Tools for Writing Dialogue
Grice’s Conversational Maxims
I’ve not across these maxims before or at least not described as Grice’s. Huh…. shows still so much I don’t know.
From Stephen Jeffrey’s book: Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write
“...As well as there always being a minimum of two speakers in every play, there is always at least one listener, even in a monologue, or when a character delivers a soliloquy. For as well as the person or persons on the stage to whom their speech is usually being made, there is always the theatre audience itself. An onstage character may be listening to the speech, but that wider audience is also listening and making certain assumptions. In this section, I want to talk about the ‘rules’ of conversation. Any audience will have preconceived ideas about those rules. There is an interesting literature on this subject, covering topics such as ‘turn-taking’( how do you know when it is your turn to speak? When do you deliberately step back and allow others to speak?) and ‘self-election’–i.e. deciding on the moment when it is your turn to speak. These kinds of questions are quite important to think about when you are writing dialogue, when it comes to choosing who is the next person to speak and deciding whether they are being encouraged to speak, or are having to interrupt to get their way.
The philosopher of language, Paul Grice, made the following observations about how conversation works in his 1989 book Studies in the Way of Words, which have come to be known as the ‘Gricean Maxims’.
Maxim of Quantity
1. Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary.
2. Do not make your contribution more informative than necessary.
Maxim of Quality
1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
Maxim of Relevance
Be relevant (i.e. say things related to the current topic of the conversation).
Maxim of Manner
1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
2. Avoid ambiguity.
3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary wordiness).
4. Be orderly.
When an audience is listening to stage dialogue, they will expect it to follow these basic conventions. However, what can be really interesting is to occasionally break the rules. You can experiment with breaking the rules systematically, one at a time, and you will find that extremely interesting things start to happen to your dialogue….
… here are a few brief notes on breaking them. The breaking of his two ‘Maxims of Quality’ (i.e. never to lie, or say something for which you lack evidence) have led to the creation of immortal villains, both tragic (Iago) and comic (Falstaff), as well as a mixture of both (Richard III). Not to break Grice’s ‘Maxim of Relevance’ (i.e. only to talk about what you are supposed to be talking about) would have deprived the world of such compelling digressors as Justice Shallow (in Henry IV, Part Two)–and even Hamlet, whose dialogue is perhaps the supreme example of breaking all four components of Grice’s ‘Maxim of Manner’: 1. Avoid obscurity of expression. 2. Avoid ambiguity. 3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary wordiness). 4. Be orderly. ‘Obscurity of expression’, which according to Grice is best avoided in our daily conversation, can be used to disguise a deceit or fault in a very useful way on stage, or in politics. Likewise ‘ambiguity’, which there are good reasons to avoid in real life. One of the most famously ambiguous sentences in the English language is ‘Let him have it’. In an infamous case from 1952, a policeman arrested two youths–Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley–on the roof of a building they had been trying to burgle. Bentley said to his accomplice, who was holding a gun, ‘Let him have it, Chris!’, which could have meant two things: either ‘Give the gun to the policeman’, or ‘Shoot him.’ Craig shot the policeman, but because he was sixteen he could not be prosecuted. Bentley, however, a nineteen-year-old with learning difficulties, was convicted, and then hanged, on the basis of his having apparently ordered the murder. (He was posthumously pardoned in 1998, seven years after a film–Let Him Have It–was made of the story.) The injunction to ‘be brief’ means avoiding the use of too many words to make your point (which is different to not giving too much information). ‘Be orderly’ means saying things in the correct order, rather than lurching from topic to topic, which we saw some of in the Nixon transcript. Florian Zeller’s The Father (2012) depicts an elderly man with dementia and is anything but orderly; the resulting confusion gives the audience some insight into the condition. It is always fascinating to break the rules, whether one at a time or all at once, and when you begin to experiment with such ‘conversational maxims’, amazing scenes are almost guaranteed to flow from your head….”