I hate real-life drama. The stakes, the vulnerability—my nightmare. If there’s anything I can do to deescalate a situation before it gets messy, I will choose that path at all costs.
In fiction, I am a chaotic-evil TrOUbleMAkeR. I live for a drama-soaked battle royale—Lives, Love, HONOR on the line. Pass the popcorn.
Why, you ask, do I take pleasure in the pain of my characters? I don’t, I promise. My love of the argument is for its utility in storytelling. One fight between your characters can mobilize your protagonist, launch your story forward, or throw a total plot twist into the fold. If done well, it can release chapters and chapters of Tension in a single page.
An argument can be the most fun and most challenging part of your novel to write. On the surface, it’s an opportunity for you, the author, to let loose through your writing, to say in fiction what you might not dare share in real life.
It’s also an opportunity for you to learn about your characters: How do they behave under pressure? What’s their fighting language? (Rhetoric? Volume? Sarcasm?) What do they want so badly that they’ll risk whatever’s on the line in this fight?
Anyone can think up a conflict and pit two people against each other. But the author who knows when and how their character will hold a punch, what their trigger is, and how they handle confrontation, will earn the reader’s attention.
Maybe you’ve figured this all out— You know your characters, you’ve got a page-turning *altercation* in the bag. But is it dramatically necessary? An argument can be an invaluable dramatic tool, but try not to use it as a shortcut.
Ask yourself: What led to this breaking point? Have my characters had this argument already in some other form? If so, why are they back to the same conflict now? Most importantly, how does this argument underscore or unpack the core questions of the piece?
None of these questions have a right answer, but it’s important you ask them. If you find, for instance, that you’re staging an argument between your characters, but the story isn’t naturally leading there, you might not have enough build-up to justify the fight.
In real life, every argument is a release of collected tension— Sometimes that tension builds over a few minutes, sometimes years. More often than not, the subject of the argument is not what the conflict is actually about, so the cause might be completely unrelated to the trigger.
To decide whether your argument is dramatically necessary, identify what it’s really about. From there, you can determine if you’ve earned this dramatic release or if there’s another way to move the story forward.
For many of us, our art at the best of times can feel like work. But it should also be fun. And an argument scene is a great platform for play.
My favorite game is to inflict a bit of harmless torture on my characters. Got two people in a restaurant? Seat them next to a busy bathroom. Waiting for a bus? Delay it. On a hike? Lose the trail, open the skies, forget the bug spray. The more frustrated your characters get by their surroundings, the higher the tension and often the more humorous the scene, if that’s what you’re going for.
Play around with metaphor. Say your argument takes place in a gym. Who has less power in the dynamic? Place that character under the weights while the other one spots. Does the power shift throughout the scene? Show that in the environment and in their actions. You don’t always need words to play out a conflict.
What in real life can be a source of undeniable pain, in fiction can make us feel seen, give us perspective, or make us laugh. A fictional argument is an opportunity to make a colossal mess and not worry about how you’re going to clean it up. It’s gossip without the consequences. All with the added benefit of making your story authentic, fun, and thrilling.
Let it rip, authors. The stakes are high but there’s nothing to lose.
I'm a fiction book editor and writing coach. If you like my stories, I want to hear yours!
I help authors develop and polish their writing, so it's reading exactly the way it's meant to.
The world deserves to hear your story. Let's get it right.
Sign up below for access to monthly writing prompts, blog posts on story development, discounts, freebies, and workshop announcements.