February 10th, 2016

Escalate Story Tension with Dirty Fighting

Dirty Fighting techniques

Today we’re talking about Dirty Fighting. What is it, and why do you want your characters to do it? The main reason: It escalates tension in your story by deepening both your external and internal conflict.

Dirty Fighting isn’t about some how-to guide on Jujitsu or Street Fighting. Nope, it’s actually a list of twenty-three items given to my husband and I by our pre-marital counselor to teach us the difference between the Dirty Fighting Techniques practiced by most couples and the clean-as-a-whistle fighting he wanted us to strive for.

Before we get dirty, what is “clean fighting?”

Here is a clean fight summed up in 4 easy steps:

  1. How you feel? (use an “I” statement for this)
  2. What behavior prompted that feeling?
  3. Why it’s important/the background? (i.e. what button did they push)
  4. What would you want them to do differently next time?

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Go try it. It’s really hard to do when you’re mad. Most people who are angry fight dirty.

Clean fighting takes rigorous training. Do you really think your characters will have had any of this sort of training? It’s pretty unlikely unless you’re writing about a psychologist. It’s much more likely that your character will be flawed like the rest of us.

Dirty Fighting Makes Great Fiction

Great books are filled with conflict and great characters who learn important lessons. Great fiction rips emotion out of us readers. And a really great book will make you see yourself inside those pages. Plus, dialog is the number one way to move your story quickly and legally bring in backstory.

Note: More on the perils of back story by Kristen Lamb.

Understanding the difference between clean and dirty fighting will give you tons of mileage in your own stories. Every entry I’m sharing is guaranteed to make the other person see red. If you’re writing fiction, that anger and tension is a really good thing.

Take your time reading these. Trying to absorb them all at once is like drinking from a fire hydrant.

Important reasons to have your characters fight

1. Unique Dialog. Every character is unique, which is why dialog is such an art. How do you think of creative things to say that would apply only to your character? One answer is to make him or her fight.

2. Insight into character motivation. Since gratuitous fighting in a story is like gratuitous sex (kinda boring if there’s no real connection or reason for it), the author needs to find a great reason for the fight.

How you use the fight is up to you but the easiest way to pave the road to this rad fight is to dig down for what your characters really really want. DON’T give it to them. Or at least, don’t give it too soon. Then flake away more layers to uncover what your character really really fears. DO give that to them!

Now, you not only have characters who are upset, you’ve also found a myriad of ways to slide both the readers and the characters deeper into your story.

OK, let’s roll around in the Dirty Fighting Swamp.
Go ahead, get dirty. Be the bog. Here’s Round 1! 

Note: Your sarcasm muscle – which is always used in a Dirty Dogfight – should get a quick flex before you begin.

My top five Dirty Fighting Techniques for adding tension and plotting options to your story.

#1 – Triangulating: Don’t leave the issue between you and your conflict partner (could be a family member, friend or love interest), pull everybody in. Quote well-known authorities who agree with you and list every family member whom you know has taken your side. Lie about the ones you haven’t spoken to yet.

Uses: Triangulating is incredibly useful in fiction because you can expand the discussion to more characters and stir up some real drama. Let’s not keep this issue between just us, one character says to the other. Oh no, lets involve everybody.

If you have extreme Dirty Fighting Talent, you can stir the pot and then step back and play a new game called, “Let’s watch the other two people fight.” That’s good times.

#2 – Escalating: Quickly move from the main issue of the argument to questioning your partner’s basic personality, and then move on to wondering whether the relationship is even worth it.

Uses: Excellent tool for keeping two love interests apart. BUT, the fight better be about something that really, really matters or you risk falling into the Bog of Coincidence and most stories don’t have enough muscle to climb out of that place.

Escalating also allows for plausible use of back story. When you’re moving from the main issue to the REAL issue (often happens at the black moment / end of Act 2),  escalating the argument will make someone lose control enough that they blurt out something juicy. (Way to go, Author!)

#3 – Leaving: No problem is so big or important that it can’t be ignored or abandoned all together. Walk out of the room, leave the house, or just refuse to talk. Sometimes just threatening to leave can accomplish the same thing without all the inconvenience of following through.

Uses: My favorite use of this is employing it when the two characters really need each other. It completely ups the betrayal factor: I can’t depend on you. I don’t trust you. You’ve let me down.

You noticed how dirty those last three statements were, right? This is fantastic for your story. The farther your  character falls, the harder the journey is on the way back up, right?

#4 – Timing: Look for a time when your partner is least able to respond or least expects an argument.

