Using Dirty Fighting To Escalate Tension In Your Story

Welcome to Techie Tuesday at More Cowbell. This is the day of the week when we cover some piece of wicked cool technology or dive into some technical aspect of writing.

Yesterday we discussed Dirty Fighting Techniques and you learned that, not so long ago, everyone in our family got a Participation Trophy in the Dirty Fighting Games.

Today, I promised to begin explaining what these techniques are and how they can help you in your writing. Would I ever lie to my More Cowbell peeps? Of course not.

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.

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…whoever you need the main character in conflict with. Every entry on the Dirty Fighting List is guaranteed to make the other person see red. If you’re writing fiction, that anger and tension is a fantastic thing.

I’m gonna make this a multi-part post so you have time to roll around in the Dirty Fighting Swamp. Go ahead, get dirty in it. Be the bog.  Think about the uses of these techniques in your own life (heaven forbid!) and the potential uses in your character’s lives. (That’s more like it!)

OK, now that you’re into the Dirty Fighting spirit, let’s discuss this potential 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 your 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 it 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.

These can be like the 9 questions we discussed a few weeks back in the post on Character Engagement or new ones that are all your own.

  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?

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.

There are twenty-two entries on the Dirty Fighting Techniques document I mentioned yesterday – surely some of these will work for your character.

Below are my top five Dirty Fighting Techniques for adding tension and plotting options to your story. I’ll save the rest for the next 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, but here’s some scenarios that come to my mind.

The main character could:

  • Realize the universal truth in fighting: the person who says “no” always has the power. Perhaps your MC will change their motivation so that the other character’s “no” doesn’t bother them so much.
  • Learn never to accept “no” from someone who doesn’t have the power to say “yes.” In other words, your MC could learn to stand up for they really want and find away AROUND their primary obstacle.
  • Find a way for there to be two winners. This a continuation of the point above. (Can you tell I like this one?)

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!


About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
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31 Responses to Using Dirty Fighting To Escalate Tension In Your Story

  1. Gene Lempp says:

    Great advice Jen! Nicely written 🙂


  2. Jenny, as one who has a lot to learn about developing characters, I think this may be one of the most important things I’ve ever read. I copied it to refer to as I write. Hope you don’t mind.


  3. Laura Drake says:

    What do I think? Holy poop – you knew this brilliantly amazingly rockstar stuff, and I’m just NOW hearing about it? I’m copying this and saving it for my rewrite – and just because you kept it to yourself all this time, YOU get to help me!

    I’m claiming crit-girl privileges in the front seat!


  4. Stacy Green says:

    This is great, Jenny. Conflict is so important in novels, and you broke down the dirty fighting techniques really well. Thanks so much!


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  6. Gloria Richard says:

    Hey, Jenny! I’ve been MIA, but have read your blogs and moved them to my blog keepers file. LOVE the dirty fighting tips. My protag has issues from childhood sexual abuse. I had to find ways to slip those slivers of backstory into my WIP. Story opens with an attempted assault on her and internalization “She’d been a fourteen-year-old victim. Be damned if she became a thirty-two-year-old volunteer.” And then, she delivers a crotch-crunch to her would be assailant. I’d call that dirty fighting. Protag is also a con who wears a facade of being happy and confident. Hero can read through her con, so TONS of opportunities to use a number of the techniques you discussed.

    Thanks for the fodder! Once my glob* goes live, I hope to get back in my groove get ready for HOTLANTA!

    *I consistently misspelled ‘blog’ in chats w/Sherry & decided to let my sub-couscious have its way with the word. For now. Back to the FB, WIP and glob-a-thon.


  7. Love this!! Excellent post Jenny and I’m looking forward to the series 🙂


  8. Oooh! Lots of good stuff. Thanks.


  9. K.B. Owen says:

    Hey, Jenny! A little late to the dirty fighting party, but you’re really getting into it, lol. I sense some dirty fighting “energy” itching to get out! Love this. I’ve bookmarked it for when I’m ready for my oh-so-proper 19th century female protag to “throw it down.” Look out!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Oh, Kathy, I laughed so hard when I read this. The image of your proper miss “throwing it down” totally slayed me. You have definitely made a grand entrance with this comment!


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  11. Great post…it makes me want to go and instigate something!


  12. Catie Rhodes says:

    I love this advice. You’ve actually gotten me unstuck for the beginning of my new book. Now, if I can just finish my stupid murder kit. That sounds weird, doesn’t it?

    Love your posts, girl. They’re so smart.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Catie! I always think the same thing about yours. I got your virtual Twitter cheer at the perfect time, so thanks for that too. 🙂

      So happy to help with the un-sticking. I think starting a book out with some dirty fighting is a magnificent ploy. What in the world is in a murder kit? Do tell!


  13. Hey, Jenny. Great post. You forgot to include reverse guilt. You know when your partner forgets or loses something or does something wrong then it somehow becomes your fault. That’s always a good one.


  14. You let your character get trampled on and then all hell breaks loose? Or getting dissatisfied with his life before doing things that he’ll regret because they feel like an adventure to him? Real life examples.


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