Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 41.
A few days ago I mentioned, in passing, HP Grice’s conversational maxims and threatened to return to them at a later date. Well, that day has arrived sooner than either of us dreamed.
So HP Grice was a philosopher of language and he wanted to talk about what sort of assumptions need to be in place for a conversation between two people to work. I guess a prototypical set of informal, unstated rules that we abstract from our experience of conversations as we grow up and then apply when we speak to people.
He came up with four conversational maxims that we adopt when we want to have an effective, rational conversation with someone. These aren’t things that we have consciously in mind, they might not be things that we’ve ever thought of or articulated, yet, according to Grice at least, they underpin our communication. In a sense they’re so obvious we never really think about them, but without them, it might be very tricky to make ourselves understood.
Whenever someone starts talking about assumptions or things that we take for granted, I get quite excited, because there’s the prospect of getting an insight into some aspect of human behaviour that’s been there in front of me all this time. And obviously, with our current focus on dialogue and what is and isn’t said, I feel like this is a good opportunity to rip the panelling off human speech and have a look at the mess of haphazard wiring the previous tenant left in.
Now just to be clear I’m not suggesting that these are culturally universal or that there are no gaps in Grice’s theory whatsoever, just that it’s an interesting and thought-provoking model that can be useful for you as you write.
So his four maxims were the Maxim of Quality – try to make your contribution one that is true. The Maxim of Quantity – try to provide enough information for the purposes of the exchange but not more. The Maxim of Relation – be relevant. And the Maxim of Manner – be perspicuous, which ironically is a way of explaining it that violates the rule, since it means aiming for clarity.
Quality, Quantity, Relevance and Clarity. Now what he’s describing here are the assumptions we tend to bring to a conversation with someone. We assume, generally, that their contributions are honest, that they’ve told us all we need to know, that they wouldn’t bring something up unless it was important, and they’ve tried to be as clear as possible (since they want to be understood).
This means – and you might recognise this from some of the dialogue exercises we’ve done on previous days – that the person addressed will usually add to the overt, surface meaning of an utterance by assuming the speaker is obeying the four maxims. This is called conversational implicature.
So a classic example is someone is parked at the side of the road with their hazards on and when another driver pulls up alongside the first says:
‘I’ve run out of petrol.’
To which the driver who pulled up responds: ‘There’s a garage half a mile down the road.’
So person B is assuming person A is obeying the Maxim of Quality – they’re not lying about having run out of petrol – the Maxim of Quantity – they’ve provided all the necessary information, you know, they haven’t omitted ‘and the gearbox has broken’ – and the Maxim of Relevance – they’re bringing this up because they want assistance, and they’re referring to the car here now, and not an occasion in the past where they once ran out of petrol. The Maxim of Clarity is probably the one that includes the least implication, but I guess it applies here too – person B assumes that the most obvious interpretation is the intended one.
And their response requires the use of all these maxims too. When person B says ‘there’s a garage half a mile down the road’ person A assumes that person B believes this is true and that garage is open – the maxim of Relevance again.
When characters violate Grice’s maxims, either in what they say or how they interpret other people’s speech, the effect is often humorous. Take for instance the classic Pink Panther scene where Inspector Clouseau, asks a man ‘Does your dog bite?’ and the guy says no. He goes to pet the dog and it promptly bites him. ‘I thought you said your dog does not bite.’ ‘That is not my dog.’
If a character violates the maxim of Quality they might lie, or they might simply say something obviously the opposite of their intended meaning, in other words sarcasm. So one character stumbles in dishevelled, sour-faced and splattered with mud, and another says ‘You’re looking a picture of radiance this morning, sir.’
Some phrases that violate the maxim of Quality are so familiar we barely notice they’re untrue, like: ‘I hope you’re proud of yourself.’ No you don’t, you hope I’m ashamed.
A character who violates the maxim of Quantity might overdo their answers: ‘How was your weekend?’ ‘Well on Saturday I got up around 6:30am went downstairs and squeezed myself an orange juice, put some coffee on, weighed myself pre and post bowel movement, journaled for a bit. My mood started off a 5 then lifted to about 6 and a half once I was eating my multiseed bagel then dropped back to a clear 6 once I was done. I laced up my running shoes…’ etc etc.
Or they might underdo it to annoy someone: ‘Do you know where Trevor lives?’
‘In a house, I believe.’
Violating the maxim of Relevance can be as simple as misinterpreting the implied question.
‘Do you know where Trevor lives?’
Or interpreting a simple enquiry as a request for deep disclosure on a topic:
‘Um excuse me do you know where the donkey sanctuary is?’
‘My father was killed by a donkey.’
Violating the maxim of Clarity often involves using phrasing with more than one logical interpretation when you mean the less obvious one.
‘Hi I’m looking for a plumber.’
‘This is a garden centre, sir.’
‘Yes I was wondering if you’d seen him hiding amongst the sheds.’
Now because you are both wise and experienced in the ways of Tim Clare you will have already rushed ahead, into the near future, and guessed at what today’s exercise might be all about. Because it would be a terrible violation of the Maxim of Relevance if I told you all this then just gave you a task about describing an acacia tree in a poetic way.
I would like you to take the by now familiar format of an encounter betwixt two characters, and have one character, in every utterance they make, violate one of these four conversational maxims. So they are Quality, Quantity, Relevance and Clarity. Now I don’t know where this encounter is happening but sometimes customer service scenarios work quite well, or one person could be a tourist or an out-of-towner asking for directions, a diner talking to a waiter, maybe someone talking to a doddery or slightly drunk elderly relative. Up to you.
It needn’t be deliberately written as comedy, though it’s challenging not to make these exchanges have a touch of the absurd. Still, no need to butter the Mars bar. I wouldn’t try to crowbar wackiness into the prose or indeed the other character’s reactions. It’s traditional to have a ‘straight man’ in these scenarios as a sort of squash court wall to bounce increasingly silly non sequiturs off of.
But up to you. Genre, location, style, your choice. One character encountering another, the second of which violates at least one of Grice’s conversational maxims with every utterance.
Got it? Ace. Here we go then. Three… two… one… go.
And that’s it. We’re done-zo.
I don’t have much of an epilogue to add to this except to say I hope hearing about these theories and working on these ideas a bit in your work has formalised some of your thinking about dialogue, implication, and what we say and mean when we talk. I realise some of it might seem quite obvious on the face of it, but just raising your awareness even a notch can be invaluable not just when it comes to writing dialogue, but even moreso when it comes to redrafting and identifying problems with dialogue that clunks, drags or just doesn’t seem to ring true. Having a formal language and framework for talking about these ideas can be so so handy in your second draft.
It’s what stops you from looking at your work and just having this grim feeling in your belly and thinking ‘this sucks’. You go ‘aha, this specific dialogue exchange is wooden because it’s all surface and literal and transactional. I need to punch it up with some subtext’ and you fix it because you’ve made the suckiness tangible and thus finite.
Ok. Terrific work. I hope you’ve learned something today. I do seek to actively empower you so you come out of this course with a brain several pounds heavier. Until tomorrow, take care.