Monthly Archives: January 2019

The Misdirection of Agatha Christie | Liar, Liar

The mystery genre requires careful threading of information from character to character, between narrator and reader, and from author to audience. And Agatha Christie, as the queen of mystery, has mastered the subtle art of misdirection.

Hence, she’s the perfect author to study for breaks in the Cooperative Principle on multiple levels of dialogue.

SPOILER ALERT: This post includes some serious spoilers. On the one hand, Christie’s work has been out for decades, and this is a discussion on craft. On the other, spoiling a Christie novel is almost a capital offense. If you’ve not yet read the following titles and you want to read them without external cues, kindly skip this post and come back when you’re ready.

Title Plate: The Misdirection of Agatha Christie

Misdirection #1: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an icon of the whodunit genre. Our 1st Person narrator, Dr. Sheppard, records events surrounding the death of the eponymous Ackroyd, along with the exploits of the famous Hercule Poirot in uncovering the murderer.

And oh, is the misdirection strong.

Early in the narrative we have the following exchange, in which Ackroyd and Sheppard discuss a letter just received by the soon-to-be-murdered man. The letter contains the name of a blackmailer, and its writer, a friend of Ackroyd’s, has already killed herself because of the wicked soul.

Ackroyd, his finger on the sheet to turn it over, paused. “Sheppard, forgive me, but I must read this alone,” he said unsteadily. “It was meant for my eyes, and my eyes only.” He put the letter in the envelope and laid it on the table. “Later, when I am alone.”

“No,” I cried impulsively, “read it now.”

Ackroyd stared at me in some surprise.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, reddening. “I do not mean read it aloud to me. But read it through whilst I am still here.”

Ackroyd shook his head. “No, I’d rather wait.”

But for some reason, obscure to myself, I continued to urge him. “At least, read the name of the man,” I said.

Now Ackroyd is essentially pigheaded. The more you urge him to do a thing, the more determined he is not to do it. All my arguments were in vain.

The letter had been brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone. I could think of nothing. With a shake of the head I passed out and closed the door behind me.

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Chapter 4

Analysis

So here we have the murder of Roger Ackroyd. Not just the book, but this particular passage. The narrator is the murderer, and he kills Ackroyd in that ten minute interval between when the letter arrives and when he leaves. (I told you there were spoilers.)

But he’s masterfully breaking the Cooperative Principle on both the character-to-character and the narrator-to-reader layers of dialogue.

Maxim of Quantity

Sheppard withholds information by being vague (“if there was anything I had left undone”). He also gives too much information about Ackroyd’s stubborn character and his own concern for the man.

Maxim of Quality

Sheppard lies: “But for some reason, obscure to myself, I continued to urge him.” He knows Ackroyd is pigheaded. He doesn’t want him to read the letter because it has his own name in it, so he urges him to read it, knowing that will make him refuse.

Manipulation at its finest, in other words.

Maxim of Manner

His false sincerity toward Ackroyd (making excuses for Ackroyd’s behavior) belies his true intents; his insistence for Ackroyd to reveal the blackmailer’s name implies his own innocence to the reader, too. Why would a guilty man urge his own unmasking?

Maxim of Relevance

By focusing so keenly on the letter (“It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread.”), Sheppard indicates that it’s the most important element of this scene. This misdirection is especially brass because Ackroyd is already dead.

But sure, tell us about the letter. That seems relevant.

This is the scene that first-time readers inevitably flip back to when they reach the grand reveal. Sheppard, the unreliable narrator, presents a picture of honesty and forthrightness, but his perfidy was between the lines all along.

Misdirection #2: The Secret of Chimneys

One of Christie’s lesser-known tales, The Secret of Chimneys is actually my favorite of her novels. Some of its characters reappear in her other work, but the book itself is a stand-alone rather than part of any of her serials. It has a light-heartedness despite being a murder mystery, and some fairytale elements render it a delightful read.

Best of all, it begins with a deceptive wink toward the reader.

Chapter 1: Anthony Cade Signs On

“Gentleman Joe!”

“Why, if it isn’t old Jimmy McGrath.”

Castle’s Select Tour, represented by seven depressed-looking females and three perspiring males, looked on with considerable interest. Evidently their Mr. Cade had met an old friend.

