Friday, May 30, 2008

Let's Fight

What is it about fighting in dialogue that makes a writer drag out every last detail? For instance, a fight between John and Mary might go like this:

M: How could you?
J: It just happened.
M: But we've been married for thirteen years, John!
J: I know that, Mary. It just happened!
M: How? We have two children together, we've been happy!
J: I can't take it back, Mary. I'm so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?
M: Remember when you proposed, you said you would never, ever hurt me?
J: Yes.
M: I guess you just broke that promise.

Telling, telling, telling. All I see is information here, not subtle in the least! Fighting between characters is one of the easiest telling-traps to fall into. The most logical reason for that is real-life fights tend to go this way. We lay out our issues to one another, listing all the reasons why the other peson in the fight screwed up, and all the reasons that they shouldn't have done so.

Sure, it's real, it happens, and most of us could probably recite our greatest fights word for word...but it's boring, folks, and - to put it simply - it's easy.

Think of the movie The Bourne Identity. Jason Bourne actually uses a magazine to fend from a guy with a knife. Knife vs. Magazine. Now that's a fight I was interested in! Bourne didn't stomp around the kitchen railing at the guy like this:

Bourne: How dare you come at me with a knife! You have no business being here!
Knife-Guy: But I've been sent to kill you! With this knife!
Bourne: Why? Why are you doing this? Can't you just tell me who I am? I'm lost!
Knife-Guy: No, I can't do that. Now let me attack you.
Bourne: No! I won't let you!

A married couple might fight like this, but let's keep our characters in the freshwater-pond, instead of a dull, gooey swamp. Here's an exercise:

The next time your characters are fighting, try to write it without dialogue - see what they do. What actions would either character use to express their anger? What would be the ultimate act that one might perform to show the other that they're mad?

If you want a little dialogue, try writing the fight with no information. Instead of listing the reasons why your characters are in the fight, think of things they might say to skirt around the fact that they're not happy with one another - maybe a normal conversation amid actions that express something more rancorous is going on. For example, a husband and wife mid-fight might have breakfast together, talking about the husband's day at work, but meanwhile, the husband is slapping jelly on his toast as though he were hitting a person, and the wife is digging at grit in the pan with her spatula so hard that the handle breaks off.

Focus on any fight at all and see how you wrote it. Are the characters repeating already-known information back to one another? Are they doing things during the fight, or just standing around like dolls? Could they be doing something that might be a better way to show that they're having a fight?

Happy Fighting!


Tabitha said...

Hmm, I'm not sure you'd have an effective, honest-to-goodness fight without dialog. Sure, you can have tense and difficult moments where it's clear that Mom's not happy with Dad. And that's where her actions will really show us her mood - both toward that frying pan she's scrubbing and the way she slams Dad's breakfast on the table.

But a real, full-blown fight requires dialog. Probably screaming, with some strong action and emotion mixed in. I agree that the snippet you gave as an example is flat and boring, but I think it's partly because they're not doing anything (no throwing or slamming things around), and there's very little emotion. Plus, we don't know the characters. If we had a vested interest in the characters, plus a front-and-center view of what caused this fight, then we might feel differently.

Just my opinion. :) Thoughts?

Vivien V. said...

I absolutely agree that dialogue and action together are going to be key in a good fight, but I wanted to warn against fights that give too much repeated information. That's what makes them boring, in my opinion.

Even if I had put action into my dialogue example, it would still be a boring conversation because it's so obviously telling and re-hashing the same information over again for the reader. I'm writing about the tendency of fights in dialogue to do this because it's more indicative of how people really fight, but in writing, it gets really boring.

The "front-and-center" view of the fight that you mentioned is exactly why the dialogue should not be so telling. If you give the reader a front-and-center view, such as showing John cheating on Mary and the details of John's marriage with her, then Mary should not repeat the fact that he's cheated and that they're married, etc. because the reader will already know this information. They can still fight, but they don't have to detail line-by-line their relationship with one another and where it went wrong. That should be shown in the narrative.

