Thursday, January 26, 2012

Using Arguments for Good


I found myself involved in a few arguments this week. That is not the norm for me - I hate conflict and try to do what I can to avoid it. I am pretty good about seeing things from someone else's point of view. Unfortunately, that's not always enough to head off an argument. Once you're in the argument, it's like there's no going back. The frustration grows as you try to explain your point of view to someone unable or unwilling to listen, and you become unable or unwilling to listen to their end because you're so upset.

Of my two arguments, one was resolved quickly and the other was not. This is in part because they were with two different people, but also because they were two different kinds of arguments. When I was able to step back from them and look, it was easy to see how each side believed they were 100% correct. I was able to understand why one was resolved and the other still kind of hangs out there even though the talking part is over. And, unable to help it, I started analyzing how these experiences could be used to enliven my writing.

The funny thing is, even though I hate real life conflict, I love writing arguments. I love the dialogue and the emotion involved in the script. I may flush my way through it as I feel what's going on with my characters but I cannot deny my love for these scenes. In fact, many of my stories start with the idea of an argument midway through the book. It may not even be part of the main conflict, yet it is enough for me to get a gauge on my characters to understand what they're going through and what might have led to the argument. And the story starts.

In all truth, arguments are not bad, and this should be kept in mind while you're writing that big blow up scene. Arguments may not be pleasant, but they are not inherently wrong, either. In fact, they can be very helpful if the people involved can break through that moment of emotional stonewalling to get to the issues underneath. The misunderstandings are the easiest. Redefining what you meant initially can click with the other person, showing how silly the argument was. Or, that click may never come and it can be a source of ongoing stress between the two characters, creating a distance that has a direct or indirect effect on the story line.

The more difficult arguments are those based on differences of opinion, or worse, moral beliefs. They can also be the most emotionally wrenching to have, particularly if you care about the person you're arguing with - or if you care what they do. These are great in stories for conflict and for reader engagement if they're written correctly. This kind of argument cannot be written in the same way a misunderstanding is written. These feelings go deeper, need to cut more, even if the argument itself is quieter than a noisy 'you're not listening to me' shouting match. These kinds of arguments can be the catalyst of your story, giving your characters that unexpected change of direction that make something difficult look down right impossible.

Arguments can be silly, or they can be powerful, quiet and understated or loud and obnoxious. No matter what type is written, they are wonderful literary tools for conflict. They can show a character's flaws beautifully, while outlining strengths at the same time. For this reason, I love writing arguments into my stories. For this reason, I hate having them in real life.