Uses: Think about this from a story point of view. A really great time to pick a fight is just before the main character embarks on a journey, has a new murder to solve, is called on to save the world. Anything with high stakes works great. Be sure the character ambushing them is likeable so the reader really gets drawn into the conflict.

#5 – Rejecting Compromise: Never back down. Stick with the philosophy that only one of you can win.

Uses: This is a kickass Dirty Fighting trick to use on the main character. If there is only  one winner, there is automatic conflict involved for the person who “loses.” The solutions are endless.

Are you ready to really take the gloves off?

Here is Round 2(Click here for a post on how to really use these Round 2 techniques in fiction.)

p.s. There’s a really cool contest happening at the end of the post – read on!

#6 – Brown Bagging: Never stick to just the original issue. Bring up as many problems as possible, and in great detail. Think of every complaint you can from your past history and lay them all on your partner at the same time. An overwhelmed person cannot fight back effectively.

#7 – Cross Complaining: When your partner complains about something, make sure you raise a complaint of your own. “I forgot to make up the bed? How about all the times you haven’t taken out the garbage?”

#8 – Over-Generalizing: Use words like “never ” or ” always .” This will force your partner into defending his or her overall actions rather than looking at the issue at hand.

#9 – Pulling Rank: Don’t address the real issues— it’s much easier just to say that you bring home more money, have more friends, more education, or do more around the house. “When you make as much money as I do, then I’ll listen to you” works like a charm. Keep your partner down! Equality in a relationship? Bah!

#10 – Using Sarcasm: This really gets their goat! “Well, lookee here at who’s so perfect all the time!” Use just the right tone and your partner may not have a good comeback.

Dirty Fighting Techniques

The Final “Dirty Thirteen”

For the TKO…here are the other thirteen dirty fighting techniques, in alphabetic order. Because I love my peeps here at WITS, I also searched high and low online and finally found a link to several of these techniques so you’ll have an online reference.

#11 – Asking Why: Treat your partner like an irresponsible child. “Why didn’t you clean up after dinner?” “Why don’t you love me like John loves Helen?” Make your partner feel that he or she is incapable of an adult relationship rather than focusing on the issue at hand.

#12 – Avoiding Responsibility: Bring any disagreement to a sudden halt by saying “I forgot.” Other convenient excuses could include: “I had too much to drink,” or “I guess I was tired.” Why engage in a discussion when it is much easier just to avoid the whole thing?

#13 – Be Inconsistent: Keep your conflict partner off balance by changing your position.
Never hold the same opinion twice. Another good twist on this theme is to complain that your partner never speaks to you and ignore whatever they do say.

#14 – Blaming: Make it clear that you are not at fault and that you are simply the victim. Never admit that you play any part in the difficulty and that you will never make any changes. Let your partner know that he or she is entirely at fault and that if the relationship is to get any better, they will have to change.

#15 – Crucializing: Exaggerate the importance of an issue by drawing conclusions of great magnitude regarding the relationship. “If you loved me, you would never have done this” is a good one. Or try: “This proves you have never cared about me.”

#16 – Fortune Telling: Like mind-reading, this technique gives you the upper hand. “You will never change” demoralizes your partner and effectively blocks resolution of the real issue.

#17 – Giving Advice: Whenever your partner wants to talk over a problem, always act like the expert. You should tell the person how to act, think and feel. Always have the better answer. If this is ever questioned you can always say that you were only trying to be helpful.

#18 – Labeling: Learn some negative terms like “neurotic,” “alcoholic,” “immature,” or “paranoid” to use whenever you want to give the impression that the other person is at fault. Terms like “you slob…” suggest that your partner is inherently flawed as a person rather than focusing primarily on behaviors that can change.

#19 – Mind Reading: Let your partner know that you are the expert in how he or she feels or thinks. This way you won’t have to deal with any issues at all. “You don’t really feel  angry right now.” “You didn’t mean to say you wouldn’t be home for dinner.”

#20 – Not Listening: Don’t let your partner know that you value his or her opinion or feelings. Hear only what you want to hear and ignore the rest. Reinterpret whatever your partner says to suit your own needs. Better yet, interrupt whenever your partner starts to  talk. Or pretend to read or fall asleep while your partner is talking. Leaving is a great combination move with this one.

#21 – Personalizing: Anybody can solve a fight by sticking to the issues. Shift to personality and character issues and you should be able to generate enough defensiveness to keep the conflict going forever. Name calling and “never” statements can help take the focus away from a healthy debate of the issues and into real character assassination.