This is misdirection from line 1. We know from the chapter title that our hero’s name is Anthony Cade. We know from the third paragraph on that he is the person referred to as “Gentleman Joe.” After his conversation with McGrath ends, the nickname leads to the following exchange between him and one of his Castle’s Select tourists.

“Is your name Joe?”

“I thought you knew it was Anthony, Miss Taylor.”

“Why does he call you Joe, then?”

“Oh, just because it isn’t my name.”

“And why Gentleman Joe?”

“The same kind of reason.”

“Oh, Mr. Cade,” protested Miss Taylor, much distressed, “I’m sure you shouldn’t say that. Papa was saying only last night what gentlemanly manners you had.”

Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys, Chapter 1

Analysis

Within the opening scene of this novel, Ms. Christie calls into question her hero’s identity and then immediately reestablishes it. Of course he’s Mr. Cade. Who else would he be?

As the story unravels, the reader takes it for granted that the hero knows things beyond the scope of what a mere Anthony Cade might know. He’s clever and quick-witted and affable. He’s lived abroad and encountered lots of people and cultures. When characters’ identities start getting called into question, we can count on him to be who he says he is.

…Or can we?

Other characters begin to speculate on Mr. Cade’s true identity, and the reader has this scene playing in the back of their mind. He answered to a different name. Does anyone really know who this person is?

Christie both foreshadows and disarms that foreshadowing, so that the truth emerges in a delightful plot twist.

Maxim of Quantity

The abundance of attention paid to Anthony Cade’s name in the first chapter seems to point to his authenticity instead of away from it. But this is a case of TMI. Instead of reassuring us, it should spike our suspicions.

Maxim of Quality

Our hero never actually tells Miss Taylor his name. He hedges around it by saying he “thought [she] knew it was Anthony.” While what he says is technically true, it also leads her—and the reader—to believe something false.

Maxim of Manner

Mr. Cade’s vague manner of speaking allows those around him to assume they know who he is. So, too, does the narrator’s ambiguity allow the reader to make assumptions about his identity.

Maxim of Relevance

The nickname itself, Gentleman Joe, gets played off as a bit of playful sarcasm. In fact, it’s an insight to Anthony’s character, that he comes from different origins than he pretends.

So who is he really? The infamous jewel thief, King Victor? The missing-and-presumed-dead monarch of Herzoslovakia? Or simply an old Oxford boy drawn into an adventure of murder and mayhem?

This one I won’t spoil, except to say that he’s not Anthony Cade.

Misdirection #3: Her Real Freaking Life

In December 1926, at the age of 36, Agatha Christie disappeared. Her car with her coat in it lay abandoned on a hillside above a chalk quarry.

Was it a publicity stunt? An abduction? A suicide attempt?

No one knows. Eleven days later, she turned up in a hotel in Harrogate, where she’d checked in under the name of her husband’s mistress. While a massive manhunt searched the countryside for her, she’d been attending evening parties and other such events.

She claimed amnesia and never spoke of it again.

Speculation has abounded, that she crashed her car and lost her memory, that she tried to commit suicide but had a change of heart, that she faked her disappearance to make her philandering husband the center of a murder investigation. Personal events in her life at the time pointed toward emotional upheaval: her mother had recently died, her husband wanted a divorce.

But the episode remained shrouded in mystery.

When, decades later, she dictated an autobiography, audiences expected some revelation about this period to emerge.

Christie opted out. She didn’t even mention it.

But really, what better badge of honor can the most successful mystery writer of all time have than an unsolved mystery in her own life?

Conclusion

Christie is a master of misdirection because she uses her audience’s truth bias and cooperative defaults against them. She drops subtle clues and then plays them off as nothing important, and we believe her.

And thus, she fulfills her Author-Audience contract to a tee. She tells us a gripping yarn, and twists a knife in our backs when we least expect it.

***

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Breaking the CP on 3 Layers | Liar, Liar

Now that we’ve explored the Cooperative Principle and how to break it, we turn our attention back to our three layers of dialogue. Breaking the CP will look different on each of these layers.

Some breaks are good and can drive the plot, while others should be avoided at all costs. We’ll examine these by type of break and layer of dialogue.

