Fight, Fight, Fight!
Sat Aug 06 2016
Keep conflict in every scene, right? That's what they say. It's among the best advice out there for keeping up the pace in your novel, or at the very least, for warding off your readers' boredom.
But while you're at it, don't forget to use conflict to show what kinds of people your characters are. Here I am using the word "conflict" narrowly, to refer only to situations where two characters are in direct, personal opposition to one another, when in one another's company.
Conflict is a much broader topic than that, one that drives nearly everything in most novels. The other kinds will have to wait for other posts, though.
Today, we'll stick with good old fashioned fights and arguments.
You take the high road, and I'll take the low road
When it comes to the what, why, and how of an argument, there are a few major axes that define the participants' varying styles of argument. For each axis, there's a high road and a low road which speak to the kinds of people the characters are.
The source of the conflict.
How many TV shows have you seen where characters end up fighting over a simple misunderstanding? Situations where, if they had simply talked openly, everything would have been fine? Too many to count, right?
This is partly why I don't watch much TV anymore. The writing is such crap. What's going on there? The characters took the low road: They jumped to erroneous conclusions about the other, and never bothered to verify their beliefs. Had they taken the high road, said "I'm upset because you said ...," then the other person could have said, "No, that's not what I meant. I meant ... instead." "Oh, that's fine then. Let's go get some lunch."
TV writers do this because it's the easiest way to gin up a conflict. But look what it does to the characters: By making them take the low road, they paint the characters as judgmental or quick to condemn. Had the characters taken the high road, they would have come across as mature, reliable, fair-minded, logical, and trustworthy.
Note, taking the high road does not mean short-circuiting the entire conflict. After all, a high-road character can just as easily end up confirming that their conclusions about the source of the conflict were correct. Then, at least they knows they're justified in putting up a fight.
Question or dictate
In any argument there are lots of ways to get your point across, and how you frame your viewpoints can be just as important as the viewpoints themselves.
The high road on this axis is engaging your opponent by asking questions. They can be very leading questions, but the point is to ask questions. The low road is to flatly assert opinions or claims which practically dare your opponent to disagree.
Let's say you have an environmentalist character arguing with a pro-development character over the value of wilderness preservation. The environmentalist might take the low road by saying "We must preserve wild spaces for future generations! We have no right to pave the planet at our grandchildren's expense!" You know how the developer is going to react, and it's not by caving to the argument.
Instead, the environmentalist might take the high road by asking a leading question: "Are you saying, then, that there is no possibility at all that there might be some value ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now in still having some robust wild spaces on the planet? That there's no chance we might learn something over the next century about the world that might make us say 'gee, I wish we still had some rain forest'?"
Make your high-road character's point through a question, because a question implicitly demands an answer. Construct the question so that there's only one reasonable answer at all, and that answer aligns with the character's goals. Simply by putting a character's point in the form of a question, you force the other character to at least consider the question before answering.
Questions become a way of reaching out for agreement, a definite high-road move, while assertions practically beg for disagreement.
What, or who
Too many arguments go south because the participants slip into the low road of arguing about each other rather than arguing about the actual source of the conflict.
The low road here is to use overly personal language--"You're an idiot if you think that!"--rather than staying focused on the subject at hand. The high road is obvious: Keep the character's statements phrased in terms of the subject rather than the opponent. Have them say, "But that doesn't make sense in light of ..."
Reaching an impasse
It may be that two characters simply cannot come to an agreement. Perhaps they disagree on something so fundamental to their world views that neither one can ever change.
Even then, there is still a high road and a low road. The high road is agreeing to disagree. Saying "Ok. I guess we just don't agree then." The high road is to end the conversation with respect, so both parties can live and let live.
The low road is to escalate. The low road is one character refusing to accept that the other won't bend to his will. The low road is to decide--whether expressed out loud or not--to make some kind of disproportionate response. To declare literal or metaphorical war on the other person. To bear a grudge, to start a blood feud, to slander them, to blacklist, or in some other way make the person suffer for having not agreed.
There's a lot of drama in the low road, but be clear what it says about the character who takes that road: this person is unreasonable, venal and petty out of all proportion. Other characters may come to fear that person, but they certainly won't respect them.
It takes two to fight, though, so what happens when the two sides in an argument opt not to take the same road on one of the above axes? You get a conflict on a higher level, a second conflict about the rules for arguing the first conflict.
Obviously, by invoking meta-conflicts, you tap into a wide variety of mix-and-match options. What if one person is interested in at least agreeing about the source of the conflict while the other isn't? What if one person consistently asks engaging questions, while the other resorts to dis-engaging dictums?
Meta-conflicts all have one thing in common, regardless of which axis they are meta about: they excel at showing a contrast between two characters. In most cases, readers will naturally side with the character who is at least trying to take the high road. Use this to swing your readers' loyalties where you want them to go.
Low-road conflicts can, and often do, escalate into violence. Characters come to blows, guns are drawn, armies march into battle.
But even when using physical force, your characters have choices. A high road, and a low road. We all have, through our upbringing and the norms of whatever cultures we grew up in, standards for what is considered fighting fair versus fighting dirty.
This is why in movies, the bad guy so often ends up throwing sand in the good guy's face. Because that's a low-road move, and it clearly demonstrates just how much of a snake he is.
There's a scene in the Oscar-winning movie Breaking Awaywhere the protagonist Dave Stoller is in a cycling race along with his idols, the Italian team. The Italians jam something into Dave's spokes and make him crash. Total low-road move, and it's effective because it utterly demolishes Dave's reverent image of the Italians.
Even in war, there's the high road of fighting in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and the low road of taking actions without regard to civilian casualties.
Fights suck in real life, but they're great in stories. Conflicts of all kinds--verbal or physical, between individuals or nations--are wonderful for keeping the pace of your novels up and for keeping readers engaged in your story. Conflict means somebody's going to win and somebody's going to lose, and that's as good a hook as any for keeping readers turning those pages.
But in all your conflicts, consider the tactics. There are always high roads and low roads. Your job is to make careful choices about which ones your characters take to vividly portray what kinds of people they are.