#22 – Playing the Martyr: If timed properly, this technique can completely disorient your partner. “You’re right, honey, I guess there really is no hope for me.” How can your  partner respond to that? If there is no other alternative, pretend to be sick until your partner’s behavior changes— and blame your illness on your partner.

#23 – Self-Righteousness: This is the great morale builder. By listing and reciting every slight, injustice, inequity you’ve suffered through and sacrifice you’ve made, you will experience a renewed sense of self-righteousness. Giving advice on how to think, act, and feel maintains the superiority you need.


Tiffany Lawson Inman (aka Naked Editor) wrote a post on fighting styles last week, and she has offered us a prize for today. We are having a special give-away for anyone who posts their dirty fighting scene.

One writer who posts a fight scene in the comments could win a FREE EDIT from Tiffany. Edit is limited to 3 pages, double spaced, 12 pt font. 

Note from Tiffany: When you post, give me a lead-in on who is fighting, their relationship, the motivation of the fight, the dirty techniques you used, and what outcome you are aiming for.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Do you have new ideas about how to use these filthy fighting methods in your own stories? What is your favorite Dirty Fighting technique? Tell us all about it and provide samples from your own fiction down in the comments.

About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes news articles, humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or at Writers In The Storm.


Photo credits: Pixabay

52 comments to Escalate Story Tension with Dirty Fighting

  • This is all so golden…I’m saving forever! Thanks, Jenny.

  • Such great ideas! This is going in my “writer’s notebook” where I keep all the best advice I find for future reference. Thanks!

  • christopherlentzauthor

    Perfect timing! Just got feedback about the hero in my WIP … that he needs one more heroic scene. Perhaps a strategically placed dirty fight will do the trick. Thanks for the spark!

    • Christopher, I hope that means you will be writing like mad and posting it here! Who could say no to a possible FREE SCENE EDIT?

      I bet your hero will flourish in a dirty fight. Don’t let him win the whole thing from start to finish though. Gotta see him work for his victory and deserve it.

      If you do end up posting, give me a lead-in on who is fighting, their relationship, the motivation of the fight, the dirty techniques you used, and what the outcome is that you are aiming for.

      Put that feedback to good use!

      I’ll draw the winning writer tomorrow evening @8 MST and post the edited scene on Friday.

      See you soon!

    • A dirty fight can always help someone look heroic by exposing their underbelly…and then watching them overcome it. 🙂

  • Excellent pointers. I’ve got several prominent “fights” in my NIP – I need to go back and see if I can make them even more “dirty”

    • Maggie,

      Isn’t this a great resource?! Jenny is so smart! If you dirty up those scenes, be sure and post one of them in the comments for a chance to win a FREE SCENE EDIT! And give me a lead-in on who is fighting, their relationship, the motivation of the fight, the dirty techniques you used, and what the outcome is that you are aiming for.

      I’ll draw the winning writer tomorrow evening @8 MST and post the edited scene on Friday.

      See you soon!

  • This is great! Printing it out 🙂

  • MM Jaye

    Fantastic post! I usually fight dirty, but I’m so waiting for someone else to post first, in case what I got that we could actually post a scene is completely wrong!

  • Oh, Jenny, this is priceless! Both in terms of writing stories and in a kind of reverse-osmosis “don’t do what I do” training to fight more effectively in life. A definite keeper and Tweeter. And thanks for also making me ROFLMAO!

  • As a middle school counselor, I’m always teaching my students to fight fair. Thanks for reminding me that my characters do not have to fight fair and listing all the ways they can fight dirty.

  • MM Jaye

    Okay, here goes nothing. This is a scene I finished only yesterday in the Gothic romance I’m writing. It takes place right after the hero with the help of the heroine put out a fire that mysteriously erupted in the master bedroom of the (hauuuunted) mansion:


    I whirled around. He lifted his hand, and showed me something. I couldn’t make out what it was, so I stepped closer and took it from him.

    It was a deformed, burned candle. Green. Like the one I’d brought to the bedroom.

    My eyes flew to his face. “I blew the candle out before coming down.”

    His look was dark, the line between his brows more prominent than ever. “Are you sure? You had a near-death experience only this morning. I won’t blame you if you just forgot.”

    Blood rushed upwards, and my temples started pounding in sync with my thudding heart. I helped him put out a fire that could have destroyed his home, even though he’d called me by his dead wife’s name right after he’d kissed me, and now he was accusing me of gross negligence?

    “Was your wife forgetful?”

    He blinked, clearly not expecting that question. “Actually, she was. Very.”

