Episode 30: Today we’re exploring a technique of looking at the world from a new perspective that will result in more engaging writing. I’m going to try to prove to you that “Everything is an Argument.”
So back in Episode 18 – the one about rhetorical devices – we talked a little bit about this concept of everything being an argument. In case you haven’t listened to that episode, or maybe it’s just been awhile, let’s start by reviewing it quickly so we have it fresh in our minds as we explore another aspect of it today.
I’m borrowing the title – “Everything’s an Argument” from a textbook that I use when I’m teaching persuasive writing at the college level. Now that class is all about academic writing, not the kind of writing we typically talk about here on the podcast. But we’re taking some of the elements from the world of persuasive writing and bringing them into creative writing to discover some really important techniques that will strengthen how you build characters, how you construct scenes, and how you bring tension and conflict into your stories.
So here’s the basic idea. Everything around you – at least everything created or manipulated by humans – is making an argument of some sort. And when I say “argument” here, I don’t want you to be thinking about “fighting” or “debating” or anything like that. When we use the word “argument” today, we’re using a much less aggressive definition. An argument, for our purposes, is anything that is communicating an idea or opinion to other humans. So argument isn’t a fight for us today. Argument really just means an attempt to convince someone else to believe something.
With this definition of argument in our heads, I think it’s easier to accept the premise of everything being an argument. The clothes you’re wearing right now, for example, are an argument. Whether it was in the front of your mind or not, you were thinking about how you want other people to see you when you chose to put those on today. Maybe you wanted people to think you’re laid back and cool so you’re sporting a hoodie or shorts and sandals or something like that. Maybe you wanted others to see you as a professional person so you chose a suit of some sort for the day. Even if you didn’t give any thought at all to what you wore today, I’ll bet you did when you bought it. At least some portion of your thought process was given to how others would interpret you when you wore those clothes. In essence, the clothes you wear are an “argument” attempting to influence others’ opinions of who you are as a person. That’s the kind of argument we’re talking about today, although the “fight” kind of argument fits right in with this as well…
Let’s look at a few other examples of things that aren’t usually considered arguments, but clearly are once you look at them a little more closely. I sometimes have students challenge me on this idea and they’ll look out the window and point to a tree and say “that tree isn’t an argument.” But is that true? If it’s a tree that was manipulated in some way by a human, meaning it didn’t just naturally grow there based on the laws and randomness of nature, then it is an argument. Somebody somewhere made all sorts of decisions about that tree. What kind of tree would it be? Was it chosen for beauty, for shade, for its resources (apples or cherries or whatever?) And why was it placed and planted where it is? I think it becomes very clear that someone placed that tree there with intention to, at least in part, influence how other people either felt about him or the building it was next to or the property in general. In other words, there is still some element of intended influence even in the tree that you might be looking at right now.
Here’s an example I usually use on the first day of my classes just to throw my students off a bit. I bring in a toilet seat and introduce it as a piece of art. (If you’re familiar with Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 piece of readymade art called “The Fountain,” you might have a better understanding of how this relates to an English classroom, but maybe not.) I’m actually introducing it as an example of how art serves to defamiliarize us with a world we’ve become familiar with and, therefore, have stopped noticing. But an element of that is the exploration of the intentions of the people behind even something like a 5 dollar toilet seat from Home Depot. Is a cheap toilet seat an argument? Well, someone designed that thing, right? Someone chose the curve of the edges, the contour of the shape, the color and gloss of the paint. In other words, at least in part, it was designed to make an argument, to influence someone’s opinion either of the thing itself – the toilet seat – or of the person who buys it and installs it in their home or business.
This is what we’re talking about when we say that “everything’s an argument.” Literally everything that humans manipulate is, in at least some sense, an attempt to influence others to believe or disbelieve something, or to think in a certain way about something. Now, I’ve had a lot of students try to come up with examples of things that disprove this theory and, at least so far, I’ve been able to discover with them a way that it is still an argument. If you think you’ve got an example that disproves the theory, I’d love to hear it. You can share it with us over at the Talk to Us link on BradReedWrites.com. But, even if you do come up with an exception, I think it still stands that virtually everything you see in the world is someone’s argument, and that’s enough for us to build on.
So what difference does any of this make when we’re sitting down to write a story? Well, the difference is two-fold. And we’ll explore each one in succession. The first difference it makes is that we, as humans, are interpreters of intention, whether we know it or not. The second difference it makes is that we can use the smallest of details to powerful effect when we use them intentional as part of the arguments our characters are making.
