.T. Anderson, ‘Watch and Wake’ from Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales
The wife cycles through her options, escalating by implying that more and more people are in on the con, but the reader senses that she’s lost when she begins cursing. The implication is that logic has failed her. The same is true in A Visit from the Goon Squad, with Drew’s ‘And fuck you for saying it.’ When he says this, the reader knows he’s shaken, that he won’t be brushing off what the protagonist has told him.
Throwing in some swearing and/or insults is a cue to your reader that someone has lost control. Alone, it’s not enough to make them seem unreasonable, but it’s a powerful signal that they’ve lost or, when used early, that they’re not being reasonable.
The flipside is to make a character seem more reasonable. Here, you can use the ‘PEE’ method, a mnemonic device used to teach basic persuasive writing, and which stands for: Point, Evidence, Explain.
When using PEE, a character will first make a claim, then present the listener with the facts to verify it for themselves, then elaborate on their point. Mr. Wollender actually comes close to this in The Empty Hours, when he says:
‘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 hall… and sharing the john with a hundred other skiers, why then… I’m sure you can find other accommodations. The lady, however, might enjoy a little privacy.’
His evidence is a little sparse, merely offering a hypothetical alternative, but the method is thorough enough.
Point: Nowhere else will have a private bath.
Evidence: Example of the facilities available elsewhere.
Explain: The alternatives might work for Hawes, but they definitely won’t work for his partner.
Ideal evidence would include something observable or quantifiable, a concrete fact that the other person could check, but Wollender does well enough to take control of the situation. Hawes sounds impotent arguing against such a clear-cut argument, and appears childish in trying to meet dispassionate fact with emotion and bluster.Unless you say otherwise, the first character to swear loses the argument.Click To Tweet
Of course, there are ways to subvert this reasoning – as in the classic situation where an emotionless lawyer goads an emotional victim into an explosion of passion – but at its most basic level, it’s a good way to direct your reader’s sympathies.
Keep it subtle and your reader will side with a logical, PEE-arguing character over one who ‘resorts’ to coarse language and personal insults. Even if your reader is already sympathetic to the emotional character, you might be surprised by the results; they’ll feel bad for the victim in that court scene, but they’ll also understand why the jury turned against them.
The court scene is also a good example of my final tip, since it forces an argument to play out right to the end.
6. Use a task to maintain conflict
Getting characters to argue is one thing, you just set them at odds, but getting them to keep arguing is another. Why wouldn’t they just agree to disagree, walk away, or try another way to get what they want?
In some scenes, there’s already a dependable reason – they can only get what they want one way, or there’s an emotional reason to see the argument through to the end. Sometimes, though, things aren’t so easy. Maybe you want a character to ask for a raise, or fall out with a friend, and there’s no reason that they wouldn’t sensibly walk away when things got heated.
In situations such as this, it’s effective to force the characters to complete a task. Maybe the friends are helping someone move, the employee and boss are riding the elevator to a certain floor, or your character is in court or under arrest. Give them a reason to stick around, a finite goal that is coming, but doesn’t depend on the argument, and it makes sense for the argument to rage past the point where someone would usually walk away.Give characters a task to stop them escaping a bubbling argument.Click To Tweet
Hawes can’t leave because there’s nowhere to go and the wife in ‘Watch and Wake’ can’t escape because she’s been accused in front of a crowd, but what about the characters from A Visit from the Goon Squad?
In fact, Drew does try and walk away from the argument, but author Egan writes the scene such that containing the fallout becomes a task for the protagonist.
He turns and walks quickly away, leaving you alone. You charge after him, seized by a wild conviction that containing Drew will seal off the damage you’ve done. She doesn’t know, you tell yourself, she still doesn’t know. As long as Drew is in sight, she doesn’t know.
You stalk him along the river’s edge, maybe twenty feet between you, half running to keep up. He turns once: ‘Go away! I don’t want to be near you!’ But you sense his confusion about where to go, what to do, and it reassures you. Nothing has happened yet.
– Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
In this way, the argument becomes a task, if only for one participant, and the two characters are kept together. This means the argument continues to play out, and the character can keep escalating, reaching a level of extremity that can only exist past the point where they should have stopped talking.
Setting your argument around a task will also help with pacing, since you can refer to what’s happening rather than having to bounce from one character to another, or having to think up some body language filler whenever you want a pause in the dialogue.
Make your argument pop
There are a million ways to write an argument, but the techniques above will help you write verbal conflict that doesn’t have to sacrifice thrills for believability. Above all, remember that there are (at least) two characters in an argument. The second person isn’t there just to irk your protagonist; they have a goal of their own, and the more they fight to get it, the more electrifying your scene will be.
Do you have an argumentative device to recommend, or is there a particular argument that taught you what the reader wants? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more on disagreements between characters, check out Are Your Characters Talking At Cross-Purposes? Why Not? and Here’s How To Write A Damn Good Fight Scene