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I'm working on a short story that has two characters debating a philosophical view. Other than the inherent conflict built into the two opposing stances taken by the characters on the topic, it avoids traditional action or dramatic conflict during the debate/discussion.

I'd love to get some advice, as well as pointers to published work, on ways to effectively handle this kind of content.

Thanks in advance!

  • Welcome to Writers and thanks for bringing your question here. As asked, this question has the potential to end up as kind of a poll or shopping-list question where it's hard for one (or a few) answers to emerge as the best solution(s) to your problem. I'm putting it on hold temporarily so you can make some edits. Please ask your question about what you can do as a writer (a question about technique), rather than just asking about examples. Answers might still say "go read these examples", but this way the question is focused on the writing. – Monica Cellio Apr 27 '17 at 18:30
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    It'd help if you could also describe what you're having trouble with -- does the dialogue feel stilted, are you getting monologues instead of interaction, does it sound too esoteric, something else? (It's ok to include a short sample.) Thanks; after you edit the community will review for reopening so we can get on to getting you your answers. – Monica Cellio Apr 27 '17 at 18:30
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    @William I edited your question in line with Monica's comments based on my reading of your intentions. Feel free to re-edit or revert if this does not respect your original intent. – Chris Sunami Apr 27 '17 at 18:51
  • Thanks for the comments. Please review my edits based on this feedback. – William L Apr 28 '17 at 15:16
  • What comes to mind immediately is Raymond Carver's story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," which is four people drinking gin at a kitchen table, talking (about love). In it, the characters do other things as they talk (refill their glasses) and, in the conversation, describe real-world actions and conflicts. – Ken Mohnkern Apr 28 '17 at 15:43
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There's a wonderful list of writing rules by Kurt Vonnegut, of which one of them is: "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water."

I remember reading that and something just clicking in my head. Up until that point, I'd bemoaned what I saw as the obsessive emphasis on goal orientated characters in writing advice. I'd think "well, plenty of people don't have clearly defined goals, and are pretty much just trying to figure life out".

What I'd neglected is the "if only a glass of water" part. Every person wants something, and every novel is to some extent about what its characters want. Even something like Invisible Cities (which, in case you don't know, largely consists of descriptions of fictional places) has Marco Polo and The Khan, who are people, and who therefore want things.

So, my answer is to make your characters want something. Giving them an agenda of some kind doesn't mean turning the discussions into heated arguments, it just means making them human beings. Maybe their agendas are as simple as character X wanting to seem a certain way to character Y, and character Y wanting to seem a certain way to character X. Allow this to play out while the debate occurs, and the reader will be left with the impression that they're hearing real people speaking (rather than just the author using fictional people to push through a viewpoint).

For a nice, famous example, I think there's some good examples of this in David Foster Wallace's work. There are quite a lot of debates and discussions and monologues that apparently do very little to further the plot, but do a great deal to further character and theme.

Note that you'll have a little more slack on the other stuff if the debate itself is fascinating. Another of Vonnegut's rules is "Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted." Obviously, this is the most important rule of all (and probably the only one that should never be broken).

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I would suggest that there is a very simple rule of thumb here: if it is revelatory of character, it is a story. If it is revelatory of ideas, it is a philosophical essay in disguise.

We debate philosophy. It is part of what makes humans human, and it is therefore a fit matter for story. But the issues in a story are not who is right, but what is it like to debate philosophy? Why do we do it? How do we respond the the challenge of an opposing view? How do we handle the destruction of our arguments? When does doubt creep in? Do we debate honestly or resort to rhetorical trickery? Do we bully? Do we deceive? What do we do when doubt of our our own position sets in? Do we care more about truth or victory?

There is a rich field for moral questions, moral doubts, and moral decisions in all of these questions, and therefore a rich ground for stories.

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