Posted On June 29, 2016 by Print This Post

Writing Argument Scenes with Rayne Hall

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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Keep the sentences tighter and shorter than in real life arguments.

 

  1. Brief argument scenes are exciting, long ones dull. Keep it shorter than a real-life quarrel.

 

  1. Characters may interrupt one another:

         “But Grandma said-”

         “Leave Grandma out of this!”

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. During the argument, the characters may grab, squeeze and clutch things. If things get heated, they may even throw or smash them.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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?

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

Version 1:

“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.”

 

Version 2:

“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.”

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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?

***

Writing Vivid DialogueWRITING VIVID DIALOGUE

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 Sulu Dial 02theTwitterPic 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.

To learn more about Rayne, visit her website or follow her on Twitter where she posts advice for writers, funny cartoons and cute pictures of her cat.

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24 Responses to “Writing Argument Scenes with Rayne Hall”

  1. Evening Rayne…

    Great post! I imagine there’s just as many ways to end an argument as well. =)

    At what point do you decide the argument is just like the presidentialcampaign..finger pointing and name calling? =) At what point do you decide now’s a good time to end this argument?

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Peters | June 29, 2016, 10:44 pm
    • Hi Carrie,
      Like real-life people, fiction characters don’t necessarily stop when it’s a good tie to end the argument. 🙂
      I suggest ending it when it stops being exciting for the reader. Actually, I’d stop it just before that point.
      If finger-pointing and name-calling go on, this reveals a lot about the characters and about their relationship.
      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall | July 2, 2016, 6:49 am
  2. I’m a fan of creative insults, especially when characters use words which are regional in use. The location is a factor I haven’t considered. Imagine an argument in a posh restaurant where characters must check their tempers and not raise their voices. It adds another dimension to the scene.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 1, 2016, 6:57 pm
    • Good point, Jennifer. The anger may smoulder rather than erupt, and tension may build for which there is no release. Also, the presence of other people may affect what people say and how they say it.. talking in quiet tones so as not to be overheard, avoiding certain topics so the children don’t get distressed.

      Posted by Rayne Hall | July 2, 2016, 6:52 am
  3. That’s great! I hope you find many more. There’s a lot of good stuff on this site. 🙂

    Posted by Rayne Hall | July 2, 2016, 6:53 am
  4. Very interesting post! It helped me tweak some scenes to really liven them up! Thank you!

    Posted by A. Z. Anthony | July 3, 2016, 3:41 am
  5. I love love love including dialogues in my stories! They always liven up the scenes and you can reveal your characters in dialogues in much better light than in dull descriptions.
    Making them have an argument and fight is even better.
    I liked the team work tip very much. It’ll be controversial and interesting to start an argument between two people who actually are on the same side.
    One of my favorite tricks is to describe action during the dialogue. For example:
    “Why are you going there?” she took the keys out of her purse.

    Posted by Lilit Galatea | August 22, 2016, 5:43 pm
    • Hi Lilit,

      Yes, try the idea of people arguing while working as a team on the same side in your next novel (if it fits the story).

      I agree, using action to attribute dialogue is usually much better than dialogue tags. It reads better and creates an image (or a movie) in the reader’s mind. An action (like taking the key out of the purse) works well.

      Also, body language, facial expression and sound of voice work well here, although only if the speaker is not the point of view:

      Her body stiffened. “Why are you going there?”
      The colour drained from her cheeks. “Why are you going there?”
      “Why are you going there?” Her voice rose an octave.

      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 23, 2016, 5:06 am
  6. This topic really helped me a lot as to what to do when I’m writing my future romance novels. As you know, many times in romance there are arguments and I noticed while reading this, I have the characters repeat the same thing over and over again because I am thinking how it goes in real life. I also tend to have a problem when it comes to what verbs to use with the dialogue. The examples you gave here work perfectly and I’ll remember that next time I’m writing my stories.

    Posted by Christine Antosca | August 22, 2016, 6:12 pm
    • Hi Christina,
      Yes, repeating points during an argument soon bores the reader. In real life, people repeat their points over and over… and sometimes I wonder if that repetition really get the point across any better than if they’d said it only once.
      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 23, 2016, 5:00 am
  7. “You higgs-bosoned wormhole!” So great. I can see a scientist using it as she argues with a flat-earther. “You shut up about my bosoms!”