Let’s explore the first one: that we, as humans, are expert interpreters of intention. Even if you’ve never thought about how everything manipulated by humans is an argument, that’s the way you’ve been operating in the world. We are experts at reading other people’s arguments. Take the job interview, for example. Studies have shown that first impressions are formed within the first 7 seconds of meeting someone. You haven’t even gotten past the handshake and the “my name is…” portion of a job interview yet already you’ve sized each other up. How does that work? What information are we reading in those 7 seconds? Well, we’re reading each others’ arguments. Your clothes make an argument… we’ve already talked about that. The expression on your face makes an argument. Like it or not, your weight makes an argument. Your hairstyle and your posture and maybe even the way you smell makes an argument. You haven’t really even said a word yet but tons of communication and inferences and judgements have already happened. We do the same thing with places, don’t we? If you’re in a new city and you’re driving around looking for a place to eat, everything around you is making an argument. What other businesses are surrounding it? A restaurant next door to a fancy hotel makes a very different argument than a restaurant with a strip club out back, even though the two restaurants could look exactly the same otherwise. What kinds of cars are parked out front? A restaurant with a parking lot filled with luxury cars is very different than one filled with Harleys, isn’t it? How about the sign? Is it clean and legible and professional or does it look like it was put up fifty years ago and never touched again? All of this is argument… all of this is changing the way you perceive the place and it’s happening, for the most part, subconsciously, even if the differences are much, much more subtle than the ones I’ve just used as examples here.
It’s important to understand that we are always reading the world this way, whether we are aware of it or not. We are always reading and making inferences about the arguments we see in the people, places and things of our world. We can’t help it. It’s how we evolved to survive, I think. Read the little clues and interpret – hopefully successfully – what they mean.
Now the second part of this important lesson is that we, as creative writers, can hijack this overwhelming desire to read the arguments of our world for use in the stories we are writing. And it starts by looking at everything in your story as something intentional–something with intention. Your characters don’t just wear the clothes they are wearing because it’s the first thing you thought of when you wrote your draft… or at least hopefully that’s not the case. They, just like you, have chosen the clothes they are wearing in an effort to get other characters to think or feel about them in a certain way. And your reader, because they are so used to seeing the world as a series of subtle arguments, are going to be reading into what they are wearing for clues about that character. Dress your characters intentially. Put yourself in their shoes with their goals, their insecurities… and their budgets!.. and discover what argument they should make in the scene you’re writing. What car do they drive? Is it the same car that you drive, or maybe a car you used to own because it’s easier to describe? That’s a terrible reason to choose a car… or a horse, or a spaceship, or a dragon, for that matter…for your character. What your character chooses to use to get from place to place says boatloads about who they are and they arguments they are trying to make to the world around them. Where do they live? Does it grow from their argument? What vocabulary do they use? Does it grow from their argument? A person who uses, and maybe even misuses, big words is making a very different argument than someone who grunts their language in single-syllable words. Choose each of these things with intention, taking into account WHO the character.
And do the same with your settings, too. Make your settings have an argument, too. Somebody designed the place, chose the decorations, is in charge of upkeep or the lack of it, and your characters must echo some of that argument if they’ve chosen it as a place to live or a place to meet or a place to attack or a place to chill.
So often as writers we feel like we have to hit our readers over the head with things to get them to understand the worlds and characters we are writing about. Maybe we come right out and tell them that “Dave was the biggest jerk in the world.” You’ve just done every single bit of work for your reader if you’ve written something like that, and readers like to have work to do. They like to figure out your story and piece things together and make inferences. It’s how we operate in the world all the time! Or maybe you’re a better writer than that and you’ve learned your “show don’t tell” lesson and know better than to just tell us that Dave is a jerk. So instead, you show us by having him walk through the door of the office, hit on the receptionist, insult the intern, and tell his business partner to go fuck himself. Your reader has to do a little more work here, but not much. You might as well have come out and just told them because you’ve hit them over the head with so much blatant argument. But what about the way Dave takes up two parking spaces when he parks his Hummer in the crowded parking lot? Something like that might be a single sentence in your story but allows your reader the opportunity to discover Dave’s argument: he thinks he’s better and more important than everyone around him… what a jerk. Your reader has figured it out and now they’re invested and reading your world like they read the real world. And maybe Dave doesn’t say anything at all when he comes into the office and even leaves his sunglasses on until he gets behind his desk. What a jerk, right? It’s subtle, but this guy is sending the message that he doesn’t even SEE the people around him. Now that we can see Dave in our minds, what would he wear? What would he have hanging on his walls? How would he walk? What kind of words would he use with his underlings… which is totally a word Dave would use, isn’t it? Underlings. Dave, man. What a jerk!
