Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Create an argument

May 8th, 2009 by

Let’s say you’re stuck writing a flat scene.
No matter how you’ve approached it, the scene just lays there.
No energy.
No zip.
No nothing.

Do what producer Larry Gordon told me:
Create an argument.

Get your characters screaming at each other.
That ought to put some heat into the scene.

For example, you’ve got a scene with a lot of exposition in it.
Exposition scenes are notorious for being hard to handle because…
Well, you’ve got a lot of exposition to deal with.
And since exposition is largely facts and information…
And facts and information are largely devoid of anything resembling excitement…
You’re pretty much looking at the cause of a flat scene.
Like this:

INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT

Sandra and Brad lying in bed. He sighs. She ignores. He sighs. Louder. Finally –

SANDRA
What?

BRAD
I don’t want to go to your father’s this weekend.

SANDRA
Why not?

BRAD
I know it’s his 70th birthday and… and I know your whole family will be there and all, but…

SANDRA
But what?

BRAD
Forget it.

Brad flips off his bedside lamp. Buries his head in the pillows. This time, Sandra sighs.

Okay, the scene did get out some exposition: Sandra’s father’s 70th birthday is coming up. There’s going to be a party. Her family will be there. And Brad doesn’t want to go. But it’s not terribly entertaining, indeed, it’s basically a flat scene. Now what if we created an argument?

INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT

Sandra in bed. Brad stalks in from the bathroom, brushing his teeth furiously –

BRAD
I am not going to your father’s this weekend!

SANDRA
The hell you aren’t! It’s his 70th birthday! The whole family will be there!

BRAD
I don’t care if the freaking Pope is there…
(jabbing toothbrush at her)
I’m… not… going!

SANDRA
Care to give me an explanation or are you just going to be a big baby about it!

BRAD
You want an explanation? I’ll give you an explanation.

Brad gets right in her face.

BRAD
The last time we visited your father… he propositioned me.

SANDRA
What?!

BRAD
He fondled my privates–

SANDRA
Liar!

BRAD
–and told me I had a great ass!

Sandra flings a book at Brad.

SANDRA
Liar! Liar! Liar!

BRAD
Why would I lie about something like that?

SANDRA
Because you’re jealous!

BRAD
Jealous of what?

SANDRA
Jealous of how successful my father is!

BRAD
Yeah, a successful fondler!

Another book zings toward Brad who ducks just in time.

All right, not the greatest scene ever written. And why the idea that Sandra’s father propositioned Brad popped into my head, I don’t know — perhaps I’d better start up with therapy again! But see how different the second scene feels? In fact, you could even throw in more exposition if you wanted:

BRAD
I don’t care that your father is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I don’t care that he’s met the President. Or invented the Hula Hoop. That he once dated Zsa Zsa Gabor or played in the Yankee’s minor league system. All I care about is keeping his creepy hands off my 100% Grade A certified heterosexual body!

Another book. Bam! Nails him in the dome.

So the next time you’ve got a flat scene, especially one with a lot of exposition…
Try creating an argument between the characters.
Give them something to shout about.
As Larry Gordon put it, “No one will care if it’s exposition if the characters are screaming at each other.”

This has been another edition of Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work.

9 thoughts on “Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Create an argument

  1. James says:

    I actually like the first scene better. Don’t shoot me. lol.

    The second scene seems like something straight out of a soap opera. Very on the nose.

    The first scene is subtle. What makes it work, I think, are the sighs. It’s a funny gag in a small scene.

    Also the scene delves out the crucial exposition without harping on it, in very few words. To me, the first scene seems like real people. There’s real character there.

    The second seems — contrived.

    Not to mention, I’ve seen it before, a gazillion times. The sigh gag, I haven’t.

    Food for thought.

  2. Scott says:

    Well, perhaps that’s why it’s a ‘dumb’ writing trick!

  3. Nicholas says:

    I used this in Forest of Glass, though not to make the exposition seem less…expositioney. I just like making two characters argue. It amuses me greatly.

  4. Alissa says:

    I agree with James on this one. The first scene is still an argument. It’s just a subtle argument, but maybe it all depends on the movie. If this were a comedy maybe the second scene would work better. It’s more over the top.

  5. E.C. Henry says:

    “Well, perhaps that’s why it’s a ‘dumb’ writing trick!”

    Scott, don’t sell yourself short. Brilliant advice as always. Conflict drives stories and makes them more interesting. Great reminder. Good rewrite.

    If Egor ever bottles your brain, I so want in on that action. Dido that for Joshua James. I got dibs one that IQ latent blob of smart gushy stuff!

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  6. Désirée says:

    It reminds me of a time when I was acting wounded for the Red Cross First Aid patroll and we had a show where me and my friend had an argument in a small boat and should fall into the water. We sat quietly and suddenly we rose and started to fight. Must have looked pretty strange.

    Conflicts are the core, but it has to be part of the story and not just something thrown in for fun.

  7. David says:

    Agreed, the first scene was already an argument and worked very nicely as such.

    The scenes above were bad examples, but it's still very good advice.

    Just remember — depending on the genre, a long sigh can be far more serious than throwing books across the room.

  8. This is really interesting. As I read I agreed with the inital point, but after reviewing the comments I agree with JAMES. As a young writer I appreciate this learning experience

  9. Kayla Thomas says:

    I liked the first arguement better, it was more subtle. The second one felt so over-the-top and fake. The characters seemed to be screaming at each other for no reason. Seriously, who acts like that in real life? The first one felt more real. Then again, you always have to look at how your characters would react. It you wanna have them screaming at each other you have to build up to it, not have them explode all of the sudden like a volcano. That’s just my two cents worth.

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