Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 20, 2012

Ramp Up The Fight To Amp Up The Tension

by Jenny Hansen

So you think you know how to fight dirty?

Monday's post explained the nuance of "clean fighting" and how to use it to your best advantage in your stories.

Today, we're gonna leave Mr. or Ms. Nicey-Nice at the door and show you how wallow in the muck.

Every entry in the list below is guaranteed to make someone in your story see red.

If you’re writing fiction, that anger and tension is a REALLY good thing. There's actually twenty-three of these techniques but if I give them all at once, it's like taking a drink of water from a fire hydrant.

So...we’re going to start with the five that will work best in fiction.

p.s. If you dig Dirty Fighting, let us know in the comments. I’ll make this a multi-part series so you have time to really  roll around in the swamp.

As I said in Monday’s post, great books are filled with conflict. And great characters who learn important lessons. Plus, dialog is the number one way to do several fun things like move your story quickly and legally bring in backstory.

[For a rundown of the perils of Back Story, read this post by Kristen Lamb.]

OK, go rub some dirt on your face. Jump up and down. Take a few test jabs. I want to help get you into the Dirty Fighting spirit!

In case the dirt didn't do it, let’s take a peek at some great dialogue posts:

I have just ONE big problem with reading about dialog:

Every character is unique. Even though the examples usually rock, I walk away thinking: "My characters would never say that."

How do you write creative conversation that applies only to YOUR character?

One answer is to make him or her fight.

 BRING.     IT.     ON!!

Below are my top five Dirty Fighting Techniques for adding 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 (and 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. Blame your partner for having a flawed personality so that a happy relationship will be impossible.

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 what the REAL issue is (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? Not a clean fight to be found anywhere with “leaving,” which 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 a likeable one 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.

Note: We'd love to see you do a few lines of dialogue down in the comments to illustrate one or many of these techniques.

Does this make sense to you? Can you see places in your story where you can use a good fight to amp that tension sky-high? Which one is your favorite?



Jenny Hansen, Writers In The StormJenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after her toddler Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing. In addition to being a founding member here at WITS, Jenny also hangs out on Twitter at jhansenwrites and at her other blog, More Cowbell.

0 comments on “Ramp Up The Fight To Amp Up The Tension”

  1. These two blogs REALLY sparked a ton of ideas for me! Thanks, Jenny. WITS is my favorite writers blog anyway, but these were thenpickmof the recent crop for usefulness. And humor!

    1. Thanks so much! I like giving y'all specifics for your stories, and I'm delighted to hear you're thinking of waving the red flag in front of some of your characters. 🙂

  2. Okay, Jenny. Here I am to say ... love dirty dancin' love dirty fightin' ... great tips on mis-used tags, cliche descriptions and a really great take on how to keep them coming back for more. Put up your dukes, girl ... this should be a regular battle here at WITS.

    1. Long distance high-five to you, Florence! I love dirty dancing in real life and ADORE dirty fighting in my stories. That's what people are doing most of the time anyway. Yet, I see people pretty up fights between their characters - or just leave them out altogether - all the time!

  3. Can you do 'dirty fighting' in children's lit? I just had the grandfather and the new girl arguing in the last scene I wrote and now I'm feeling like I went too easy on them. But then I thought, maybe it's inappropriate to use these techniques here?

    1. Of course you can, Yvette. Most people fight dirty - that's what their parents did, and their grandparents. It's extremely likely that you could amp a great fight up between the old generation and the new.

      I think there's a lot to be used in children's lit, particularly in having the child instruct the grandparent about the dirty fighting technique, or in having someone leave (with lots of internal conflict for the one who got left. 🙂 )

  4. Great advice, Jenny. I'll have to cook up a scene where I can use at least one of these 😀 My personal red flag is passive aggressiveness, like claiming that nothing is wrong when I clearly see that there is an issue and the other person is upset. That's a good way to amp the frustration until one participant really loses it.

  5. This is part of a scene that I wrote for a short story and since you asked for an example, I thought this would show the "just leave" suggestion you gave.
    "No. Okay? Just no."
    "I'm 28 dude. When are you going to let me grow up? I'm not a little girl anymore!" Mike said, her frustration finally showing.
    "No, but you'll always be my sister and I will always protect you."
    "Fine. But protect me while we hunt together."
    "You know what? I'm done talking about this." Dean grabbed his jacket and walked out.
    "Dean!" Mike called as the door closed.

  6. This is my example of #3...something that this character does quite often. I like it because you can always come back to the argument later and it usually leads to a lot of frustration.

    "No. Okay? Just no."
    "I'm 28 dude. When are you going to let me grow up? I'm not a little girl anymore!" Mike said, her frustration finally showing.
    "No, but you'll always be my sister and I will always protect you."
    "Fine. But protect me while we hunt together."
    "You know what? I'm done talking about this." Dean grabbed his jacket and walked out.
    "Dean!" Mike called as the door closed.

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