    My suspicion confirmed, I crossed my arms, bent and bunched the dress fabric over my thighs and in one move lifted it off me. I threw it in the sink. His eyes widened. With his skin covered in soot, the golden flecks on his dark irises were striking.

    I hooked my arms behind me, working on the bra’s clasp. “Did you think that lending me your wife’s clothes would also lend me her personality?” The bra and thong followed the trajectory of the dress and landed in the sink. My outrage was all-consuming. No space for embarrassment.

    I stood straight and looked him straight in the eyes. “I’m not Julia. I’m Daphne. And Daphne might be a number of things, but she’d never leave a lit candle in a room stuffed with inflammable fabric and walk away.”

    But, apparently, I’d leave a man gaping at me and walk away stark naked.

    Because that’s what I did.

    So maybe “Escalating” and “Leaving” plus some “Brown Bagging”?

    Thanks for reading!

  • Andrea R Huelsenbeck

    Yep. This goes on my list of articles to reread frequently. I’m going to have to use some of this in my work-in-progress. I needed a way to show how my character’s investigation of a missing child case is impacting her marriage. My problem is, her husband is really sweet and nice and not complaining very much. This article is giving me ideas about how he can blow up, but still come out of it later as a nice guy who really cares about his wife and tries to support her.

  • Sam is an 18 year old boy whose father has recently died. Following his death, he finds a note on the back of an old envelope which seems to imply his dad was having an affair. This scene is between Sam and two close friends. Sonny has been looking up information about the name on the reverse side of the envelope without Sam’s knowledge and he passes that info on to Sam.

    My ears start to ring, heat rises from my toes to the tips of my ears. I jump to my feet, screw the paper into a ball and fling it at his stupid fat face. I spin around and stalk away but the idiot chases after me.
    “Sam, wait.”
    I turn back, stride towards him until I’m standing so close I can see the flecks of grit caught in his hair and the freckles on his nose.
    “I was trying to help.”
    “Why would I want your help? How is this helping?”
    He holds up his hands in surrender and steps back but I fill the space as soon as he can make it.
    Dez appears beside us. “Just settle down. He was just trying to help you out.”
    “I just thought you might want to talk to them, find some stuff out about your Dad and that. I just thought…”
    “It’s not a bad idea,” Dez wipes his nose on the back of his hand.
    I turn on him. The sound in my ears goes from loud to deafening and the world beyond Dez is a hazy mess of colour without detail.
    He steps back.
    “You were the one who said I should just leave it, remember? Or has all that dope finally fried your brain.” Flecks of my spit make dark spots on his t-shirt.
    “I know but I’ve thought about it since then. I mean, I’d want to know.”
    I pivot to face Sonny again. I’m getting dizzy from spinning between them.
    “I just thought you might want to find out the truth. I thought my Dad was doing something before he got caught and it use to drive me mental. It was shit when we found out for real but at least we knew and we could stop imagining what might be going. It was better. I thought it might be for you.”
    I’m frozen, hands gripped into fists, face twisted. It’s like the wind’s changed and I really am stuck that way. A thought slides into my mind like a icy knife, it’s point driving right into the centre of my brain. I can move again.
    “You thought, huh? What? That just because your families are shitty and broken mine should be too? Does that make you feel better about yourself? Well fuck you,” I spit a green gob at Sonny’s sneakers, “Just because your parents are crappy doesn’t mean mine are. I’m not you. My family isn’t like your family.”
    “You’re that much better than us, are you?” Dez snarls.
    I turn my back on them and walk away. “Yeah, I am.”

  • Bookmarked! These are great, Jenny. I used to know someone who fought dirty. She’d always respond to conflict with “And another thing . . . ” and drag up everything from the past. 🙂

  • Love this post! It’s all the nasty tricks in one foul hit. Definitely one to read again. I’m off to tweet.

  • Good evening! Looks like we have only two brave souls in the comments section posting their scenes for a chance at a FREE SCENE EDIT.

    OR you writers were just so blown away by all of the fabulous secrets to writing intensely volatile dialogue that you locked yourself in a room with your laptop to revisit every character argument in your three manuscripts and it looks like your family won’t be able to crack your writing groove for at least another day.

    Am I right?

    Well I know one thing for sure. MM Jaye and Littlemissw are both winners in my book.

