Whether in stories, movies, games, or real life, arguing is a high tension and high stakes moment for everyone involved. It doesn’t matter if the people involved in the argument are yelling about the last slice of pizza or about the end of the world.
When in an argument, we find ourselves gripped by every beat.
The question and subject of this article is how do we use these gripping moments to deliver information, story progress, and motivation while not sapping all of the energy from the argument.
Using this high stakes moment as a way to keep the story and stakes alive isn’t something that the average writer can do. It’s something that takes skill and practice.
I’ll give you the tools and information that you need to do this while providing you with exercises to help you practice and develop the skill. In order for all of this information to stick, though, you’ll need to continue doing this well after reading this article.
You’ll need to be doing these exercises until the tools become second nature to you. That is how you will know that you have moved forward with your craft.
This may take days, weeks, months, or even years to settle in, but that is the time penalty we all must accept when learning something new.
Let’s first start off by examining a well-done argument in the wild. The example I’m going to use is from Lovecraft Country.
Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it or haven’t gotten to this episode yet. There won’t be any spoilers in this example.
If you’d like to watch the scene that I’ll be talking about, I’ve embedded it below.
In the video, the two characters (Ruby and Christina) fight over one of the character’s (Ruby’s) motivations behind doing a very questionable act. A common argument subject.
What the writers of Lovecraft Country did exquisitely was have one of the characters come in extremely hot and mighty, giving the readers what they believe to be is a justifiable reason behind the character’s actions but it’s a lie that the other character sees through and reveals.
The writers use descriptive wording at the very opening of the argument to pull the audience in and ground them.
It’s a pretty hard thing to turn away from and not listen to.
But then, that’s sort of what the other character does in her response to the question of, “Do you care?”, adding to the tension and conflict of the argument.
Christina let’s Ruby continue on until Ruby delivers a whooping insult that wins the audience over to her side after she does something that leads the audience to question her motivations and loyalties.
Only until after the audience is given what seems to be a really good, although questionable, reason for doing something that seems so wrong, does the other character finally say more than a couple words.
Like what happens in many arguments, Christina rebuffs what Ruby says and offers another reason for why she did what she did. The thing about this reason is that it hurts and is awful but aligns more with the character of Ruby and how she has acted throughout the whole show.
We the audience can tell that this is really the reason behind Ruby’s actions.
Ruby is taken aback by the statement and the scene ends there, but the argument does not. Scenes and minutes later, we finally are given the conclusion through another argument between Ruby and her sister where she repeats the words that Christina told her were her real reasons for acting the way she did.
Tips, Tricks, and Techniques
Above, we examined a scene and learned how other writers handled their arguments within their stories. We could, of course, just stop there and mimic what the writers of Lovercraft Country did.
But this article is for people who truly want to master and learn their craft, so below we’ll go over more techniques that you can use and play with within your own stories.
Use the Setting
Depending on what type of story you’re telling, your characters will be having an argument in a space of some sort, whether physical or not. Make sure that the space that the argument is happening in makes sense for the argument, so that it quietly heightens the tension of the scene.
Like in Lovecraft Country, the argument that happens between Ruby and Christina doesn’t just take place over the course of that scene but has ramifications and consequences that reverbrate through the story. When writing your argument, decide when you’ll give the conclusion for the argument and how long the argument will last.
What are the characters within your scene avoiding saying? What are their inner motivations, secrets, and desires during this argument? If one of the characters in your argument is using this time to manipulate the character into doing something they want, make them go about whispering their intentions to the other character through what they say and don’t say.
Sentences and Rhetoric
Zooming in closer to the bricks of our stories — the words and sentences — use sentence length and word choice to control the pacing and emotion of the reader throughout the argument. Using the example given above, Ruby could have simply said that a boy was brutally murdered, but instead she goes through each step of his mutilation in a very straightforward and descriptive way, making it impossible to turn away and not pay attention.
Use Character Relationships
An argument between two exes will have different stakes and power struggles then an argument between a child and a parent. Knowing how your characters are related and what their histories are will help you in understanding what each would say to the other to get what they want out of the argument. And I mean really know your characters. Truly examine them and their histories, shared and personal.
Use Reader Emotion
It may be tempting for some to put their arguments at the beginning of their story or to introduce characters, but at that point, readers don’t know enough to care about why there is an argument taking place to actually be engaged in it. Arguments are best up saved for moments when the reader knows the characters and believes they’ll know the outcome of the argument (this leaves room for you to pull a reversal or a big reveal that makes the reader fall out of their seats).
Make it Matter
I am sure you have experienced that moment where you’re reading or watching an argument and you realize that none of what the characters are saying actually has any baring on plot, world, problem, or character. This usually happens when the writer is simply writing an argument between two people and the statements begin to sound and feel redundant. Yes, of course, the reader knows that your character hates that their husband is cheating on them with the pool boy, but tell the reader something that turns everything on its head and has real ramifications and emotions like that the pool boy is actually the husband’s estranged son and they haven’t been having an affair but trying to work at building a relationship together.
Actions Speak Louder
Not every rebuttal can and should be done with words. Have your characters show how they feel through what they do or don’t do during the scene. For example, in the scene from Lovecraft Country, Christina’s character received every bit of information and emotion that Ruby gave. She didn’t look away or roll her eyes, even though she states that she doesn’t care about what happened to the boy we see through her actions that she does, however, care about Ruby.
Keep Exposition Brief
Some writers have the need to stop and start their arguments. They will stop them to drop a paragraph of exposition that they think will ground the reader in the scene. They’ll stop to explain the inner workings of the characters to help their readers understand where each character is coming from. The problem with this is that the writers should be letting their dialogue and argument do all of those things so that they don’t have to stop the tension and pace of the argument to do it. One or two lines packed with emotion spread throughout your argument will do just great.