We read the real world around us in the details because we know that, at some level, every detail is there for a reason. In fact, because they are so subtle, I think we trust what the details tell us far more than we trust what people tell us. The details don’t lie because they are the real argument.
This is a HUGE part of revision for me: this idea of making the subtle arguments of my characters, settings, and dialogue work. In my first draft, I don’t care so much about this. Characters often drive my car, wear jeans and t-shirt, and go to eat at Applebees. But when I’m revising, after I’ve come to really know these places and these characters, I know their insecurities and their secret desires, and how they want the world to see them, then everything needs to start being part of their argument.
This has everything to do with making your world and your story feel real – what we call verisimilitude. How do we make our stories feel like real life? How do we get our readers to engage so deeply that they get sucked into the worlds and the stories we are creating? The secret lies in knowing that “everything is an argument” and using that knowledge to your advantage.
One last caveat before we finish up today. There is a temptation, once we understand this concept, to want to through tons of details into our stories. I mean, if one or two compelling details are good, then five or ten or twenty must be better, right? In truth, it’s the opposite. Remember that 7 second rule we talked about for establishing a first impression? Keep that in mind when you’re writing as well. Come up with one or two of the effective, most telling, most compelling details you can and then let your readers do the rest of the work. With a correctly chosen, compelling detail, your reader can fill in the rest. We’ll save our example of what I mean for our Wise Word, coming up next…
Today’s wise word comes from Stephen King, and it goes hand in hand with what we’re exploring today. He says that “An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”
Picture that scene in your mind. You’re in an abandoned neighborhood and there, in the gutter, is an overturned tricycle. Feel that moment in your gut. Your reading the argument of that setting. Feel the questions that come to mind and how they begin to unravel the argument. How long has it been there? Whose was it? Why is it in the gutter? Did someone just leave it there on purpose or did they have to get away for some reason? What happened to the kid that was riding it? We know the tricycle is there for a reason, and your mind starts flipping through the possibilities and tries to make sense of it. You’ve done all that work as a reader and King gets to just sit back and let you create the horror and suspense on your own. He’s tapping into the way you read into the details, and you can do the same thing with your writing. And notice how much he’s accomplished with one well-chosen, compelling detail. His reader fills in all the rest of the detail in their own minds because the argument of the scene is so powerful. Can’t you see the whole neighborhood now, in your mind? I sure can. The dark streets, the shutters hanging akimbo from the windows, front doors ajar, the cold wind tumbling trash down the broken streets. It’s all there based on that one detail. And maybe it looks different in your mind. And if so, that’s perfect. That’s the trick of engaging a reader. He’s got each one of us building our own version of his world in our heads. Ah, the power of a single, well-chosen detail.
Our challenge this week is going to get a little weird, and could even, technically, be illegal in some states! This week, I want you to try to record a conversation, either literally record the audio or, at the very least, write down as much as is being said as possible. This could be a conversation between people you know–family or friends or workmates–or could be strangers at a bus stop or in the food court at a mall. We’re exploring the thesis of today’s show, that “everything is an argument” and I want you to see how it works in real life so that you can be a better user of it in your writing. I actually recommend that you do a combination of both–writing and recording, if possible. While you’re recording the conversation, write down as many details as you can about the scene. What are the participants wearing? How are they standing or sitting? What is their posture? Can you capture something about their facial expressions or their body language? All of this is argument, too. Once you’ve done that, and hopefully haven’t gotten yourself arrested for it, I want you to spend some time with it. Figure out what each person is arguing for. It might be something very subtle, but it’ll be there. And it’s often not the ACTUAL topic of the conversation. Often they are going to be arguing things like “I want you to value my opinion” or “I want you to pay attention to me” while the other person might be arguing “I’m too busy to fully listen to what you have to say” or “I have better things to do that talk to you right now.” Try to get deep with this. Some of you might actually capture an argument happening. If that’s the case, go deeper. What is the SUBTEXT of the argument? What’s really going on under the surface? If you’re bold enough to try this, I think you’re going to have a lot of fun with it. You might even want to do it again a few times. You’ll learn something nearly every time you do it. You’ll start to become an expert on how a subtle wave of the hand might carry more weight in the “argument” than the words that are being spoken do. Give it a try and let me know what you discover! I’d love to hear from you. Go to BradReedWrites.com and click on the Talk to Us link to let us know how it went.
That’s going to wrap it up for this week. If you’re enjoying the podcast, I’d love it if you’d Tweet about it or mention it to some of your writer friends and maybe even leave us a review on iTunes or whatever app you use to listen. It’s a great way to help spread the word and give us the ability to keep producing them for you!