Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Arguing for Writers

Good Tuesday,

I was very, very, very, very (you get the idea) behind on life last week. I only posted once. *horrified face*

I’m back on track this week. I’ll post three times, and to make up for my earlier blunder, I have a real writing-related post today.

There’s been talk within my circle of writers lately about writing conflict. As any good writer knows, conflict isn’t just fist/sword/gun fights. There’s internal conflict, small group conflict, non-physical conflict, etc.

A big part of conflict is arguing. Being who I am, I am no stranger to the finer nuances of the well-orchestrated argument. I frequently forget that not everyone is familiar with arguing, though. As a writer, it’s important for the toolbox (or lockbox) to be filled to overflowing with every tool (lock?) imaginable.

So I’m here today to discuss the finer nuances of arguing.

***NOTE: No people were harmed or yelled at in the writing of this blog post.***

The Argument

Ever wanted to punch someone in the face? Yes? We’re going to get along wonderfully (just kidding). Maybe? You’re getting there. No? We’ve got work to do. As I said above, conflict isn’t always throwing punches. Arguments are often shouting matches with no punches.

Then why did I ask you about punching someone’s face? Arguments are the steps before the punches start flying. Once the first hit makes contact, the situation’s escalated past argument to brawl. I’m here today to talk about the crucial time before the broken noses and split lips.

How do arguments start? Let’s stick to two-person arguments for the sake of confusion. So person A disagrees with person B (or vice versa if you’d prefer).

A - “I want the green curtains.”
B – “I want the blue curtains.”

Seem stupid? Stay with me. You’d be amazed how many arguments blossom from simple statements like this. A and B have stated their different preferences. Now what? In a perfect world, one would say “you’re right. Let’s get the blue/green curtains.” This is not a perfect world, and so often, the things we say are not what’s really bothering us.

A – “I really want the green curtains.”
B – “And of course because you want them, we have to get them.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. The argument has taken a subtle shift. It’s no longer simply about the color of the curtains. B feels as if his/her needs are tossed aside in favor of A’s on a regular basis. B’s statement implies that A has gotten his/her way before—frequently—and used whatever methods necessary—begging, coercing, flat-out stating the “law”—to get it.

A – “What is that supposed to mean?”
B – “Please. It’s always what you want. Remember the kitchen floor tiles?”

More problems. A either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to acknowledge what he/she is like. But B isn’t being completely honest either. He/she is hiding behind curtains and floor tile choices to keep from stating the real problem.

A – “What does the floor tiles have to do with the curtains?”
B – “Of course you don’t know. Why would you know?”

Oh boy. If you’re anything like me, at this point you’re thinking “B, just say it.” But B doesn’t. In fact, once this pattern has begun, B will evade and lie until either the argument blows up (with no resolution) or until he/she is backed into a corner and has to say why he/she is upset.

A – “I don’t understand you!”
B – “You never have!” *storms out of the room*


A – “I don’t understand you!”
B – “That’s because you never listen to me. I’m not happy, A. Can’t you see that?”

The second option is the healthier one. Unfortunately, the first option is the one more often seen. In terms of fiction, you want to employ various versions of the first one until the end of the story. The first one widens the gap between characters through a lack of resolution. It’s tough to resolve anything when one person leaves. By contrast, option two shows a step toward resolution. “I’m not happy, A,” is a confession. B has finally said what’s bothering him/her. Now the discussing (rather than the arguing) can begin.

So there are the various parts of the argument. What are A and B feeling throughout this process. This is the part, I think, where most people get stuck. Anyone can write dialogue between two characters who can’t decide on curtains. It’s another thing to know and recognize the stages of an argument.

Blue vs. green curtains – Most likely, B’s emotions have been growing for a while. Arguments never come out of the blue (no pun intended). There’s always a backstory to every blow-out. Find a reason for your character to feel as if his/her needs are not being met. Be creative. Then when A makes the harmless “I want the green curtains” statement, B’s patience hit the last straw, and the claws come out. B is fed-up, hurt, scared, and wants, more than anything, to be heard. A, by contrast, is confused and can’t understand why his/her normally quiet partner is acting like this.

Of course you don’t understand – This is a classic line. It never gets old because it’s always used. B is trying to hurt A. He/she is trying to pull a confession out of A. They want to hear “you’re right. I don’t understand. What’s the matter?” This, unfortunately, is rarely the response they get. And sometimes, even when it is, B doesn’t respond by calming down and explaining. When people are riled up, sometimes they just want to fight. Yes, they want to resolve, but B’s desire to make A feel the same way B has for so long takes over. It’s no longer about fixing things. It’s now about causing pain.

You never understand me *door slams* - Ouch. B has thrown his/her last verbal punch and left A to either wonder or go back to what he/she was doing and not care. (That’s up to the author.) B, at this point, most likely gets in his/her car and drives to a friend’s house or until the car runs out of gas. He/she wants space. He/she wants to swear at the top of their lungs. He/she wants to play out the myriad of ways the argument could have gone and obsess on the reasons it didn’t go those ways. It’s not a pretty picture.

What’s going on with A during this time? If A is the “go back to what he/she was doing and forget it” type, A is watching TV, going out with friends, or getting ready to move out—“I don’t want to put up with this anymore, so I won’t.” If A is the wondering type, A is as emotionally distraught as B. A is going to sit in the silent house and think about what could have caused the argument. If A is really caring, A will wait for B to return and try to resolve the earlier blow-out immediately.

B – I’m not happy because your mother did it again.”
A – “My mother has nothing to do with this.”
B – “Yes, she does. Why does she hate me?”
A – “My mother hates no one. Get over yourself.”

This is a very bad direction for an argument to take. Either A is right—his/her mother hates no one—and B is overly emotional, or B is right—A’s mother hates him/her—and A is being irrational.

If A is right, this could be a relationship ender. Attacking family members without good cause rarely ends well. A is feeling betrayed—how could B be so mean? B is frustrated—how can A not see what’s right in front of him/her.

If B is right, this is a good place for a meaningful speech on B’s part. You know, that speech that ultimately forces A to see the truth. At this point, A may or may not be aware that he/she is rapidly losing ground. If A is not aware, he/she will keep the argument going—why stop now? If A is aware, there’s one of two options. Either A will relinquish the anger and actually talk to B, or A will make his/her argument louder and more forceful to hide that he/she knows he/she has lost. It’s called denial, and people love it when they might be wrong. “No way am I admitting the other person is right.” Except that’s about as healthy as storming out of the room.

And don’t forget the underlying emotions. While A is shouting all the louder to keep from sounding wrong, he might be feeling guilty but unable to admit it. Or he might not care. If B is winning, B might be feeling triumphant. Or B might be feeling bad for yelling, or, in a worst-case situation, B might be gearing up to say “forget it. I’m sorry I snapped.” That would only bring the argument back to square one.

The key with the argument is to know your characters. Who are they? Which role would they play in an argument? Do they fight for their stance or give in at the first sign of bad weather? How quickly to they give in? Do they have an ego problem that keeps them from being the first to give in/apologize? You need to know all of these and more, depending on the specific argument.

I hope I’ve given the baffled arguer somewhere to start. If you’re a non-confrontational person, understanding the argument can be tough. It took me a while to stop having my characters argue at every opportunity. Arguments were how I got through a lot of my childhood, but I’ve moved past them. I’m not saying to go out and argue for the sake of research, but staying calm all the time isn’t healthy either. Humans need to let out steam, and they need to stand up for themselves. Sometimes that means arguing.

Thanks for reading.

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