Breaking the Cooperative Principle on 3 layers graphic

Unintentional Violations

Layer 1: Character to Character

As discussed in our case study of Miss Bates, unintentional violations on this layer can have many forms. Characters who unintentionally violate the CP may do the following:

  • Talk too much or too little
  • Give false information by accident
  • Accidentally skip necessary information
  • Use pronouns without referents, causing confusion
  • Mumble
  • Speak too quickly
  • Fail to allow their conversational partner to respond
  • Wander off on tangents they assume have relevance

The only item on this list that is possibly undesirable is the fourth bullet point, particularly when missing pronoun referents lead to conflict. (Not to point fingers, but this happens an awful lot in the romance genre…)

In the real world, we are keyed to tie pronouns to their referents. When the referent is missing, there’s usually a double-check, “Sorry, who are we talking about?” or something similar. Pronouns only have meaning in their context, so this is one area that we instinctively clarify when there’s any ambiguity.

Long story short, if you’re using a “vague pronoun causes misunderstanding” trope, make ABSOLUTE CERTAIN there is a reasonably assumed referent. Otherwise, this trope becomes contrived.

Layer 2: Narrator to Reader

In a perfect world, we would never see a narrator breaking the CP in this manner. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Unintentional violations from the narrator include the following:

  • Dumping information and/or backstory (wall o’text exposition)
  • Leaving out information by accident
  • Contradicting earlier information later in the book
  • Repeating or recapping events the reader already knows
  • Using barrier objects
  • Taking long tangents on non-plot-essential details (or, why an abridged version of Les Misérables exists)

These types of breaks frustrate a reader at best. At worst, they drive the reader away from the book entirely and can generate ill will and scathing reviews.

The narrator should not commit unintentional violations of the Cooperative Principle.

Layer 3: Author to Audience

If the narrator should not commit these types of violations, it’s doubly so for the author. Breaking the CP in this way on the Author to Audience layer of dialogue includes the following:

  • Plot holes and/or contradictions
  • Inconsistent characterization (usually caused by sticking to a plot outline even if it requires out-of-character antics to maintain)
  • Inconsistent world-building
  • Accidental failure to meet genre expectations
  • Blatant anachronisms

Unintentional violations on this layer break verisimilitude with the audience because they are mistakes in the very mechanics of a story.

Intentional Violations

Layer 1: Character to Character

Intentional violations on this layer of dialogue can drive a conflict. Characters breaking the CP in this manner might

  • Lie and get away with it (for the moment)
  • Omit important information on purpose
  • Use ambiguity to keep their listener out of the loop
  • Hurl veiled insults

The reader might or might not recognize that a violation occurs, but at some point, it should come out. It can be a strong reveal or a satisfying payoff. Or, it can be a detail that lies dormant, waiting for the canny reader to ferret it out from the other clues around it.

Layer 2: Narrator to Reader

This type of break signals an unreliable narrator, easier done in 1st Person, but a possibility for 3rd as well. Narrators intentionally violate the CP when they

  • Strategically withhold information
  • Misdirect the reader to a red herring
  • Give unreliable or biased accounts of events

Because the narrator knows they’re violating the CP, the reader shouldn’t realize in the moment. Otherwise, the violation becomes a clumsy attempt at storytelling rather than an authentic, immersive tool.

Layer 3: Author to Audience

The author SHOULD NOT intentionally violate the Cooperative Principle. Violations on this layer of dialogue include

  • Plagiarism
  • Subtly trolling their audience

What do I mean by “subtly trolling”? This happens when the author sees their audience not as partners in creation, or even as fellow humans, but merely as a means to a paycheck. The recent book-stuffing epidemic on KDP, for example, violated cooperation because readers often didn’t know they were helping those authors commit fraud.

Author-to-audience violations happen outside the narrative of the book. When discovered, they are a rude awakening to those who were duped.

Flouting

Layer 1: Character to Character

We’re back in “desirable” territory in breaking the CP. Characters who flout are the pride and joy of readers everywhere. They

  • Hurl blatant insults (often with a smile)
  • Use sarcasm as a conversational tool
  • Talk around a subject instead of addressing it (circumlocution)
  • Mutter audible asides
  • Code-switch and/or gate-keep

Flouting on this layer amounts to wonderful exchanges, where alternate meanings create multifaceted conversation. It’s the antagonistic flirtation between reluctant lovers and the battle of wits between rivals.

Everyone loves a good character-to-character flout.

