On Breaking Rules: The Debate

As a strong supporter of “learn the rules so you can break them,” I’m back to break more rules! This time, we’re talking about The Debate and how to (not) use it in your story. So let’s say you’ve established The Normal World and told us everything we need to know about our hero. Now it’s time to get to the action. The hero is called. Find the treasure! Save the world! Learn the true meaning of friendship!

But wait! Does the hero really want to go on this adventure?

This is The Debate. The Debate is when the hero turns the adventure down. The retired cop walks away from the case. The washed-up gunslinger tells the naive greenhorn to get lost. Frodo tells Gandalf to take the ring back. Our hero rejects the story.

I’ll tell you a secret. This is one of my least favorite beats, because it’s often very repetitive. The hero is given an offer, they refuse, and then they show up on the job anyway. After all, if they didn’t, we’d have no story. Even if they do some soul searching, it often hits the same beats: do I continue with the status quo or “do the right thing”?

But that doesn’t mean The Debate can’t be done well. In China Miéville’s Kraken, a giant squid is stolen from a local museum and Billy, one of the employees, refuses to help the police. He rejects the story. And as is often the case when the hero keeps saying ‘no,’ something grabs them by the ankles and hauls them into the story kicking and screaming. Billy is kidnapped. But what I really like about Kraken is that Billy doesn’t end up joining the police. Someone else shows up with a far more compelling argument, so Billy joins them instead. He enters the story, but not in the way we expected.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson initially replaces The Debate with an external conflict. Eleanor is invited to Hill House, but her sister won’t let her take the car. In their argument we learn how much Eleanor has been beaten down by her family, but her unwavering decision to take the car also shows how fiercely she needs to go. But she does have a debate nonetheless, a little later. As she drives up to the house, she thinks, almost unwillingly, as if the sight of the house has induced panic, “Why am I here?” When nearly turned away at the gate, she thinks, “I’m being given a last chance. I could turn my car around right here and now in front of these gates and go away from here, and no one would blame me.” Her internal debate, the use of ‘last chance,’ creates a sense of foreboding, of something coming that Eleanor could have escaped if she’d only taken the chance.

But what if the hero is raring to go? What if it makes no sense for them to doubt their decision? Really, as is true of most writing, the cardinal sin is being boring. This beat is here to create conflict and conflict is interesting, especially the warring emotions of a conflicted protagonist. But it isn’t the only way make a story interesting.

The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht relies on tension and vivid imagery to make the call to action interesting. In the opening chapters, a street-ruffian, Johann, pulls a knife on a sorcerer, Florian, and tells Florian to hire him. Johann doesn’t mull over his decisions, not even later when Florian tells him his vindictive plans. Johann is bold, rash, a casual murderer, and a self-identified monster. Rarely does he think twice. In addition, the scene is already interesting. Florian is terrified yet unflappable, an intriguing combination, and we don’t know what he’s capable of as a sorcerer. The scene has the classic push and pull. Johann wants Florian to hire him; Florian doesn’t want to hire him. And the scene climaxes when Johann takes a knife to his own throat and slits it open, only for the skin to knit itself together. The scene is tense, visceral, and it makes us want to know what will happen next.

At a more practical level, The Monster of Elendhaven is fairly short, some 120 pages. Shorter books frequently cut out beats (most frequently the turn at the midpoint) because works of that length don’t need as many beats. Constantly swiveling back and forth would create confusion and trip up the pacing. Novellas and middle-grade books tend to work with more straightforward stories that move at a jaunty pace and without a great deal of unnecessary detail (although I can think of exceptions, notably Catherynne Valente’s Speak Easy). Finally, as we learn at the end of the book, Johann was created out of Florian’s childhood grief and need. Johann is enthralled to Florian. He’s tied up with this man and cannot leave him. Doubting Florian or flinching away from him would be out of keeping with both the magic system and the intertwined, vicious nature of their relationship.

The Debate is a great way to create conflict and it can give us insights into our hero. It can be a moment for a character to prepare to face the coming challenge, or run from it. But not all characters have reason to shy from the adventure. Some of them want it more than anything and they will run into the fray without a second thought. In the end, this is a turning point for your character and the goal is to tell us something about the hero in an interesting way. When faced with the story, what do they do? And what does it tell us about them?

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