Arguments, discussions, disagreements

In my script I have a lot of "arguments" – loose definition: long discussions where characters disagree about what to do.

These arguments don't escalate to a full-blown fight, rather they are more like sparring and establishing dominance.

It affirms characters motives (they can just say what they want), but more importantly the arguments show who is influencing whom, and in some cases what the characters are willing to compromise to get what they want.

The argument isn't the real fight

My problem is a bottleneck episode where the conflict turns on these discussions. 2 team mates are at complete odds, trying to convince a 3rd. My hero senses he's losing, which motivates off-screen destructive manipulations that are out-of-proportion to the argument. This motive only makes sense if I can show that he fears he's losing influence. It's not really about losing the argument, it's about losing control of the 3rd character, but that motive is beneath the surface.

What's the current score?

I'm looking for ways to signal the score: who is "winning" the discussion at specific 'beats'. I've tried to compress the actual argument (the points being discussed) so there's structure and progression to their positions, as well as to the subtext and powerplays. It's plotted so it all makes sense (to me, the author) but it's still a huge wall of dialog that spans the whole episode. The characters are playing their cards close to the vest and all have ulterior motives which muddy the power dynamics.

My fear is an entire episode of portentous talk that's all subtext and moral philosophy. I have a battle going on, but it's subtle and under the table.

How do I signal who's winning the argument?

What are some unambiguous signals I can give the reader to show that the 3rd character is being persuaded? After the off-screen manipulations, this dynamic shifts back the other way, so I need show it reversing too.

It's not really about the merits of the argument, it's about manipulating the 3rd character – that's the whole point by the end of the episode, but it's a slow burn and hints at a negative character arc for the hero.

6 Answers 6


I agree with @Ash's answer regarding the fact that you can show a lot with body language. I would disagree with him however regarding what "winning" and "losing" would look like.

Being excessively assertive, "attacking", losing composure in an argument - those are signs of losing. Without even understanding what the argument is about, losing control of oneself, losing control of the situation, getting goaded - those are signs of losing. The one who "wins" will be confident of his stance, he won't need to attack. He can even be dismissive.

Being defensive, as Ash describes, is also a sign of losing. If I recognise my argument is weak, but I don't want to consent defeat, I'll grow defensive. That can be shown in tone, in body language, also in using a lot of "but" in one's speech.

As for the winner, think of him for a moment as holding the Truth. He doesn't need to attack or to defend. The truth is a steady rock, an absolute, on which lies and mistakes crush. He can afford to be calm and steady. He might present facts, or he might manipulate his opponent into seeing the error in their argument. Either way, his confidence and self-control are the keys to the thing. (In reality we can only wish lies and mistakes crashed against the solidity of the truth. But we tend to respect and believe the person who remains calm. We think he's the one who holds the truth.)

Building on this, if you want to show a turn in the argument, the calm person would lose his calm, signifying he's no longer "winning", while the not-calm person would grow calm.

  • 1
    "The truth is a steady rock, an absolute, on which lies and mistakes crush." <–– that is beautiful!
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 13:39

If I've understood this it is a screenplay featuring, at this point, three characters; the characters proposing opposing options and the third character they are trying to win over?

That being the case, the indications of who is 'winning' will come from the third party not the two proposers. The scenes are likely to be more interesting if the third party is undecided or swithering between the two opposing propositions.

How you stage that is likely to depend on the relative dominance of the characters, is anyone 'chairing' this discussion? Can the third party 'conduct' the discussion or is he a passive audience to this battle or the proposers?

It seems as though if you are going to spend so much screen-time on this dispute, or series of disputes, that the third party's opinion carries a lot of weight, so they have a great deal of power. You may need to demonstrate how much the 3rd party understands their own power. Are they merely receiving information or is are they asking and probing? Do they wait until the discussion is over to deliver their 'verdict' or do they play the opposers off against each other?

It seems likely that you can only show which way this lug-of-war is going is by having the 3rd party be very active in the discussion. That way they can use their words and intonation, their body language, their hand gestures and their eye contact to convey to the audience how which way their thoughts are leaning. Do they bring Proposer 1 into the conversation and turn a shoulder to Proposer 2? Do they hold up a hand to stop Proposer 2 interjecting? Are there moments where they share a look with one of the proposers that shows they think the other is off his rocker, do they roll their eyes in exasperation with them both?

How much does the 3rd party just express their own view clearly: 'Proposer 1, I'm really not convinced by your suggested action, Proposer 2's idea would avoid the problems of the whimwams fargling the obslots, don't you think?'

Does the third party try to bring everyone into agreement, or is it enough that they cast their vote one way of another? In other words, as they sway from preferring one option over the other, do they try and bring the opposing proposer with them? Does the 3rd party positively contribute to analysing the pros and cons of the propositions, do they have any element to contribute themselves?

There are so many tools you can use to show how the wheel spins and where the ball is likely to come to rest, just about the only thing that wouldn't work is the 3rd party sitting like a dummy as the two proposers argue over their head and then turn to them for a final verdict. Make them part of the conversation.


You need a prop.

I will explain! Somebody fighting a losing argument is typically fighting because the consequences for them of losing the argument is giving up something valuable or dear to them, or it means taking a risk they fear taking.

If the consequence is TOO awful for them (perhaps they don't have the courage to face it, or perhaps it harms or kills someone they love) they just will not give up. Often, they won't even tell you what the consequence is! The "winning" side will have to figure that out for themselves.

If it is possible to persuade them, it will be done by addressing this awful consequence, or ramification, or whatever you wish to call it. Either dissipating it, or making it recoverable, or persuading them it is unavoidable either way, or convincing them their alternative has worse consequences (that they care about).

