10 Best Tips for Writing Dialogue: Anger, Fights, & Arguments
A while back, I started a video series all about dialogue. We covered voice, tags, and formatting and you guys have asked for more. So that's what we're doing today! In this article, I’m breaking down the 10 best tips for writing angry dialogue. I'm talking about arguments, insults, clap backs, fights, all that good stuff. Some of you guys really suck at writing vitriol. You try so hard, but you fall so short. I'm here to fix that! And just a forewarning: the last tip is the trickiest to maneuver, so pay extra close attention.
Let's dive into my 10 best tips for writing angry, aggressive, argumentative dialogue!
The above video is sponsored by Skillshare. As always, all opinions are my own.
Number 1: Understand the motivation
Think about the character delivering the verbal blows. Why are they doing this? If they're angry, why are they angry? Is it jealousy? Is it frustration? Is it betrayal? You need to understand where this reaction is coming from because it will dictate the type of dialogue they deliver.
Say your character is fed up. They've been tolerating some bullshit for far too long and they finally snapped. A character who snaps is gonna be speaking completely differently than a character who is calm and collected. A snap is typically curt and explosive, whereas a calm character may be cruel or calculated. They've had time to think about and craft exactly what they're going to say. This is why the motivation behind the argument is key. It gives you an idea of how to perfect their verbal blows.
Number 2: Know your characters
Particularly, their baggage. This is pivotal for writing dialogue of any kind, but it’s especially the case when your characters are getting angry. People handle anger differently based on their personality, their experience, and most of all, their baggage.
Some characters have trust issues; their walls are up, their defenses are on. If that's the case, they are less likely to show vulnerability in an argument, and they might pull moves that put them in an offensive position. That means they may deal out low blows or cutting criticism. Anything that keeps the other person at a distance.
Sometimes fighting is triggering for a person, especially if they grew up in an explosive household. They may clam up in these situations. They may disassociate. They may go stone-faced, quiet, or numb.
And of course, there are people who get very vulnerable in angry situations. Sometimes they ramble. Sometimes they cry. Dialogue will always depend on your character’s background and personality. But in this case, baggage is especially important.
Number 3: Know your intention
This is when you need to take a step back from the characters and look at your plot. What is the intention behind this scene? What are you, the writer, trying to accomplish? Is this scene the character's breaking point? If that's the case, something needs to be said in this argument that breaks your character. Think about dialogue that cuts deep. That means tapping into your main character's deepest insecurities and fears and worries. We will elaborate on this in a later point.
What if your intention is to establish the villain? In that case, lots of bitter, cruel dialogue will make it clear to the reader that they need to watch out for this character, ‘cause they're an asshole. The intention of the scene will dictate the kind of dialogue you dish out, and you need to make sure that the argument you’re writing serves its purpose.
Number 4: How does it end?
If you're establishing the intention of the scene, you also need to establish where the scene is headed. How is this argument going to move the characters and the plot forward? Sometimes an argument instigates a breakup. This is especially relevant in romance novels, as well as romantic subplots. Sometimes arguments are stepping stones toward betrayal, murder, or the climax of your novel. Every scene within your story needs to serve a purpose to the plot, and bitchy dialogue is no different. Knowing where the scene is headed is super important, because it will dictate how severe the dialogue needs to be. For example, if your characters are breaking up and you intend for them to get back together, then the dialogue needs to warrant a breakup but still be forgivable so that readers can continue rooting for the ship. Think about fighting words that are harsh enough for them to take a break from one another, but not too harsh to prevent a reconciliation.
Every scene within your story needs to serve a purpose to the plot, and bitchy dialogue is no different. Knowing where the scene is headed is super important, because it will dictate how severe the dialogue needs to be.
Number 5: How bad are we aiming for?
Not all angry dialogue is supposed to evoke rage. Sometimes you want the words to cut deep. Sometimes you just want readers to go, “Damn, that was good!” It sounds like common sense, but so many writers do not know where to set the bar. They'll either go way over the top at the wrong moment or barely scratch the surface when it counts. Know the depth of your character's anger and stick to it.
Say this is a life or death situation. Someone nearly died, and they are pissed the fuck off. This is gravely serious, so calling someone a turkey head isn't gonna cut it. That's what you call your kid after they forget to take out the trash! On the other hand, say your characters are simply auditioning for the same part in the school play. If one tells the other to “Eat shit and die,” well…that's a little extreme. Look at the scene and be honest with yourself. Hold back when it calls for it and go all in when shit gets dire.
Number 6: Hit the characters where it hurts
You've gone through step Number 5 and you've decided this argument needs to be intense. Your character is going for the jugular. In order to do this, you need to ask yourself two questions. First, look at the character on the receiving end. What is their greatest insecurity or fear? In The Savior's Champion, Tobias prides himself on his integrity and he begins to question that element of himself. So if you really wanna cut deep, you would probably call out his morality or humanity.