    2 WINNERS!!!! So they both will get their scenes edited. CONGRATULATIONS!!!

    Be on the lookout for your scenes on Saturday Feb 13th. I’ll be back here to post them on the site so that everyone can learn a thing or two or fourteen. 🙂 Wanna see what I did with Birgit Kluger’s fight scene last week? Her FREE SCENE EDIT is at the absolute bottom of the comments section of my blog, 7 Fight Styles Every Author Should Know.

    I know you will learn something. Head on over!

    Thank you all for clicking and reading and posting.

    I will see you all next month for some more advanced writing craft fun. Have a few scenes ready to post for me, okay? I’ll either be looking for action, action/suspense, or high intensity style emotions. I don’t want you to miss out on another opportunity to WIN a SCENE EDIT or an Advanced Writing Craft WORKSHOP.

    See you soon.

    • Wow! Thanks, Tiffany!!! And awesome bravery to our two winners. Dirty fighting is some messy stuff. 🙂

    • MM Jaye

      That’s so kind of you! To work on both of our scenes! Thank you!

      I don’t know why, but even though I’m a new writer, I never hesitate to post my work. I’ve noticed not many writers are eager to do the same. I have a blog where I started a “GIF for a beat” series. I posted a GIF showing a facial reaction, wrote a flash-fiction type of story based on it, and asked readers (who are mostly writers) to write out the sentence where the character uses the body cue of the GIF. Although I got tons of views, as everyone was curious to see the others’ efforts, very few participated, so I stopped that type of blog posts. Well…

  • What a great post! While I was reading it, a dozen real-life fight scenes went through my mind where all these dirty tricks were used. (OK some of them were used by me).

  • […] Jenny Hansen says “dirty fighting [between characters] makes great fiction” and she’s right. When we get into arguments, we’re not always rational, though we might learn to get “better” about fighting. In fiction, however, we can learn a lot about a character in the way they fight. What do they say in the heat of the moment that they would normally never say out loud? How do they attack or insult? How do they react? Hansen touches on this, but even more so on specific “tactics” that our characters might use that can effectively heighten tension. […]

  • Sue

    Great post which I am saving for later reference! My only disappointment was the lack of undies… 🙂

  • This is very informative. I’m going to be referring to this for awhile. Thanks for the post.

  • carrienichols

    I hope I’m not to late but I have been deep in edits with my novella and only now coming up for air. Here’s a fight scene from Snowbound with the Stork. My heroine is pregnant with the hero’s baby and they’re trapped in a snowstorm trying to hash things out. And they aren’t fighting fair or saying what’s really wrong.

    He took a gulp of water and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Ted’s ex didn’t move two hours away. Joyce stayed in Granger where she belonged.”

    “She stayed where she belonged?” Hadley’s face flushed an angry red. “What sort of misogynistic sh*t is that?”

    “You’re two hours away. You’re setting yourself up to be a single parent. Is that what you want?” He needed to get her back to Granger where he could at least try and protect her. Not that he had a very good track record protecting loved ones, but he had to try if he wanted to look himself in the mirror ever again. He refused to give up trying to do better for her, be better for her. What would have happened to him if Pete had given up?

    “I might not always be single, Quinn.” She popped a cookie into her mouth and gave him the stink eye him as she chewed, slow and thoughtful, then sipped her water.

    Did she have someone in Chattanooga? That thought was a dull knife to the gut. “What the hell does that mean?”

    “I’ll have you know that up until a couple months ago men at work were hitting on me.”

    Her words battered him like artillery fire. This was bullshit. Men were hitting on his Hadley? Like hell, he’d let that happen. He slammed his water bottle down. “Sh*t, Hadley! If you think I’m going to stand around on the sidelines and watch some other man be a father to my little girl, then you’d better think again.”

    She slammed her bottle down. “Do you think I’m going to stay single the rest of my life to bolster your sagging ego?”

    “No, I expect you to marry me and be a proper family, like we’re supposed to be.” Sweet Jesus, did he just yell a proposal at her? Oh yeah, that’s not going to be good.

    “Marry you! That is the most screwed up proposal I’ve ever heard.”

  • Last 14 hours I’ve been in a windstorm that keeps knocking out my internet and power. Been knocked off the site trying to post the edited scenes a few times with loss of internet, I will be back down to the flatlands by tomorrow and will post the winning scenes then. When do I get a window of being ON, my priority right now is posting to the class I am teaching.

  • Heather W.

    This is really useful! My family is actually really bad… for fighting cleanly. It doesn’t help write realistic fights. Fights rarely escalate like I’ve seen in other families or even amongst my friends. So seeing these were eye opening! And beyond useful. 😀 Thank you!

  • […] Escalate Story Tension with Dirty Fighting […]

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