RU contributor and author Rayne Hall talks about how to enhance your argument scenes.
Dialogue scenes in which two characters argue are great for showing conflict and adding plot complications.
How do you write a great fictional argument? Here are seventeen professional techniques to make a confrontation sizzle.
- Give the characters something to do while they argue, whether it’s digging over the vegetable patch or knitting baby blankets, or better still, an activity that’s crucial to the plot. The movements and sounds add interest to what would otherwise be a pure ‘talking heads’ section.
- For best effect, force the quarrelling characters to work together as a team on a project. Perhaps they’re tunnelling their way out of a dungeon, or abseiling down a steep cliff, and can only succeed by working as a team. Perhaps one isn’t pulling his weight with the work, which irks the other and adds fuel to the verbal fight. On the other hand, if both work hard and operate as a team, relying on and trusting each other even as they argue, this adds poignancy and lays the groundwork to a meaningful relationship between the two.
- Don’t model the fiction scene too closely on real life arguments. In real life, people repeat the same points over and over. That would bore the reader. Instead, each character presents each point just once, in succinct, well-chosen words. If you allow a character to say the same thing three times, let the other counter with three different answers.
- Keep the sentences tighter and shorter than in real life arguments.
- Brief argument scenes are exciting, long ones dull. Keep it shorter than a real-life quarrel.
- Characters may interrupt one another:
“But Grandma said-”
“Leave Grandma out of this!”
- To tag dialogue, choose verbs which convey the tone of voice: he spat, she yelled, he snapped, she screeched, he roared, she growled, he threatened. But bear in mind that not every dialogue line needs a tag. If it’s clear who’s talking (or yelling), do without one. Also avoid tags with long verbs: she vociferated, he expostulated.
- Use body language to convey the emotions. To express anger, show characters clenching fists and jaws, banging doors behind them, stomping, slamming hands onto tables. use facial expressions and posture shifts. But bear in mind that characters aren’t usually aware of their own body language. If you write the scene from one character’s Point-of-View, show only the other person’s facial expressions.
- During the argument, the characters may grab, squeeze and clutch things. If things get heated, they may even throw or smash them.
- Describe the speaker’s voice, especially when the tone changes. Similes work especially well for this:
Her voice screeched like a dentist’s drill.
He growled like a chained Rottweiler.
Her voice was as sharp as a gutting knife.
- Consider each character’s ranking in the hierarchy. For example, officer and grunt, teacher and student, boss and employee, king and subject, master and servant, high caste and low caste, older person and younger person (in cultures where age is revered), husband and wife (in societies where women are subservient to men). The higher-ranking person will remind his opponent sharply of the difference. The lower-ranking character will be cautious not to cause offence – or if he does, it means he’s deliberately challenging the other’s authority, a huge risk.
- One of the characters may say “I told you so” if they’re talking about something that went wrong. “How many times did I warn you about the icy steps? I told you someone would slip and fall. But did you listen?”
- Consider the location. The couple’s living room may be the obvious place for a marital quarrel, and the office for a business conflict. Can you think of a setting that’s less obvious but still plausible in the context? This will add interest. Let the characters interact with their environment, to avoid the ‘talking heads in white space’ effect.
- Do the character’s use swearwords to emphasise their anger? In real life, many do – but this doesn’t mean you have to replicate this in fiction. You may want to keep the language in your novel clean. Even if you decide to include cussing, think carefully about when and how much to allow. A whole scene in the style of “You fucking idiot, why did you fucking have to fucking do this. I fucking told you to fucking leave this alone!” may be realistic – but dull.
- In a fictional argument, the reader gets the impression that the character who cusses has the weaker arguments. This person comes across as needing to bolster his feeble reasoning with swearing.
Consider using this psychological effect in your argument scene. When one of the characters uses more and more swearwords, it signals to the reader that the cusser is losing the argument and knows it.
Let’s say two war leaders argue over who should hold a fortress. Each presents his points and argues his position, and at first they use similar language. Then one resorts to swearing.
Here are two variations. Observe how you, as the reader, perceive what they say.
“In this case, you don’t need the fortress and can surrender it.”
“I won’t fucking surrender the fucking fortress. It’s my fucking right to stay.”
“Then you don’t fucking need the fucking fortress and can fucking surrender it.”
“I won’t surrender the fortress. It’s my right to stay.”
- If the characters insult one another, invent creative insults. Instead of yelling “You fucking son of a bitch!” and “You bloody bastard!” they may shout “You maggotty harbour rat!” and “You higgs-bosoned wormhole!” Draw inspiration from the novel’s setting and the characters’ jobs, and have fun.
- A clever character will ask leading questions – the kind that make opponent trip up and say the wrong thing, a bit like a prosecution lawyer cross-examining a witness of the defence.
Choose the techniques you like best to write or rewrite your argument scene. You don’t need to use them all. You’re the CEO of your writing – you know what’s right for your story
Which of these techniques are you going to try?
Do you want to write fast-paced, exciting, sizzling dialogue?
This book reveals professional dialogue techniques to characterise the speaker, carry the plot forward and entertain your readers.
This is not a beginner’s guide. It assumes that you have mastered the basics of fiction writing, and don’t need an explanation of what dialogue is and why it matters for your story. But your dialogue isn’t yet as strong as your story deserves. Perhaps it drags, perhaps the characters all sound the same, and perhaps it lacks tension, wit or sparkle.
Some of the techniques work for all kinds of dialogue, others solve specific problems—how to create male and female voices, how to present foreign languages and accents, how to present historical dialogue and flirtatious banter, how to write dialogue for alpha characters, for children and for liars.
Download the free sample to try out how this book can help make your dialogue sparkle.
Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in several genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and more) and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.
She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.
Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian on theTwitterPic Sulu Scary 01 lookstowardsskull Sulu Fight Scenessouth coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.
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