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DIALOGUE #2: Conversation
There are certain unwritten rules we all follow in our daily conversations. Today I challenge you to take a closer look - and improve your dialogues at the same time.
Posted on 6 February 2021 0 Comments
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Breaking the Rules of Good Conversation

(Once again, the necessary disclaimer: Everything I present here has been influenced by essays, articles and books I read as a student. I don’t want to claim anything as my original thought. Still, going back to find out who said what seems too much to tackle at the moment. Don’t think of this as me teaching my original wisdom. Think of it as sharing what I’ve learned.)

Confession: The title I opted for is somewhat clickbait-y. When Paul Grice wrote about the cooperative principle, he didn’t intend to create firm rules for polite conversation. He simply wanted to describe what (subconscious) guidelines we follow when we speak to one another.

So, no – his principles aren’t prescriptive for everyday conversation. You just keep talking to your fellow human beings like you normally would. But – and here’s where my catchy title comes in – you should treat them as rules of fictional dialogue.

In fiction, we are even less patient with ineffective conversation as we are in real life. So, you probably should come to the point very fast. Grice’s four maxims can help you to follow the rules – or to break them, whenever necessary.

Grice’s Maxims

Don’t be intimidated by the word “maxim”. It sounds fancy, but it’s just another way of saying guideline. And the four guidelines for good conversation couldn’t be any easier:

Maxim of Quality

Let me phrase this differently: “Don’t lie!” It’s really that simple. Don’t say anything that you believe is false, and don’t say anything that you don’t know whether it’s true.

It’s important for your readers to trust (most of) what your characters are saying to each other. Otherwise, it will be hard to believe in them or even empathise with them.

Let your characters speak their truth. – I’m not saying that dialogue should only feature things you fact-checked several times. But if it isn’t deliberately done, or if it isn’t advancing the plot, lying has no place in storytelling.

Violating the Maxim of Quality

As always, the fun in writing begins when you start to break the rules. And the fun in dialogue starts, when your characters aren’t behaving as we expect them to:

One of the easiest ways to create conflict is by having characters lie to each other. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would have been a flop, if Martha said from the beginning: “By the way, our son is made up.” The lie is what keeps the conflict alive and the play going. If Lindsay Lohan hadn’t lied her way through Mean Girls – would we have laughed as much?

The most rewarding violation of this maxim, in my opinion, is the half-lie. Deliberately omitting information from the truth to create misunderstandings: When Mrs Lovett tells Sweeney Todd that his wife poisoned herself, we assume, along with him, that she died. So the revelation that she was still alive and that he had ultimately killed her is so much more wicked than if she straight-up lied to him.

Maxim of Quantity

Have you ever been stuck in a conversation with a friend, when all you could think was: “Just get to the point!” – These people will go on so many tangents during stories about their job, that by the end you’ll know the names of all of their cousins, their social security numbers and the colour of their favourite underpants.

Now, as long as they’re your friends, you’ll stick with their stories. You don’t want to be rude, after all. But when it comes to books, we’ll quickly get bored with lengthy dialogues. We want adequate pacing – and that means being as concise as possible.

If in doubt, just follow this simple guideline: Don’t say more and don’t say less than you need to. – If your character wants to say “I saw Kendra at the mall today”, they shouldn’t say: “I saw Kendra, the tall girl from my class with the slight overbite, at the food court in the mall, where I was shopping for new batteries for my kitchen scales, because I plan to bake a lemon traybake for my grandmother’s birthday tomorrow.” But they also shouldn’t say: “I saw Kendra.”

Violating the Maxim of Quantity

Sometimes withholding information can create a lot of tension between characters, or between narrators and readers. In a thriller, someone might say: “Kendra and I, we were old friends” – but never explain how they knew each other. Suddenly there’s an open question invading our minds: How did they know Kendra? And what happened between them? Could they have a motive for murder?

On the other hand, oversharing can have huge dramatic impact. Almost most of the comedy in A Series of Unfortunate Events is sourced in characters going on tangents, explaining already explained things, and pretty much sucking at conversation.

Or – for my fellow Sondheim fans – think of Amy’s breakdown in Company. Instead of just saying that the wedding is off, she sings for about six minutes, explaining what psychological consequences a wedding might have for her. — You can totally let your characters go on tangents. As long as you can pull it off.

Maxim of Relevance

Okay, this one might be a bit harder to pin down. It can be really simple: When a friend tells you about the tragic death of a family pet, don’t say: “Oh, I have a friend who farms goldfish.” – It would be irrelevant, offputting and rude.

The same thing goes for your characters. (Just maybe a little subtler.) I’m sure we’ve all seen movies where we were surprised by the sudden shift in conversation:

A woman receives flowers for her birthday and suddenly begins to cry because her goldfish died ten years ago and she still hasn’t gotten over it. — We all know what the writers wanted to achieve: create a scene in which they could bring up this traumatic experience. But they failed to connect the two, and we’re left baffled.

So, remember: It’s okay to shift the tone and subject of your conversations – as long as the motivation behind it is clear. This goes especially for your narrator: If they jump around without proper warning, your reader will simply suffer an extreme case of emotional whiplash.

Violating the Maxim of Relevance

I’d strongly advise against breaking the rule of relevance – simply because it’s hard to do successfully.

If you wish, however, to break it, I ask you to do it in a rewarding way, such as A Series of Unfortunate Events or maybe Richard Ayoade. – And not in the manner of Victor Hugo, or Stephen King’s less entertaining books.

Maxim of Manner

Once again, Grice has used a word that’s unnecessarily complicated. (Ironic, right?). I’d simply put it this way: Be clear in your intentions. Make it as easy as possible for the other person to understand what you are saying, and what you want them to take away from it.

This is especially important in written language. If we don’t have inflexion and tone as context clues, it becomes increasingly hard to truly grasp what someone might say.

Maybe you noticed, that when you come back to something you’ve written after a few months, you become confused by a phrase: Just what did you mean to write there? – In order to make reading as enjoyable as possible, you should eliminate most of the ambiguity – unless it’s deliberate.

Violating the Maxim of Manner

Sometimes, total clarity can be boring. Just think of Chandler Bing from Friends. If we didn’t question whether everything he says might be irony, he would lose so much of his charm. And what fun would Greek epics be, if oracles didn’t speak in riddled prophecies?

Once again: Go ahead and break those rules. But make it deliberate, plot-relevant and obvious.

What Can We Learn from this?

I always hope to write something shorter. But the Maxim of Quantity and I just don’t see eye to eye with each other. Anyway, here’s my takeaways from today’s thoughts.

  1. Your characters and your narrator should tell the truth – unless they deliberately decide to lie or they assume a lie to be true.
  2. Be concise in your dialogue. We don’t need to hear every detail – unless it’s relevant to the plot.
  3. Don’t change subjects or moods willy-nilly. If you want to do so, prepare the reader. – Unless you are determined to make them stumble.
  4. Be as clear as you can (and want to be). If your reader has to constantly guess what’s going on, he’ll grow tired quickly.
  5. If you want to break these guidelines, do so. But make sure that you have a sound reason to do so.

Happy writing,

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