Layer 2: Narrator to Reader

On this layer, breaking the CP in the manner takes a more literary turn. Narrators who flout the Cooperative Principle

  • Invoke dramatic irony
  • Foreshadow events yet to come
  • Leave open endings
  • Adopt an experimental point of view instead of telling the story straight

The reader knows there’s more than what they’re receiving, but the narrator doesn’t elaborate at that time (or ever, in some cases).

Layer 3: Author to Audience

The author who flouts on this layer of dialogue shows contempt for their audience. This is an author who

  • Insults readers on social media or elsewhere
  • Intentionally fails to meet genre expectations (overt trolling)

This is the author who lists their book with keywords that don’t apply, or who claims a genre they’re not remotely writing. It’s the erotica listed as a clean read, or vice versa. The audience comes to the table expecting one thing and gets slapped in the face with another.

Don’t flout your audience. It’s not nice.

Opting Out

For funsies, I’m including how to opt out on the three layers, but breaking the CP in this manner is pretty basic.

Layer 1: Character to Character

When characters snub, give the silent treatment, or avoid encounters with other characters, they are opting out. This can add a fun dynamic to a scene (or to the novel as a whole), but beware falling into the trope of “a single conversation could have prevented disaster.”

If your characters are opting out, they should have solid reasons for so doing, none of this namby-pamby “can’t talk to that person because [contrived excuse].”

Layer 2: Narrator to Reader

The narrator opts out when they stop telling the story. (Surprise!) Don’t like a cliffhanger ending? Too bad.

L O L

Layer 3: Author to Audience

The author opts out when they stop writing, and the audience opts out when they stop reading an author.

DO NOT WANT, for either of these.

***

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Miss Bates of Emma: A Liar, Liar Case Study

Continuing in the Cooperative Principle and how to break it, we turn our attention to a literary example of rampant unintentional violations: Miss Bates from Jane Austen’s Emma.

Character Profile: Miss Bates

Miss Hetty Bates lives in Highbury, a frequent associate of Emma Woodhouse. The novel describes her in frank terms.
Character description of Miss Bates from Jane Austen's Emma

So she’s a middle-aged spinster, plain in appearance and impoverished in purse.

(Basically, she’s my patronus. But I digress.)

Miss Bates is a fundamentally good woman. She would never hurt a fly. And yet, conversationally, she violates the Cooperative Principle on every level.

Unintentionally, of course.

The Many Unintentional Violations of Miss Bates

  • Quantity: She regularly gives more information than anyone wants.

“Mr. Knightley I declare!—I must speak to him if possible, just to thank him. I will not open the window here; it would give you all cold; but I can go into my mother’s room you know.” (Vol II, Ch 10)

  • Quality: She speaks her assumptions, whether they’re true or not.

“Two steps, Jane, take care of the two steps. Oh! no, there is but one. Well, I was persuaded there were two. How very odd! I was convinced there were two, and there is but one.” (Vol III, Ch 2)

  • Manner: She rattles off her information without letting others get in a word edgewise.

All this spoken extremely fast obliged Miss Bates to stop for breath. (Vol II, Ch 1)

  • Relevance: She routinely goes off-topic.

“My mother’s deafness is very trifling you see—just nothing at all. By only raising my voice, and saying any thing two or three times over, she is sure to hear; but then she is used to my voice. But it is very remarkable that she should always hear Jane better than she does me. Jane speaks so distinct!” (Vol II Ch 1)

In short, she drives Emma crazy. When Harriet compares the unmarried status of both women, Emma declares,

If I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly—so satisfied—so smiling—so prosing—so undistinguishing and unfastidious—and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. (Vol I Ch 10)

Non-Cooperation as a Narrative Force

Miss Bates’s character arc reaches its climax in the Box Hill episode (Vol III, Ch 7), in an exchange with our heroine:

“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”

Emma could not resist.

“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

In this unkind response, Emma flouts the maxims of Manner and Quantity:

  • ­Manner: She insults Miss Bates in the form of a jest.
  • ­Quantity: She shouldn’t have said an insult at all (and she knows it).

Miss Bates doesn’t immediately catch the slight, but when she does, she becomes so flustered and embarrassed that she leaves the group as soon as she can afterward.

As for Emma, she retreats into a “violation” defense when Mr. Knightley calls out her poor behavior:

Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.

“Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.”

