Monday, January 21, 2013

Intentionally Misconstrued: The Art of Argument

Writing is tough. If nothing else, there’s the will that makes you keep doing it amid constant rejections from the literary industry and the occasionally bad review from a less than adoring fan. Books are bad enough, getting 100,000 or more words all perfect and making sense. Novels are even harder since the writer has to basically make everything up.  You have to literally be each person in the story with their different personalities, desires, and motivations.

A common mistake of new writers is creating characters that all sound the same. Each of them acts and thinks exactly like the writer. And why not? That’s the only person the writer can really say he understands. It takes a lot of practice, skill, and awareness to create individual characters with depth and it doesn’t happen by accident. But even when your characters begin to stand on their own two feet, you can find the interaction between characters coming across as flat. This is especially true when you are writing arguments.

Arguments are especially tricky. Above all, arguments must have a point. Then they can’t be too long. But they can’t be too short either. There has to be something to get the argument going. And then it should escalate as the characters become emotionally invested. At some point, depending on the needs of the story, the emotions and the disconnect should become so great that some kind of crisis develops. Perhaps a fist fight ensues. Or maybe one character walks out on the other, vowing never to speak again. People say things in arguments that they can’t take back. Things that can carry throughout the rest of the story. Good fodder for the emotional havoc you aim to visit upon your characters (and indirectly, upon your readers.)

Regardless of the reason you need an argument, and there are many, it is supremely important that it begin convincingly. Many is the argument I’ve read that just didn’t do it for me. I see this in screenplays all the time and it comes across as terribly forced.  Suddenly characters are at one another’s throats and you’re thinking, “What? That didn’t make any sense.” The argument isn’t convincing and whatever emotional stake it was to provide, is lost.

The reason this happens so often is because arguments are usually started by an irrational response. The problem is, it is hard to think irrationally when you are writing. Writing is highly linear based on cause and effect. But in the case of irrationality, the effect doesn’t relate to the cause in a typical sense. There is a relationship, but it is different than we would normally expect. Such an irrational and yet related response can be very tough to write. Fortunately, there is a very handy trick for getting that relationship just right; related, but in a way that you can use to start that argument off just right.

Our nation is deeply divided at the moment. As deeply divided as I’ve ever seen it. The recent presidential election rubbed salt into already festering wounds. Just as the dust was beginning to settle, an insane man went on a shooting spree in a elementary school kicking off yet another gun debate. Looking at the way people are responding to these incidents is highly illustrative in learning how to write the initiation of an argument. You just do what people do every time they discuss politics.

Let me give you an example. Barack Obama says that we need to get guns under control. Someone who opposes him interprets this statement as being aimed at turning all Americans into slaves. On the flip side, someone declares that abortion should be illegal. Someone from the pro-Choice side interprets this statement as meaning that women should not have control over their bodies. Both cases can, and do, start whopper arguments. But what really happened?

While he may disagree with the President, does the pro-gun advocate really think that Barack Obama wants to turn everyone into slaves? Does the pro-Choice advocate really think their foe wants to take away all of a woman’s rights to her own body? Or, in both cases, are the statements intentionally and willfully misconstrued? Think about your own response to these statements. How did they make you feel? How did you want to respond? We do this all the time in our daily life, and you should do it all the time as a writer.

Next time you need to estrange two characters with an argument, look closely at what kinds of ‘people’ they are. How can one of them intentionally misconstrue the statement of another?  Consider what they are passionate about and you will very quickly find them in conflict over something. Use that, just as our political leaders do, to have one character intentionally misconstrue a statement and drive a wedge between the two characters. Not only is this one of the most powerful ways to start an argument in fiction, it is also one of the biggest problems in our nation today. So, I will leave you with a question: Where do we tend to see this more than anywhere else?


Until next time,
John C. Brewer