Monday, 24 June 2013

How do we write a good row? Five pointers to better conflicts

As I was revising (endlessly revising), my novel in progress Unspeakable Things, I became aware of the importance or writing rows. Rows are dramatic and unpredictable events, but they need to ring true in our writing, otherwise we will lose that all-important connection with the characters in conflict. I am currently going through the novel one character at a time, assessing their development, and I was struck by the centrality of two rows between characters: Sarah and Jim (our heroine and her husband) and Deb and David (Sarah’s best friend and her brother, who are also married.) I also noticed that, despite the fact that I don’t enjoy rows (I promise!), I had very much enjoyed writing them, in the same way that writers enjoy creating characters we would avoid like the plague in life. Perhaps both exercises allow us to delve into the ‘bad’ parts of ourselves that we normally keep well hidden.

So what makes a good fictional row?

1 The row needs to be consistent with what we already know about the characters. Our conflicts reveal deep things about what makes us tick. The roots of conflict are not always easy to discover in real life; it may take many sessions with a counsellor to reveal them. However, in our writing, we need to be absolutely clear what those roots are, since they should add depth to a character. People rowing over one being untidy and the other fastidious is not going to be that fascinating – but what if the behaviour of one makes the other feel threatened for reasons they are not aware of, but that make sense in the character’s development? Reasons perhaps buried deep in the past? Now you have an interesting row.

2 The row needs to reveal where the characters are on their developing character arc, in which they change throughout the events of the story.

3 Fictional rows need to have the dangerous, unpredictable feel of real ones. In rows, we do and say things that are ‘out of character’ for our usual everyday selves. This is partly because rage, and swearing, have their roots in a primitive part of the brain that doesn’t practise restraint or rational discourse. The rows we write need to have this wild edge, and should to convey the strange, sometimes childish or self-destructive impulses that drive us when we have ‘lost it’.

4 A row should reveal how the characters and their relationship are under strain; and you must be very clear about why this is so, even though the characters are probably not. We don’t want to hear ‘As she threw the pot, she noted that the whole dynamic of their relationship had shifted since she started finding out about her family’s past.’ Nevertheless, the changing dynamic needs to be believably and consistently portrayed. If, like me, you are writing a thriller, there are all kinds of delicious reasons for the characters being under intense stress, since it is your job to torture them. Be ruthless and precise in your methods.

5 To write a good character and a good row, you have to be fascinated by people. I would never advise consulting psychology textbooks before writing your characters, because they need to spring from a much more creative place than that. You are not writing a case study, but creating a fictional world. However, you had better be riveted by the way people behave and interact if you want to write fiction. This is why I find some reality TV so compelling; the first few series of Big Brother had me riveted all summer long, and my excuse was that I am fascinated by people and the dynamics of groups. Who could forget the confrontation shown below?

Once your characters are fully formed and their rows written, and you are perhaps honing and revising (endlessly revising) them, a quick look at some psychological writings will do no harm, as I found when, researching for this post, I found this article on why couples fight: which shed some light into my (already written) rows.

In chapter 11, Sarah comes home late from work, and Jim nags her because her blood pressure, revealed on a wrist monitor, is high, and she is supposed to be taking it easy because of her pregnancy. She is grumpy, and then reasons with herself that the distance between them isn’t really Jim’s fault.

She felt a rueful warmth for him as his weight rocked the sofa beside her, and opened her mouth to apologise.
   ‘Maybe you should give up work early.’
   Her eyes flew open and she stared at him, outrage and the pressing concerns of her job flooding her head.
   ‘Have you got any idea how much I’ve got to do before I go on leave? It’s been so busy, I haven’t had time to brief anyone on anything, I’ve got –‘
   ‘But you’ll end up in hospital if your blood pressure gets any higher!’ Jim leaned towards her, gesturing towards the wrist monitor with a rigid, open hand. It shocked her to see him like this, as fervent as she was and in direct, furious opposition; his accent slipped into the sharp angles of his council estate past. She thought suddenly of Pat bustling around in her little domestic realm, of Jim’s cosy family life, and the dim view he must take of her upbringing – the dark unknown; the unholy mess of it – and all at once she could hear the blood rushing furiously in her ears.
   ‘It’s what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it? A little wife at home, like your mother.’ She was shocked at the venom in her voice.
   ‘No! Don’t be stupid! I’m just thinking of you and the baby.’
   ‘Well I’m not going to be your mother!’ Even as she said it she was thinking, What am I talking about? It was as if she had lost the thread of the argument and was raging at something inside her own head. The look Jim turned on her, straight into her face, had a nasty edge of contempt, and then he pushed up from the sofa and paced away. She thought for a moment that he was going to walk out, and sought stupidly for something stinging to call after him, but then he turned around and looked at her, also apparently searching for words.
   ‘This – just isn’t you, Sarah.’
   ‘What do you mean? I’ve always loved my job. We always planned I’d carry on working as long as I could.’ But the righteous feeling of her fury was ebbing away, and with it the last vestiges of the idea that it was him who was being unreasonable.”