The event serves as a wake-up call. Emma realizes that she has a responsibility to treat her friends and neighbors with kindness. Her higher wealth and privilege comes not because of any merit on her part, but because of her good fortune to be born to it.

Multiple Layers of Deception

The whole scene at Box Hill has some awesome deceptive dynamics at play:

  • Mr. & Mrs. Elton’s poorly hidden contempt for Emma and Harriet
  • Mr. Weston trying to keep everyone happy and also matchmake between Frank and Emma
  • Mr. Knightly concealing his jealousy of Frank and his ardor for Emma
  • Frank and Jane having a secret argument and Frank flirting with Emma to twist the knife
  • Emma plotting to matchmake between Frank and Harriet and also concealing her dislike of the Eltons, Jane, and Miss Bates

In short, everyone except Miss Bates is hiding something. The crux of the scene, the insult, leads to the breakup of the party and our heroine’s greater enlightenment.

Miss Bates unintentionally violates the Cooperative Principle, but so also do Emma and her sympathetic narrator. They have both portrayed this honest, well-meaning woman as a contemptible nuisance when no one else in the neighborhood judges her that harshly.

And that’s the grand surprise: Miss Bates is a silly foil for a silly girl whose worldview is so often wrong, and so often mistaken as correct. Any reader who allows Emma and the narrator to guide their opinion has a rude awakening alongside them both.

The Moral of the Case Study

Miss Bates, good and well-meaning as she is, provides a perfect example of a character who unintentionally violates the Cooperative Principle. She also provides a standard for this type of break on our other layers of dialogue.

Consider your current Work in Progress. Now, imagine that Miss Bates is your narrator.

Did you wince? You should have.

***

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Breaking the Cooperative Principal | Liar, Liar

Breaking the Cooperative Principle, method #2: flouting

not to be confused with “flaunt”

Although H. P. Grice’s Cooperative Principle provides lovely guidelines for how to accomplish good communication, for writers, its real value lies in breaking it. We all inherently know how to be non-cooperative, but we might not recognize the dynamics at play.

Breaking the Cooperative Principle comes in three distinct flavors:

  1. Violating
  2. Flouting
  3. Opting out

Violating and flouting maintain a veneer of cooperation even though they involve breaking one or more of Grice’s maxims (quantity, quality, manner, and relevance). Opting out is blatantly non-cooperative.

Break Type #1: Violating

This type of break occurs when one conversational participant doesn’t recognize the non-cooperation in action. Thus, there are two types of violations a speaker can commit:

  • ­Unintentional Violation: accidentally breaking a maxim without realizing what you’ve done. For example,
    • Rambling on a topic after your listener has lost interest
    • Giving misinformation by mistake
    • Speaking too softly without knowing it
  • ­Intentional Violation: surreptitiously breaking a maxim so that your listener doesn’t catch the break. For example,
    • Telling a little white lie
    • Withholding a detail that your listener might need
    • Smiling and nodding when you didn’t hear what the other person said

We violate the Cooperative Principle on a daily basis, in one form or another. It can be malicious or benign. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable.

Break Type #2: Flouting

This type of break occurs when a speaker openly defies a maxim so that the hearer understands there’s an alternate meaning. ­Sarcasm, jest, double-entendres, language play, and gatekeeping can all fall into the category of flouting.

We generally associate abrasive personalities with this type of non-cooperation. These are speakers who don’t tell us what we want to hear, who spout bald-faced lies to test our gullibility, who use obscure language as a barrier.

They are also the jesters and the sages, two archetypes that circle one another. Flouting often requires wit and a healthy dose of hubris. It’s a great way to alienate others by making them feel stupid, foolish, or out of the loop.

It is a defensive language pattern as well. We flout when we want people to back off, to leave us alone, or to shut up. Flouting can be aggressive—a warning for its recipient to seek conversation elsewhere—or it can be playful, a challenge to engage in deeper meanings.

But, it can also miss its mark if the recipient refuses to recognize the flout and treats the conversation as bona fide. (Which can be a type of retaliatory flout, haha.)

Break Type #3: Opting Out

This type of break manifests when someone outright refuses cooperation so that no conversation can happen. For example,

  • Snubbing
  • Giving someone the silent treatment
  • Turning away when your speaking partner is mid-sentence
  • Taking a different route through a room to avoid someone
  • Ghosting an acquaintance

Even though there’s no exchange of words, communication still occurs. Opting out can convey displeasure, disdain, contempt, and/or rejection. It is the last refuge of someone who is overwhelmed by another person’s communicative style. It can be passive-aggressive, or an amazing power play.

