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:
- How you feel. (use an “I” statement for this)
- What behavior prompted that feeling?
- Why it’s important/the background. (i.e. what button did they push)
- 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, dialogue 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. (Plus, I kept the gaslighting tone of the original document we received from the counselor.) 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
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.
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.
** CONTEST **
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.
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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.
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About Jenny Hansen
By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
Photo credits: Pixabay