Updated: Aug 23, 2020
Writing dialogue is a craft all its own. Some writers are naturals at it. Others really have to put in some work. I'd highly recommend James Scott Bell's book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue for more comprehensive lessons on this. For me, I'm just going to give you some improvement tips I've picked up while doing my own writing.
First all, let's define what arguments and conversations I'm talking about here.
This isn't about conversations where the characters are simply exchanging information or pleasantries. This isn't about the kind of dialogue necessary to tell the story and make the scene make sense.
I'm talking about arguments or conversations that are transformative. The kind that affect the plot in a huge way. That lead to decisions that will change everything. You shouldn't have many of these in any given story. Not more than one or two, as a general rule. (Yes, there are always exceptions.) So understand, these are the kinds of dialogue exchanges these tips apply to.
Also, I'm going to focus on actual arguments. Passionate verbal exchanges between characters. But understand that you can use these same tips for any important conversation. If they aren't yelling at one another, the drama factor will simply be dialed down. 😉
6 Steps for Writing Stellar Argument Scenes
1. Write from the passion, first. While I'm obviously a huge proponent of outlining, when it comes to super-heated exchanges in your story, I think you should start by pantsing them. By all means, go back and check out plot points to make sure the argument progresses well and makes sense, but start by just having the characters shout the most emotional things at one another and work from there. You don't want to over-think a passionate argument and have it come off tepid.
If you've already got the argument in your head, you probably already have a few awesome lines that you want shouted. Start there. Let the argument flow naturally. Don't worry about lame comebacks or repetition. You can edit later. Just let it flow. If you DON'T already have the argument in your head and are doing it as an exercise or to push the story forward, just think about each character's beliefs, feelings, and POV. Imagine them screaming their objects of desire and motivations at one another. The rest will come. Trust me.
2. Ask questions. So once you've done your initial writing, you should have a pretty good idea what the argument is about. Or do you? Now is the time to start being more official and outline-y about it (totally a word). Ask your self the following questions about the argument.
A. What kind of argument is it? The kind where one side is definitely right and one side is definitely wrong, and you want your readers to be 100% on the "right" side? Or is it the kind of argument where both sides have equal value and you want the reader to empathize with both sides and be torn? The answer will change the way you write the argument.
B. What does each side want to accomplish in this argument? What is their reason for starting or participating in the argument to begin with? What do they believe? What do they want to change? What's their OOD? Just as every villain believes themselves the hero of their own story, each side of an argument will believe they are totally in the right. Make sure even the "wrong" side has compelling enough arguments to not sound trite or half-hearted.
C. What do you, the author, want to accomplish with this argument? Does one side or the other to have an epiphany and change their ways or beliefs? Are both sides digging in their heels? Is the argument accomplishing what you and the characters want or need it to?
D. If you're keeping score, who's winning? Let both sides get off a relatively equal number of pot shots. You can also use these to pull in the characters' flaws, insecurities and mistakes.
Once you've answered these questions, it's time to rewrite.
3. Focus on the Dialogue. To quote Hamlet, "Words, words,words!" Take out all action, tags, and non-dialogue parts of the scene. Just read the actual words. Not only does this help you "hear" it in your head better, but it's easier to pinpoint repetition, unnecessary passages, and untidy wording.
4. Have someone read it for you or, better yet, read it out loud with someone else. This part can be fun and can help file away the final unnecessary parts that might hold back your argument scene.
5. Make sure the characters are at odds. Now, if this is already a heated argument, that should be a given. You can use all these same tips for any dialogue-heavy scene, and the drama factor will simply be dialled down. But make sure the characters are at odds, butting heads about SOMETHING.
6. Use plot points loosely to go through the argument. A good argument (or conversation) just like a good scene or a good book, should go through phases of progressions where the tension continually ratchets up until the argument reaches it's high point or climax. In other words, craft your conversations and especially arguments in the exact same way you would plot your entire story.
What should great arguments or key conversations do?
1. Create transformation in the character or characters.
2. Take the characters to a place they won't normally go.
3. Be very emotional and visceral.
To hear more about what great arguments do in fiction, along with fleshed out examples (and to find out what the picture of the Rocky statute is about) pop in your earbuds and give the podcast a listen!