Thoughts On Dialogue, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love Grice’s Maxims
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
Tonight I found myself, for day job-related reasons, revisiting Gricean Maxims - that is, the conversational ‘rules' of discursive co-operation laid out by language philosopher Paul Grice.
There’s much to be critiqued in Grice’s work - but it occurred to me, as I revisited them, that (some of) his co-operative principles are potentially quite useful signposts for writing good (that is, effective) fiction dialogue.
(Caveat: writing, reading and interpretation are subjective business(es). Dialogue that works for me may not work for you; you may be more of a James Joyce or a Virginia Woolf than a Hemingway, and for some readers that’s more than okay.
But there’s no such thing as too many ways of thinking about writing, right?)
For Grice, ‘good’ (co-operative) conversation follows 4 Maxims:
1. The Maxim of Quantity - wherein the speaker gives the listener as much information as they need, and no more;
2. The Maxim of Quality - wherein the speaker gives only factual or evidence-based information to the listener;
3. The Maxim of Relation - wherein the speaker offers only relevant contributions during the conversation, and;
4. The Maxim of Manner - wherein the speaker speaks clearly, concisely, coherently and unambiguously.
Each of these has potential applications, when it comes to writing dialogue - or rather, each can be used to inform the way that dialogue is constructed, whether you choose to accord with their ‘rules’ or deliberately deviate from them.
The Maxim of Quantity. You might decide, knowing what the characters speaking the dialogue in a given scene are like, that having one or both of them give only as much information as is needed in the course of their exchange(s) makes perfect sense, given who they are.
Equally, you might believe that - since one or both characters tends towards the loquacious - that their response to a Gricean suggestion of co-operation through brevity would be a big Fuck You, and they’d spend more likely spend pages shooting the shit about matters of no consequence at all. The same is true of the Maxim of Relation: that is, whether or not your characters’ contributions to dialogue have to be relevant and pithy, or whether they can get away with being elliptical, digressive or meandering.
Again, yours might be taciturn Hemingway characters - or they might be John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, debating the relative merits of American vs. European hamburgers over 5 minutes of film. You know them best. But asking yourself, “does applying the Maxim of Quantity / the Maxim of Relation make sense in this conversation?” might be a useful tool for structuring dialogue that’s not only easy and pleasurable to read, but that makes sense for the character(s) in question.
Likewise: applying the Maxim of Quality (i.e. truthfulness, factfulness) might make sense when writing the words of a character who’s scrupulously honest - but no sense at all for a character who trades in duplicity, or who needs to lie to achieve a particular end. So the question to ask yourself here might be: “should [character x] sound like they’re being honest when they speak, or not?”
Ditto the Maxim of Manner - possibly my favourite of the Gricean rules, at least as I tend to interpret it. As every writer, language philosopher and sociolinguist has ever observed: language is primarily functional, whether it’s phatic (e.g. a social pleasantry), ideational (e.g. getting your thoughts across to someone else), performative (e.g. showing that a speaker is a certain type of person who believes certain types of things) or perlocutionary (e.g. intended to elicit a reaction in the listener). So, if you’re keeping the Maxim of Manner in mind, the question to ask yourself as you’re writing dialogue might be: does the thing [character x] is saying right now perform the narrative or textual function it needs to (whether that function is to propel the plot along or flesh out that character for the reader)?
There are, obviously, a thousand ways to approach writing, and writing dialogue specifically. But I suspect I’ll have Grice on my mind tomorrow, when I finally sit down to bang out some words...