“Noooo! No! No! Nononono, NYOOOO!!!” I wailed.
My toddler son stared in confusion. What had caused his poor father to cry out in utter dismay?
I was reading a novel, and two young-adult characters had just met and just started bickering. It was going to be one of those novels. And I was a contest judge. I had to read it. “NOOOOOOOO!!”
Look, the fight-now-and-make-out-later trope is a much-beloved cliche. Like walking away from an explosion. It’s old as Mesozoic dirt, but we love it! Fighting raises heat and passion, two things also associated with love and sex, so it’s stirring to read and watch.
…when it’s done right. When it’s not…well, it better be erotica because that’s the only proper excuse for nonsensical titillation.
The difference is simple: Fighting good, bickering bad.
Fighting Enhances Character and Plot
The difference between fighting and bickering is this simple question every writer should ask: why are these people fighting?
Let’s return to one of the greatest love stories, Pride and Prejudice. Why do Lizzy and Darcy have a blowout in Act Three?
First, Darcy acted proud and conceited. Then, he insulted Lizzy’s appearance. Then, she heard he was a villain to her new friend Wickham. But most importantly, he drove Lizzy’s sister Jane from the man she loved, killing her happiness. But Darcy, we discover, has been misunderstood and falsely accused on the Wickham account, plus Lizzie’s family has been a constant embarrassment, so he snaps back.
Yeah, that sounds like a good fight. Both have something personal at stake, both are 100% right from their perspective, and the tension has had plenty of time to build.
But the most important thing? They’re actually fighting.
This isn’t some means to crank up the steam; it’s an actual fight. There’s no heat, no unchecked sexual tension, no BS. Darcy and Lizzie want to rip off each others’ heads, not clothes.
In short, it’s not a plot device. It’s a plot enhancer, and a strong character moment.
Bickering Wastes Time
When you see two attractive people fighting in a book or movie, you know they’re going to boink. It’s just a matter of time. However, while good fighting may not make you wonder if they’re going to get together, it does make you wonder how.
Bickering doesn’t do that. That’s because bickering is childish with no stakes whatsoever. The characters fight over any and every petty thing. Every scene is a spat, and you really, really don’t know why. This doesn’t increase tension, it just rolls eyes.
Neither does it enhance characters. The other person is just automatically annoying. Oh, I’m sorry. Hot-but-frustrating. That’s the new cute, YA term. Gag.
Bickering is artificial currency being cashed in for sexual tension. It can be done well, if the characters are funny or charming, like in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but most of the time, it’s an artificial facsimile of a good writing technique.
Another good litmus test for fighting vs. bickering is how the situation is resolved.
In a good fight, one or both characters must come around. Darcy was genuinely proud and Lizzie was genuinely prejudiced, and through their fight, they each learned their own faults and grew as people. Once they did, they could properly fall in love.
Bickering? You can’t resolve a problem that never truly existed.
In many cases, neither party is ever bad or really wrong. They’re just…irritating. Neither character really grows, they just stop being irritated by the other person. Usually because they saw them in a sexy light (she wears a dress, he takes off his shirt, etc.).
It comes back to what I’ve already said: good fighting advances the plot and characters. Bickering is stagnant. There’s no real reason to fight and you’ve seen this enough that you know they’re going to kiss anyway.
Fighting has a story to tell. Bickering just goes through the motions.
So don’t let silly spats define your angry-love plot line. Set some stakes, build up some personalities, and most of all, don’t waste time. Don’t give us mere steam, give us the one thing that drives every single novel ever written: conflict.
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