Getting Stuck at Arguments

I asked people participating in NaNoWriMo, when and how they got stuck with their writing, and a lot of people seemed to be having trouble writing arguments and emotional misunderstandings.

Since NaNoWriMo is about finishing the first draft regardless of quality, writing a convincing dialogue is a second draft consideration. How to get a pouting couple to talk past each other convincingly is something you should think about when you are refining your manuscript. In the first draft, you should be focused on getting the story moving again and finishing the draft. Arguments and misunderstandings are difficult to write, not only because it requires a lot of emotional investment, but because you have to play two roles at once, method acting the emotions of two actors at the same time.

There was an internet meme which was a simple photograph of a whiteboard in a workplace. On the whiteboard it said “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about, so be nice.” Subtract the last three words and that is literary arguments in a nutshell. Every character is inwardly fighting a battle that no other character knows anything about or fully understands. And they fail to be nice.

Why do siblings fight? The big sister has homework to do. She also has chores that her little brother is not given partly because he is selfish and mom doesn’t have time to argue with him, partly because he is too young and unreliable, and she thinks it’s unfair. Her friends don’t have the same chores because their parents can afford a maid. She wants to go out with her friends but her clothes are not up to par, she wants to earn money for things she wants but her mom thinks she is too young to get jobs. She can’t earn money babysitting because she has to babysit her brother for free. The whole world is conspiring against her and the only escape is to concentrate on her homework. The little brother is bored because his next door friend is away. He does not have the kind of toys his friend has, so when they play they play at the friend’s house, but the neighbor has gone to Florida for the summer. They went last year too. He had never been out of town. Florida to him is an abstraction on a map. His friend said they saw an alligator there. An alligator in the wild! He want’s to go on an adventure but his only adventure is in an imaginary world with a bruised and soiled hand-me-down GI Joe doll.
“Do you have to play with that here? I’m doing my homework.”
“Timmy’s in Florida. I have to play at home.”
“I don’t care about Florida. Go play somewhere else!”
“You’re my babysitter. You are supposed to be watching me.”
“I don’t care if you go away and die!”

An argument is the tip of an unspoken backstory iceberg. The topic of their argument is often only loosely associated with what is really bothering them.

The hard part of being a writer is that you have to spend a great deal of time and energy creating a series of extended backstories and not talk about them. You only drop hints and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. This is especially true when you are describing an argument that is all emotion and no substance (most arguments are).

Each character needs to be carrying a world of problems that they are struggling to internalize. When these people by chance get in each other’s way, and they cannot handle it like civilized adults, an argument ensues. A tiny pebble you trip over can bring down a world of frustrations.

Take Breaking Bad, for instance. Walter White is a brilliant, but stubborn, chemist. He built a startup company with a friend, but when his friend “stole” his girlfriend he sold his share and stormed out. He wound up a school teacher with meager pay, poor health insurance, his students pay no attention in his classes, and disrespect him because he washes cars to cover his bills. Meanwhile, the company he threw away made his friends millionaires. He is over qualified, under paid, under appreciated, and now he has lung cancer. His wife has a handicapped son, an unplanned pregnancy, a boss who is cooking his books and a husband who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Walter’s brother-in-law is a law enforcement officer for the DEA who acts gung-ho and over-the-top brave all the time, but is secretly scared. He is surrounded by death all the time and he is inwardly falling apart. He cannot tell anyone about his fears because it might ruin his career. His wife sees what kind of pressure her husband is in, but she has to keep her mouth shut about it, attend events like barbecues and parties to hear war stories of the danger her husband is constantly in, not to mention funerals of dead officers they knew. Her only outlet is shoplifting. This was set up to become a brilliant show even if Walter White didn’t turn to a life of crime.
When the sister-in-law’s shoplifting habit is exposed, and her husband asks for “support”, an argument ensues. If you can’t remember the argument, you can write it yourself. It will not be very difficult because we know what the underlying problems are. What if the argument was not about shoplifting but something else? A choice of wine for dinner, for example. “You served this on purpose!” Do you think you could make this work? Of course you can. Because they are not really arguing about wine.

A good argument can only be written when there is a lot of unspoken frustrations that the characters are NOT arguing about. These unspoken frustrations are most often retro-fitted into the second draft. So, like I said, the believability of an emotional argument is a second draft problem.

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