Fight! Fight! Fight!
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. While the word “conflict” is very broad when applied to novel writing, here I’m using it more narrowly to refer to situations where two characters are in direct, personal opposition to one another, when in one another’s company. You know, 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 sit-coms or prime time dramas have you seen where characters end up fighting over a simple misunderstanding? Situations where, if they had simply talked with each other a little bit, everything would have been fine? Me, too many to count. 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 X,” then the other person could have said, “No, that’s not what I meant. I meant Y instead.” “Oh, that’s fine then. Let’s go get some lunch.”
Take the low road, and you paint your characters as judgmental, quick to condemn. Take the high road, and you get characters who are 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 his conclusions about the source of the conflict were correct. Then, at least he knows he’s justified in putting up a fight.
Question or dictate. In any argument, there are lots of ways to get your point across. Ask anybody who ever participated in a debate club, and they’ll tell you 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, of course, but the point is to ask questions. The low road is to state flat-out opinions 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.
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! You’re forgetting entirely about X!” — 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. “But that doesn’t make sense in light of X.”
Reaching an impasse. It may be that two characters simply cannot come to an agreement. Perhaps they disagree on something so fundamental to their individual world views that neither one can ever change. What then? There’s still the high road and the 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.
It takes two to fight, though, so what happens when the two sides in an argument opt not to take the same road, high or low, on one of the above axes? It’s 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? There are lots of meta-conflicts you can employ, but they all share one use to the writer: they excel at showing a contrast between two characters. And in most cases, readers will naturally side with the character who is at least trying to take the high road.
Low-road conflicts can, and often do, escalate into violence. Characters come to blows, guns are drawn, armies are sent into battle. But even there, 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.
Why do you think, in so many movies, when the good guy and the bad guy fight the bad guy inevitably 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 the bad guy is. There’s a scene in the Oscar-winning movie Breaking Away where 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 are great. 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, and you can make careful choices about which ones your characters take to vividly portray what kinds of people they are.
May 25, 2010 23:48 UTC
Posted by Theresa Milstein on May 26, 2010 01:01 UTC
Excellent post. Conflict for the sake of conflict never works. Your examples are great.
Posted by Matt Ryan on May 26, 2010 15:15 UTC
Once again another great post. You’re practically writing my novels for me. I almost feel guilty.
Posted by Jason Black on May 26, 2010 16:15 UTC
Thanks! I’m always pleased to be able to help. But Matt, I’m hardly writing your novel for you. I’m just helping you see where the pitfalls and pinnacles may be on the way from start to finish.
Still, if you need to do something to assuage your guilt, you can always add me to your “Smartass Roll Call” on your blog, share links to my articles on Twitter, and of course tell all your writer friends where they can find the best freelance editor this side of the Mississippi. :)
Posted by K.M. Weiland on May 26, 2010 20:22 UTC
Excellent article. Not that there isn’t a time and place for low-road conflict, but, generally speaking, when we give our characters respectable viewpoints, we also end up with respectable characters - and usually much more interesting moral complexities and depth.
Posted by Jason Black on May 26, 2010 20:31 UTC
Oh, don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all encouraging people to stay away from the low road in their novels. Low-road characters can be enormously fun to write as well as to read! They’re a wonderful source of spice for a novel.
All I’m trying to do is shed light on both types, so writers can make better-informed choices when they write their fight scenes. I do this in part because better-informed choices is what this blog is all about, but also because I see so many manuscripts from my clients where the writer has unintentionally shown something very detrimental to the portrayal of a character, simply because they weren’t aware that what they were doing carried with it a whole other layer of subtext.
The heart of good writing is crafting your surface text in order to consciously manuipulate the subtext to be what you want it to be. This is impossible for writers who don’t understand that relationship between text and subtext, which is why so many of my posts are about shedding light on various aspects of that relationship.