    If I were writing an argument scene I’d want it to be funny. I’m not comfortable with arguments in real life; I’d have a hard time writing them. Maybe in a horror story. Husband and wife arguing in their tidy living room, foreshadowing DOOM. For dialogue I really like early Charlie Huston. No attribution at all, not even he said she said. You have to figure out who is speaking from context and character clues.

    Hmm, just thought of something. What about an argument over e-media? Most of my communication anymore is messages and email. It would be a modern epistolary novel.

    Posted by Aimee Mandala | August 23, 2016, 9:28 pm
    • Oops, I think I posted my reply the wrong way. (Not the first time on this blog – one day I’ll learn how to do it right.)

      Hi Aimee,
      LOL. I’d enjoy reading that argument about the scientific bosoms, and yes, I think it would be hilarious.

      A funny argument scene – why not? I think it needs to be in the same tone as the rest of your book. If you write funny fiction, then a funny argument scene is perfect.

      With dialogue attributions – for an argument scene or other context – my recommendation is to use them where they are needed or aid clarity, and otherwise leave them out.

      My favourite way to make clear who’s talking without using tags is action. If the speech is in the same line as the action, it implies that this is the same person talking. No attribution tag needed:

      Before:
      “You will regret this,” she said, slamming the door behind her.

      After:
      “You will regret this.” She slammed the door behind her.

      ?

      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 2:38 am
  8. Hi Aimee,
    LOL. I’d enjoy reading that argument about the scientific bosoms, and yes, I think it would be hilarious.

    A funny argument scene – why not? I think it needs to be in the same tone as the rest of your book. If you write funny fiction, then a funny argument scene is perfect.

    With dialogue attributions – for an argument scene or other context – my recommendation is to use them where they are needed or aid clarity, and otherwise leave them out.

    My favourite way to make clear who’s talking without using tags is action. If the speech is in the same line as the action, it implies that this is the same person talking. No attribution tag needed:

    Before:
    “You will regret this,” she said, slamming the door behind her.

    After:
    “You will regret this.” She slammed the door behind her.

    🙂

    Rayne

    Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 2:36 am
  9. Hi Rayne,

    Another great article that clarifies a lot of things for me. I never thought that making it less like real life, would make it better but it does make sense. Real life arguments drag on and on and are repetitive.

    Fiction needs to consider the pacing of the story and the tension. You don’t want to build up tension with an argument and then lose it by dragging the argument too long.

    Also, great tip about giving the characters something to do. Sometimes, people in real life try to find something to do, especially if they are the guilty party and don’t want to face the argument.

    For example, a wife confronts her husband about cheating on her and he answers while looking for some important papers and pretending to be late for work, avoiding looking into her eyes coz he’s guilty.

    Posted by aditya thakur | August 29, 2016, 1:52 am
  10. Good point. A character who tries to evade (perhaps because he has a guilty secret or because he doesn’t like the topic of conversation) can pretend to be busy with an activity.

    Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | September 1, 2016, 1:50 pm
  11. I’m so happy I came across this post. I have wanted to work on my romance novel for the longest while, and for some reason I keep putting it off. It’s amazing just how much work goes into a well written novel, and I would definitely like to include some of these ideas. Do you think the readers would be interested in an argument between minor characters or is best used for the main characters?

    Posted by Shenae Richards | September 1, 2016, 8:49 pm
  12. I love this post! It has given me so many new ideas on how to write my argument scenes in my short stories. Having said that, what are your thoughts on writing a violent scene? Do you believe that it may cause your readers to become immune to violence?

    Posted by ashlee | September 3, 2016, 6:21 am
  13. Thanks for the great article. Writing the occasional argument tickles me, probably because I can make snappy retorts that I would never think of in real life, much less dare to use!
    I love fantasy because I get to make up everything, even the swearwords. Actually I do that in real life, but for some reason people stare when I start yelling, “Purple turnips and a half!”

    Posted by Christie V Powell | January 13, 2017, 11:11 pm
    • “Purple turnips and a half!” is great. If people stare, it has achieved it’s purpose: getting attention. 🙂
      You can do that in fiction, too. Maybe characters have made-up swearwords that become their catchphrases.
      If you’re able to write snappy retorts, that’s a very useful skill for a writer.

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | January 25, 2017, 4:09 am

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