Second, look at the character delivering the blow. What is their greatest insecurity or fear? Flynn is a character with a fragile ego, so for him, emasculation is the biggest blow. This means that if Flynn and Tobias were in a heated argument, Flynn would likely insult Tobias’ masculinity. It's a big blow to him, so he assumes it’ll be a big blow to Tobias. However, as we already covered, that probably wouldn't matter much to Tobias. That means if we wanted Flynn to hit Tobias where it hurt, he would have to insult Tobias’ integrity. That would be a crushing blow.
Number 7: Keep it brief
Not all fights end quickly, but I guarantee that if you go on for pages and pages, you will lose the reader. The best blows are quick and to the point. That's why the phrase is “Go to hell,” and not “Be gone to the darkest lairs of the fierce and maddening underworld.” A lot of newbies find long, rambling rants fun and cathartic. They think readers are going to eat ‘em up, but they usually come off as cheesy and self indulgent. Plus, they're not that realistic. People don't regularly go off on long diatribes. They usually stick with a good ole “Fuck you.” Long rants lack impact. What hurts more? A single heavy blow to the gut, or a bunch of teeny tiny pokes in rapid succession? Go for the blow and learn when to shut the fuck up.
Long rants lack impact. What hurts more? A single heavy blow to the gut, or a bunch of teeny tiny pokes in rapid succession? Go for the blow and learn when to shut the fuck up.
Number 8: Calm down on the descriptors
“You good for nothing, yellow belly, pea brained mama's boy!”
“You soft, fragile, sissy, blubbering mess of a princess!”
This shit doesn't work. No one is hurt by a laundry list of adjectives. Writers go this route because they think the more descriptors, the bigger the impact. And descriptors do help…to a point. When you go on and on, it doesn't make the burn harsher. It just makes it cheesier, and a little embarrassing. A general rule is to choose one effective descriptor, maybe two, and leave it at that. For example, “You dumb fuck.” Or, “You miserable, worthless shit.” Those statements pack power. They sound angry. But if you extend it on and on, it loses its oomph.
Number 9: Curse
I'm gonna preface this with the fact that not all people curse. I mean, I've never said a swear word in my life. It’s just not classy at all! If you have a character who would absolutely never swear in any situation, by all means, honor that trait. You also have to take your target audience into consideration. If you're writing a Children's book or a Middle Grade book, maybe don't use cuss words. But for a majority of Adult, New Adult, and Young Adult fiction, it's realistic for people to swear from time to time, especially if they're pissed off. No one is gonna say “Fudge!” when they're battling their lifelong nemesis.
“But Jenna, what if my mom reads this book?”
She knows swear words exist, I promise. Also, you're not writing this book for your mom, you're writing it for your audience. Sorry, mom! Cursing is realistic, especially in anger. Utilize it where it fits.
Number 10: Punch down with caution!
This is by far the trickiest part about writing anger and cruelty, particularly if you're writing a villain. One of the easiest ways to showcase an evil character is for them to punch down. This is basically when someone in a more powerful position insults a character that is in a more repressed position. For example, if a rich person makes fun of someone for being poor, that is considered punching down.
As I said, this is a very easy way to establish a villain or showcase that a character is an asshole. However, it gets messy when writers take it too far, especially if they're writing insults about a group of people they do not belong to. Sure, the character is the one ‘saying’ these things, but you–the writer–are writing them. And if you get excessive, it can come across as gratuitous and self indulgent.
A few words of advice. First, never write slurs about a real world group of people that you do not belong to. Readers are gonna be uncomfortable and rightfully pissed. Second, ask yourself if the punching down is necessary. Can you create conflict in a different way? For example, does your character have to say something racist, or can they instead say something classist? Which is still terrible and still considered punching down, but it's going to make your readers less uncomfortable. And third, have you created a completely fictional world? If yes, you can create your own unique hierarchies. You can create your own version of punching down that does not alienate or offend your readers. If Elves are more powerful than Pixies, you can create a ton of really powerful insults that will absolutely showcase how awful your characters are.
So that's all I've got for you today!
If you really want to write some vitriol that’ll have your readers rushing to the ice box to cool off a sick burn, remember that in most cases, less is more. Understanding the characters, your own intention, and what you want the end result to be will help you really hit ‘em where it hurts while also remaining faithful to your story. Above all, remember to never write slurs or hateful speech about a real world group of people that you do not belong to. Instead, consider creating conflict in a different way, and don’t be unnecessarily excessive. At the end of the day, what’s closest and most personal to your character will often pack the strongest punch; make sure to do the background work so you can deliver the proper cutting blows.
How do you write vicious dialogue? Share your top tip in the comments below!
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