This row is a pivotal moment in Sarah and Jim’s relationship. Sarah’s obsessive delving into her family’s past leaves Jim feeling protective but helpless (partly due to events in his own childhood), but the issue of why her mother apparently went mad and tried to kill her is central to Sarah’s attitude to her own pregnancy; she is unable to ‘let it go’. Here, this central issue is at the root of the row about Sarah giving up work. I hoped to convey the slightly skewed emergence of the real conflict in Sarah’s confusion, as if she had ‘lost the thread of the argument.’ I also relished the slightly childish ding-dong nature of rows in which we lose our usual adult restraint, when Sarah ‘sought stupidly for something stinging to call after him.’

As the row proceeds, things move on into a new phase of desperation for Sarah, as Jim’s rebuke, ‘This just isn’t you,’ leads her to realise how anguish has disrupted her previously robust sense of who she is, and from now on she begins to dread that she, like her mother, is losing her mind.

Interestingly, long after writing and revising this, I read the article mentioned earlier on why couples row, and found something that well described Sarah and Jim’s torment: ‘Lovers fight when they believe their partners don’t care about how they feel. They fight about the pain of disconnection.’ Later things get even more specific: ‘Confronted with the anxiety or fear of a woman, a man typically responds with protection/support. But if he does not know how to protect/support or, more commonly, feels like a failure as a protector, he is likely to turn the aggression on to her...’ It is reassuring to read this after writing Sarah and Jim, since the sadness at the heart of Jim’s character is that he desperately wants to do his best for Sarah, but fails her anyway.

In chapter 14 we find Deb and David having their own stinging fight. Joe has been deeply upset on a sleepover at Sarah and Jim’s, and their explanation is confused and partial. Deb is furious but Deb has stood ineffectually by, failing to support her. In the morning we find Deb exhausted but in a more conciliatory mood:

 “She found him standing in the kitchen with his back to a pile of undone washing up that towered from the sink. The surprising brightness of a winter morning poured sideways through the dirty window, giving everything the oddly significant look of a photograph. David was wearing the same clothes as the night before, crumpled and sagging. He looked up and seemed for a moment to be about to come towards her, but then he hung back, his expression dark, closed. Like a big, awkward boy, nursing his resentment. Her sudden feeling of rejecting him took her breath away. His silence, then his rebukes came back to her from the night before with stinging force.
    ‘I can’t do this on my own any more, David.’ He looked at her and opened his mouth as though about to reply, but thought better of it. She had an urge to break his silence with unkindness, to force him from cover and shock him into dealing with her. ‘I thought that when I went back to work, you’d come down from your ivory tower and be a proper Dad.’ The words swept ahead of her, but when she heard them, she knew they were true.
   ‘I am a proper Dad. I look after Joe!’
   ‘You’ve been like a zombie, since Sarah started with all this Mary stuff.’ Venom was bursting out of her, after months of trying to help and understand them all, trying to make it work.
   ‘Well, do you think I wanted that?’ He was angry now; whatever he hid in the depths of him, she had driven it to the surface. ‘Do you think I went looking for it?!’
   ‘Well then you’ve got to let her get on with it, and stop getting involved!’
   ‘I’m not involved! I don’t want to be involved!’
  ‘Then why do you pander to her? She’s just starting to leave you in peace – why does she have to have Joe just because she wants to?’ She was in full flow, and building towards a niggling resentment that she had tried and failed to reason away. ‘And the minute you left the room after seeing his bruises, you were straight on the phone to her!’
   David stared at her. ‘I had to call, to find out what had happened! And it was Jim I spoke to, not Sarah. I explained to you about Joe falling and her catching him.’
  Deb had to gather her thoughts here. She had been relieved to hear a plausible explanation for Joe’s bruises; it took some of the terror out of the night they’d been through; it had allowed her finally to go to bed and sleep. But his sobbing; his sweating; the strangeness of it all – and her standing there, the only one speaking up for him; she couldn’t quell the sweet, violent flow of her outrage.
   ‘I know that. But something is not right with Sarah, and she’s trying to suck you into it.’ Exhaustion was catching up with her and she slumped into a kitchen chair and ended hoarsely, losing the thread of her argument: ‘And I’ve had enough.’
   ‘You’ve had enough!’ There was a teaspoon in his hand with coffee on it and he smashed it down on the draining board with a great crash of crockery. ‘You’ve had enough?!’ She was shocked at his vehemence, at the noise; and stared in awe at what she had awakened; then he swept past her and she was abruptly alone. A moment later, his slammed exit reverberated around the house. She sat wondering with an odd detachment if she had broken something that couldn’t be repaired. She thought, who will I turn to if I have?

