Anger is a weird emotion. It’s very basic — compare it to envy or trepidation or love — but that does not mean it is necessarily easy to write. It can be both basic and enormously complex. Anger sucks. Being angry is hard and raw and weird. As with most things, even though the concept of anger is a simple one, the execution of it on the page is complicated and people often fail.
Translation: A lot of times dialogue that’s supposed to be angry comes off as flat. Oops.
Why is this though? We all know what anger is. We’ve all felt it at one point or another. Furthermore, we have all experienced many of the various shades and forms anger can take. Everyone over the age of ten has probably felt various nuances of anger. The anger you felt as a young child when your sibling was being a jerk is different than the anger you feel when a professor critiques your work in front of the class. This, in turn, is different than the anger you feel when you believe a partner may be cheating on you. Maybe all these things make you scream, but they’re all different and all stem from different places.
Here’s the weird truth: anger itself is not a base emotion.
Anger stems from other unchecked emotions. This takes a lot of introspection when we think of our own anger because we feel it so strongly. How can it not be its own emotion? But think of when you were last angry and think about the things that led up to that anger. Anger comes from fear, from envy, from sorrow, from love. There’s no reason for anger to crop up just because. That’s not how it works.
A person can really be sad or happy just at the moment, but anger needs a fuse to get it started. And that fuse is the myriad of emotions you or your characters are feeling underneath.
So how do you find the fuse?
This depends entirely on what’s going on in your story and your character’s personal arc. But the fact is that when writing, at least for me, I tend to know that I want an ‘angry scene’ and work from there. You know the plot of your story, so you ostensibly know when an argument is going to take place. Hopefully you also know what the point of the argument is both in terms of your characters and in terms of furthering the plot. All these details are super important in crafting a great scene and making your plot shine.
But those details don’t make the anger you’re trying to convey real.
The details come before the anger. When writing anger you have to step back and ask yourself some key questions about what’s going on in your characters’ lives.
The Three Questions about anger;
These following questions really break down the emotion of the scene and help you understand your character’s motivations better. (These questions are the base of my Writing Anger Worksheet, (click to download!) and have been super helpful both for some of my clients, as well as when I’ve edited my own work.)
How are they angry?
This means how are they expressing their anger in the scene? Are they screaming? Are they physical? Maybe they’re seething quietly and giving the other character the silent treatment.
All these options translate into the version of anger they express. Yelling anger is different than seething anger. We seethe because of years of built-up resentment, we yell because the emotion we are really feeling is going to explode out of us.
When writing your scene you probably know what you want it to look like. Tap into that; you wouldn’t imagine a screaming argument if you didn’t think that was necessary to convey the information and emotion you intended. Trust your gut, kiddos. We know what we need to do, even if we don’t know that we know we need to do it (oof, that was a sentence!)
Furthermore, look into if your character’s anger shifts over the course of the scene. Maybe they’re quieter at the beginning but whatever is happening in the conversation is moving them closer and closer to exploding. The way your character’s anger appears onto the page speaks volumes to what they (and in turn, the reader), are experiencing.
Why are they angry?
This one seems obvious in a lot of ways. Usually something happened in a previous scene that explains it. And that’s fine. Bada-bing bada-boom, that’s your why.
But dig a little deeper; this is a great opportunity to get to know your characters. Is your character angry because of what happened, or are they angry because of how it happened? There’s a lot of nuance in anger, and this is a point where you can figure out who your character is as well as why their anger is important to the plot. Going into detail about what happened can open up a lot of information. It’s stuff you may have only known subconsciously.
‘Why are they angry?’ suddenly becomes closer to ‘why are they reacting this way?’ which helps us with the first question as well.
When it comes specifically to screenwriting (but applicable in novel writing as well), anger can often stem from something blocking or thwarting the motivations and needs of the character. We like this in screenwriting particularly because this is a form of conflict and conflict is screenwriting gold. Very basically, screenwriting characters have wants and needs, and having something block them is conflict, and having them react in anger is a logical next step.
What are they really feeling?
This is one thing that I actually learned in a religious studies class in my freshman year of high school. Random! I know but bear with me. It’s important enough that it stuck with me all these years later and has been a real boon in my writing career. We had a guest speaker, a Rabbi, come in and talk about Judaism. I hate to be that girl, but I don’t remember much of what he said or why he was there. But this one vital thing just stayed me.
He said, “People are usually never angry. Anger doesn’t really exist.” That makes no sense, right? All of us freshmen knew about anger; we were angsty teens, after all. But he continued, “Think of a parent yelling at their kid for missing curfew. Their child is hours late and the parents weren’t sure what to do or how to get in touch with them, or if something had happened.
They yell. They’re so mad. They were so worried.”
The truth is that they were yelling because they were scared. Anything could have happened to their child and they had no way of knowing.
The Rabbi said that so much of anger comes from caring about something. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be angry, you would be apathetic. You get angry about things that matter, things you want or need to happen, things, or people that you love.
So what is your character really feeling when they’re angry? What are they caring about so much that it’s making them fume or argue or scream?
That’s the crux. That’s the jumping-off point. Work from there.
I’ve developed a free printable worksheet to help you figure out your character’s anger motivations! You can take notes on the three questions as well as work through your lines of dialogue to find out what emotion is at the heart of your scene.
Download it here!
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xoxo, Betsy the Gremlin