Add Conflict to your Story with a Down & Dirty Fight

by Jenny Hansen

Happy Wednesday, y’all! I’m looking forward to hearing Linda O. Johnston, one of our new bloggers, talk about “What Makes a Great Mystery” for this week’s Sensational
Summer Friday
.

Today we’re going to talk about Dirty Fighting. What is it, and why do you want to do it?

To start at the beginning, last weekend my honey was cleaning the office and he came across a piece of paper that made us laugh our faces off.  This four page document he found – called, “Dirty Fighting Techniques” – helped save our relationship back in 2006.

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

We’ve got to understand the goal before we can turn it upside down on its head, right? What isclean fighting?

Clean Fighting:

  • Take responsibility for your own stuff. Also known as “cleaning up your own side of the street.” I know it sucks when you’re mad and you clean up your side while the other person leaves their big cow patties steaming, but lead by example on this one. It helps when someone steps up to be the bigger person.
  • Leave the other person an “out with dignity.” This is most often achieved by understanding that there might be facts you don’t know.
  • “I” statements are always going to work better when you’re pissed off than “you” statements. And don’t be trying to cheat with crap like, “I understand that you’re a selfish bastard.”
  • Talk about the behavior in those “I” statements, not any personality disorders you think they should address.
  • Stick to the point. Resist throwing in the kitchen sink of laments spanning back over months of why they’re a (fill in the blank).
  • Deliberately pushing buttons is REALLY dirty. The weak underbelly is to be avoided, even if you’re thinking your partner is lower than a yellow-bellied toad for siding with your mother-in-law over you.

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

  1. How you feel (use an “I” statement for this)
  2. The behavior that 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 some rigorous training.

Now let me ask you something. 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.

What Makes Great Fiction?

  • Great books are filled with conflict.
  • And great characters (who learn important lessons).
  • Great fiction rips emotion out of us readers.
  • Oftentimes a great book will make you see yourself inside those pages.

Understanding the difference between clean and dirty fighting will give you a TON of mileage in your own stories. If you need plausible arguments and dialog, Dirty Fighting Techniques will help you achieve this. These techniques can be applied with a friend, family member or a significant other…it doesn’t really matter.

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. If I give you all twenty-two at once, it will be 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.

FIVE?? That’s all the Dirty Fighting I get off that list, you might ask… Yep. Five is all you get…until the next time we discuss the topic. I’m gonna make this a multi-part post so you
have time to really roll around in the Dirty Fighting Swamp. Go ahead, get dirty. Be the bog.

As I said earlier, 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.

Note: For a rundown of the perils of Back Story, read Kristen Lamb’s Monday post.

OK, now that you’re into the Dirty Fighting spirit, let’s discuss your dialogue. A few wonderful posts come immediately to mind:

However, one of the problems I have with reading about dialog is that every character is unique and, even though the examples are usually awesome, my characters would never say those things. How do you think of creative things to say that would apply ONLY to our character?

One answer is to make him or her fight.

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 I think the easiest way to pave the road to this rad fight is to discover what your characters really want. Then dig down for what they 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 fears. Then what they really, really fear. DO give that to them!

This is where things get interesting. You not only have characters who are upset, you’ve also found a myriad of ways to slide everybody deeper into your story. To do this, ask your character questions.

Perhaps you’ll use the 9 questions I discussed a few weeks back in my post on Character
Engagement
or new ones that are all your own. Below are some of mine to help you get started.

  1. What matters most to this character? (What is he or she most afraid to lose?)
  2. Who matters most? (This is usually the person they are most afraid to lose.)
  3. How did the character’s parents fight?
  4. How did the character’s parents interact with him or her?
  5. What does this character wish he or she had gotten in childhood?
  6. What does my character want to be when they grow up?

All of these questions can provide you with cues about where your character is “broken” and give you ideas about fixing the broken part (i.e. Fix = Lesson).

Now it’s time to unleash that fight!

BRING. IT. ON!!

Below are my top five Dirty Fighting Techniques for adding tension and plotting options to your story. I’ll save the rest for a later post so you can really play with the first five. (Your sarcasm muscle – which is always used in a Dirty Dogfight – should get a quick flex before you begin.)

#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.

What do you think? What are some other ways you could use a good fight to help your
character grow or advance your story? Do you use any of the five techniques in your own life…come on, you can tell us! Let’s hear your fabulous Dirty (Fighting) Thoughts!

Jenny

Coming Monday, a chance to win a six-pack of handmade greeting cards from Fae Rowen when she posts Making Cards-and Writing-Part 2: The Process of Creating Art. You can read Part 1 at Crafting Handmade Cards.

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16 Responses to Add Conflict to your Story with a Down & Dirty Fight

  1. Laura Drake says:

    This is possibly the most helpful blog I’ve read all year. Oh yeah, for writing too!
    You’re our Rockstar, Jen.

  2. Thank you, Jenny. I’m in the midst of creating in my mind what to write next and these tips will be helpful in my journey.
    Patti

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Patti! I think a good fight scene will spice up any dialogue, as long as you know what you’re fighting about. Doing this exercise helps me figure out what the MC is willing to fight about, which goes to Goal and Motivation.

  3. I love your list of 5, Jenny, especially the triangulating technique. My books always have a bunch of nosy, interferring characters so this one just makes me shiver with delight. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Marcia says:

    Jenny, I was just rereading my WIP and realized I haven’t fleshed out one of the characters or given her much of a part. This is one of the things I’m going to incorporate. It will show the readers the personality of this secondary character. Thanks! And, by the way, I don’t use those tricks in arguments…anymore.😉 They never did work well. Great post, Jenny!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Hi Marcia!

      It sounds like this will be helpful. I’m going to put up some more of them next week, so stay tuned.

      LOL on the “anymore” – they don’t work well for anyone, but we all still have used them at one time or another. Let us know how it goes with the re-write!

  5. Shellie Sakai says:

    Saved this and bookmarked it. Thanks for showing me how to straighten out my conflict!

    Love your pics – I just about spit coffee all over the screen! >:)

  6. What a great post, Jenny! I think I’m going to print it out and put it with my book file. 🙂

  7. Jodi says:

    That was amazing! Thanks for the awesome tips. I will put those to use right away. I am working on a project where the tension between the hero and heroine get amped up more than I’ve ever done before. (Wicked laugh as I rub my hands together – “come my little precious characters, let’s get started!”)

    Thanks Jenny. I always love visiting here. You make me laugh!

  8. i can’t even remember how I found this–either saw it on Twitter or someone on an authors loop suggested it. however I found it, so glad I did! Great information, well-presented, loved the linked pieces as well. thanks!

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