Tabitha said...

Yes, I agree about the repetition. Both the repetition and lack of emotion make that piece snoringly boring. :) That said, sometimes there is a place for repetition. Say a character is trying to get a straight answer from someone who keeps skirting the issue. Then you need the repetition - but you ALSO need the action and frustration/anger that would come along with it. :)

If you intended the lack of dialog to be an exercise before writing the actual fight, then I think that's a great idea. Actually, that's good for dialog in general, not just for fights. No one sits around just talking. Everyone fidgets, has body language, does a menial task, etc. while talking. No one ever really sits around doing nothing. :)

Frank said...

How I write a fight depends on the characters involved and what I'm trying to do with the scene. How people fight is an expression of character and personality that must serve to advance the story. I should only use the words necessary.

Fights are explosions of emotion, and most emotion is expressed as body language as well as words. But if what I want to convey can be shown without description.

Take this fight:

"You left the lid up again."
"I'm busy here."
"You aren't listening to me?"
"Of course I'm listening to you dear, I'm sorry. Now, can I get back to what I'm doing."
"Are you sleeping with that slut, Marry?"
"What has Marry got to do with the lid, and why can't you let me work?"

No body language there. I can only say so much with punctuation. What I tried to do, entirely off the cuff, was to let their words say things about the characters that was greater than the content of the words. I didn't need to show her with water dripping off her body. I didn't need to show him playing a computer game or building a ship in a bottle. These are two people with their own issues who aren't communicating.

If I can reveal my characters with just their words, then I should not use unnecessary description.

Vivien V. said...

I think less is more. If you start writing a scene by using as little as possible, then it's much easier to work up from there using only what you need.

So if you write a fight pretending that you can't use any dialogue, you'll probably find it easier to write focused dialogue when you allow yourself a line or two, since those one or two lines are going to be all you have - they'll need to encompass the reasons for the fight, and in doing that, everything extraneous is missing. You'll find the bare bones of the scene laid out.

I'm not saying NEVER REPEAT, but if you pretend that you cannot repeat any information, then the places where you need to will pop out in full view.

Tabitha said...

"If I can reveal my characters with just their words, then I should not use unnecessary description."
Yes, that's true. But I don't think that's what Vivien meant. I think she means writers should put emphasis on showing the characters through action instead of flat, repetitious dialog. Also, description isn't showing. It's telling. Action is showing.

Frank, there's a key element missing from your dialog snippet: tone. Tone of voice can't be conveyed through dialog alone. It has to come with action. In your snippet, I can't tell if the wife is angry or hurt. Or if the husband is irritated or bored. Body language conveys tone, which translated into emotion. Without emotion, the piece is flat and the meaning is unclear.

Celebc├╣en said...

I don't know, guys... this idea of a fight with something NOT in it sounds a bit odd to me.
I mean, in a fight (and in dialogue in generale) the words are important, the body lnguage is important, the action is important, sometimes even repetitions are important. These are all tools we have at hand to convay what we want to say (and the characters as well), so why should we refuse to use one or more of them? (as Musashi said, when you carry two swords, it's stupid that you should die in a fight with one of them still in your scabbard)

Trying to write barring one of the ways is a good exarcise, in my opinion, but when we come to the real thing, we should use all the tools we have to convey the clearer picture.

Frank said: "How people fight is an expression of character and personality that must serve to advance the story." I agree with this. Every character fights in a different way, so as every character loves in a different way. I think there's no golden role for fights, as for everything else. Every fight is different from all the others, the characters are what really set the roles.

So I think what's really important to me is creating good, storng, coherent characters; the fight will authomatically find its way from there :-)

beth said...

I just wanted to say that the blog post was great, and the comments here are just as wonderful. I'm glad to find a blog with real, actual content on craft!