Last post, we talked about how to keep the tension going higher with each scene. Now, let’s discuss how to write effective scenes where characters argue or uncover revelations about each other.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are some tips for writing argument or revelation scenes:
One of the most common mistakes I see is characters who spill their guts all at once. That is, one or both characters in a scene speak at length, uninterrupted. If one character opines at length, the soapbox the character stands on will usually collapse.
The reason? In fiction, readers imagine the scene you describe for them. This is why we must “set scene” quickly at the beginning. Readers need to orient themselves to time, place and who’s in the scene. Yet even after you do a great job of setting scene, a long monologue will cause that setting to recede. If a passage of dialogue is long enough, the setting disappears, leaving only talking heads.
Anytime you write a soliloquy, it’s vital to insert short reminders of the set scene. As you insert these quick reminders, you’ll naturally break up the speech. In real life, we usually don’t allow one person to drone on. Instead, interruption is far more common. A good argument or revelation scene contains these interruptions in the form of the other character speaking, scenic reminders, POV character’s inner thoughts and emotions or action intruding.
Make Characters Work
Writing an important argument or revelation scene should feature new information/emotions coming out in fits and starts. One student recently wrote, “Pushing past all trepidation,” before the character literally launches into her life story.
If the story is full of rising action in each successive scene, this “tell-all” will feel like a let-down to your readers. Why? Readers want the stakes of the story to be worthy of their time. Readers want characters worthy of their time. A character who blurts out everything all at once will feel unearned to readers. They want characters to earn their respect.
Real life arguments or deep dive conversations usually involve secrets, half-truths and dirty tricks. One character tries to spin what they say. Another tries to see through the spin. The result is like a boxing scene: One character gets in a blow, the other ducks and weaves, only to end up on the ropes. Important info only comes out when he’s down for the count. Make your characters work for whatever they’re trying to gain.
Need to Know Information
Another problem with info dumping dialogues is the danger that readers will think the story is over. If you release all the critical pieces of the story in one place, readers may lose interest. Even if the overarching goal isn’t resolved in the scene, readers may have the perception that the goal isn’t worth reading on to find out.
Good stories begin with secrets.
One way to solve this problem is to ask yourself what readers (and the characters) need to know in order to move the story forward. Good stories all begin with secrets—every character must harbor things they prefer no one know. As the story unfolds, let characters reveal their motivations on a need-to-know basis. Put each character’s secret in a hierarchy that will reveal them gradually from lowest tension (what the info could cost the character if revealed) to highest danger that exposes the character in a way they don’t necessarily desire.
A good argument or revelation scene must be a back-and-forth where the two main characters escalate the tension with each dialogue punch they throw. The characters need to work for and earn the information they are after or the reaction desired. Withhold the information with the highest tension until the story’s actual climax. This need-to-know will help you not tip your story’s hand too soon.