Deb here is the worm who has finally turned. The daughter of two divorced and remarried parents, she has always been the ‘fixer’ who smoothes things over for people, but this role is under severe stress as Sarah’s search for her family’s past sends David into a state of sickness and withdrawal. Now her child has been hurt and her usually yielding nature explodes under the pressure of stored up stress and resentment. I wanted this row to reveal the sudden nature of the change; her relationship with David is ruptured and under intense threat as she issues her ultimatum and accusation. This is make or break time for Deb and David. Her frustration with David’s withdrawal from her and from Joe, which is worsened but not begun in the present crisis, makes her abandon all restraint and goad him: ‘To force him from cover and shock him into dealing with her.’ I hope this attitude of Deb’s will spark recognition in readers; it stems from my own occasional row behaviour in which I hurl sometimes overblown or irrational accusations because of a need to flush something real and important into the open. Of course, I am only ever aware of this dynamic with the benefit of calm, post-rage hindsight.

Once again, the article on why couples fight had an insight that reassured me when revising this scene, and Deb’s character development: ‘Anger or withdrawal by men often stimulates anxiety or fear of isolation in women, even when his anger or withdrawal has nothing to do with her.’ ‘Awoman is likely to be critical, defensive or contemptuous if she experiences (or is reminded of having experienced) fear of farm, isolation or deprivation)’. I hope my portrayal of Deb shows that her ‘fixer’ role has often been played while her own needs have been left unmet, meaning that years of rage are waiting to emerge in David’s rather hapless, unshaven face.

We rejoin David after he has stormed out: “David paced to the end of their road, where absurdly, a peaceful Saturday morning was happening; blurred shapes at the corners of his vision were a Dad and son going off for football, but if someone spoke to him, he thought he might snarl in their face. Fuck her. What did she think she was saying? Not a proper Dad. Stop getting involved. He should have stopped for his bastard coat; it was freezing. Where was he going anyway?”

I was reaching for the blundering physical motion of rage, and its lack of connection to our rational selves here. Sitting on a bench, David relives the trauma of the night before, which revives a terrible memory from his past; and this reminder of his childhood vulnerability means that he is at last able to empathise with Joe’s fear, and with Deb’s anger. “It was awful to think of it now, of that happening to Joe and him not being there to save him. Not coming running. He dropped his head further and a taste, salty and bitter, flooded into his mouth. Deb was right, he was no fucking use.”

Here I hoped to show how people during rows hear things that the other party has not actually said, and how thoughts and emotions develop as rage subsides. The reader does not know, at this stage, whether this row will make or break the couple; whether David’s sense of shame will lead to further withdrawal, or a resolution. I can reveal though that it does lead to further isolation and torment for my heroine and victim, Sarah.

However peace-loving and conflict-averse we are in life, where would our writing be without the ‘sweet, violent flow’ of rage, revealed in a good row?

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