In film, you need to show (hopefully visually) why the losing guy is arguing at all. What is the consequence he wants to avoid so badly? It isn't enough for the winners to have a logically best approach, they need an emotionally best approach to convince the other guy.

You need a prop to represent the consequence. Let me say his favorite photo of his sister at twelve. He keeps looking at this, handling the prop, looking at it, and whenever he does he makes emotional arguments, but sticks to them.

Then what you show, by body language, is he begins to understand. Less handling or viewing of the prop. Finally he puts the prop aside, he puts the picture of sister back in his top pocket (near his heart); a signal that he is done. Either he cannot find a way to protect her, or his opponents have assured him his sister will be safe.

Because arguments that are all about logic do not last very long, there must be some sort of anti-logic in play, and that means an emotional commitment that overrides the frontal cortex. You make it an emotional commitment, some sort of love or hate, that must be overcome; and you signal this commitment with a prop. Even a wedding ring could do it.


Defensive language shifts, the character who is "winning" will be using assertive, even aggressive, language while the "loser" will be defending their position. Then they make a telling point and suddenly the "winner" is on the defensive and the loser starts to assert their points more strongly. This should be done through both verbal and body language.

That's winning the argument, to signal the manipulation of the 3rd person is about showing their degree of agreement/approval they're showing the individuals. If the person the 3rd favours is currently on the defensive the 3rd person should look concerned and disapproving of their opponent and vice versa.


The winner will use logical points of his argument while his opponent will use emotional appeals that do not hold any logical weight.

One of the best examples of this is from the conclusion Star Trek TNG's episode "The Drumhead" where Captain Picard is being charged with being a traitor to the Federation (for defending a crew member who was by any objective measure in the wrong place at the wrong time) by a much respected Admiral Sati (who is the daughter of the widely respected late Judge Sati, who is so influential in the whole of the Federation, many of his rulings are required reading for anyone in Picard's line of work). At the tribunal, being observed by the Admiral in charge of security in Starfleet.

Sati presents damaging evidence to Picard's character which Picard acknowledges is true (and from previous episode, but with an unfavorable light cast). Picard offers in his testimony a summation of the situation that Admiral Sati's investigation has evolved into by his famous "With the First Link" speech, which in universe is a quote from one of Judge Satie's rulings:

"You know, there are some words I've known since I was a schoolboy. 'With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.' Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie as wisdom and warning. The first time any man's freedom is trodden on, we're all damaged."

Upon hearing these words, Admiral Sati condemns Picard for having the gall to invoke her father's words to justify his "betrayal" but its implied through her emotional response that she is appalled at using her father against her, rather than any fallacious read of Picard's interpretation. The Admiral who will be deciding the outcome of the hearing promptly gets up and silently leaves the room as Sati continues her rant and it is only when he is out the door does she realize she had lost the case and is left to silently think over what happened as the entire assembled court audience, including her own support staff, leave her in silence.

In this scene, Picard's quote is from a work that is the fundemental belief of the Federation, that should the freedoms and protections it grants not be afforded for even the most seemingly guilty member of a society, it will be done so anyone else. Picard's crime is defending a man accused of a crime and for that he himself is labled a traitor. And when Picard moves to defend his own actions, he invokes defense of what is commonly understood bedrock truth of his society's fundamental philosophical principals. Whether or not you agree with the quote, Picard had already stated it's original speaker was so correct in his logic that they had to require Starfleet Officers to read those judgements before becoming even a junior officer. When Sati's response is to demand that an accused traitor is not allowed to speak of such an accepted assesment of his own rights and that traitors who do sully the speaker, the room is forced to conclude that Picard has a better grasp of Sati's stalwart defense of principals than his own flesh and blood. Picard, and the attendence of the hearing admired Judge Sati for the words he spoke, but Admiral Sati, his daughter, showed that she only admired the words because of who it was who spoke them. She betrayed her father in the eyes of the Federation because to her, the words lost all value when a less honorable man spoke them and she was willing to call for more betrayal of the ideas they carried.

This demonstrates another important matter in debates, is that some time it is more admired to stick with principals when it is inconvenient rather than abandon it when it asks us to do things we do not care to do. Remember that Picard is defending a person who did lie about his family relationship: his grandfather is a supposed immigrant from a nation that is now in a cold war state with the Federation and the crewman hid that fact to get to his position. Because of this, the crewman is under intense investigation by Sati for possible espionage (which is not grounded in hard evidence) and Sati is moving the possible into realm of accepted fact without even a trial. It is not easy for Picard to afford defense to a man who is guilty of the small lie and the big lie never confirmed (the viewer is left to decide if the crewman did or did not). The small lie is enough to likely end the crewman's career, let alone the accusations not yet proven. Defending him is not to Picard's benefit and if he never did, no one would blame him. Certainly not Sati. It serves no benefit for Picard to hold to his conviction and do what's right while doing what is wrong will keep him out of the eyes of suspicion. All Picard has to do is compromise on his principal and yield that the quotes of the a dead judge were not really important to his career and his duty to his crew. As another Starfleet Captain in another situation once said, all it would cost is "The Self-Respect of one Star Fleet Officer" and Picard... Picard could not learn to live with it.


You may want to consider using a "peanut gallery". This is similar to SpaGirl's suggestion, but these are people who are not involved in the argument directly, yet can provide some context.

Jessica says, "I've been riding this way since I taught myself as a kid!"
Barb replied, "Well, you can ride a horse like that, but you're only going to end up with a sore bum."
Josh adds, "I'm pretty sure Jessica likes a sore bum."
David interjects, "Jessica's saddle is specifically designed for the way she rides, so it's a non-issue."

This can be a "comic relief" kind of thing or it can be something to try to break up the fight, maybe while trying to save "face" for the loser. It's something to be used sparingly, especially in a serious book, but even in a comedy over using this can start to get predictable.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.