My favorite example of opting out comes from the life of Jesus Christ, in Luke 23:8-9 (KJV). When under condemnation and brought before Herod for questioning, the Savior says nothing. Ultimately Herod sends him away mocked and belittled, but with his own desires left unfulfilled.

This example shows that breaking the CP in this manner doesn’t have to be derisive or mean-spirited. Sometimes, the most effective conversation is no conversation at all.

Breaking and Observing the CP: A Conversational Contradiction

Cooperation is a malleable principle. Thanks to the many layers of communication, it is possible to keep and break it at the same time.

Example A: Inside Jokes

Inside jokes can be both cooperative and non-cooperative if the conversation has multiple participants. In one fell swoop, an inside joke can accomplish the following:

  • Cooperation to those who understand the reference.
  • A intentional violation to those who don’t catch the joke.
  • A gatekeeping flout to those who know they’re missing out, if the speaker is aware it’s an inside joke and uses it to exclude.
  • An unintentional violation if the speaker thinks everyone’s in on the joke when they’re not.

Insides jokes are a form of code-switching, and codes are inherently cooperative and non-cooperative, depending on whether the listener is meant to understand or to be excluded.

In this same category, Easter eggs and other hidden messages create a type of layered cooperation that unfolds with increased familiarity. The new or casual fan doesn’t know they’re missing out, but as they delve deeper into the source material, they discover these extra gems.

Example B: Metaphors

Metaphors, too, might fall under this cooperative/non-cooperative dichotomy. They carry surface meaning that can be apparent or obscure. If the listener doesn’t recognize there’s a metaphor at all, it becomes a violation. If they know they’re missing the true meaning and the speaker refuses to explain, the metaphor becomes a flout.

For extended metaphors like allegories, the surface story holds one layer of meaning easily accessed (cooperative), but the listener must delve into symbolism to arrive at the deeper, intended message. In this, the listener chooses their level of cooperation, whether to accept the overt message as-is or to explore other avenues of meaning.

A listener who closes their mind to metaphorical interpretations, then, becomes non-cooperative in their own right.

A Powerful Tool

Ultimately, we’re always communicating something. Non-cooperative conversation is a powerful tool to influence and manipulate. From outright lies to subtle details to silence, it can shape how people perceive others and the world around them.

Where writing is concerned, non-cooperation is a driving narrative force. We’ll explore one such example in the next post.

***

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The Cooperative Principle | Liar, Liar

In the 1960s and 70s, linguist H. Paul Grice defined the Cooperative Principle to explain dynamics of conversation. Even though his work hinges on real-life interactions, we will imprint it onto written dialogues.

The Cooperative Principle

The Cooperative Principle by H. P. Grice: "Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. One might label this the COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLE."If you’re not a linguist, the above quote is some lovely word salad. We’ll break down what it means in a minute, but first, some broader precepts.

Among its implications, the Cooperative Principle includes the following:

  1. Cooperation is our natural default.
  2. Implied meanings can be cooperative.
  3. Politeness is not required.

Cooperation: A Default Mindset

Grice holds that not only is the CP our natural default, but “that it is reasonable for us to follow, that we should not abandon” it (Grice, p. 48, and the emphasis is his, not mine).

We generally avoid conversations where we anticipate non-cooperation. This is why you might put off calling an insurance company, making a doctor’s appointment, talking to an ex, and so forth. If you suspect someone might give you grief rather than doing what you want, you delay engaging with them.

On the other side of the coin, we also avoid conversations where we personally don’t want to cooperate. Hence, we screen our phone calls, hang “No Solicitors” signs on our doors, and take the long way ’round to avoid someone tedious in the grocery store.

Cooperation is our default.

Implied Meanings

Under the Cooperative Principle, the listener has a responsibility to interpret the speaker’s intended communication, even if they have to ignore literal meanings. Analogies, sarcasm, double-entendres, and puns all fall into the realm of cooperation, even though the listener has to perform some mental legwork.

Thus cooperation, though a default, is more than straightforward communication.

Politeness as a Detriment

Not only is politeness not required for cooperation, but it can sometimes be a roadblock. Two people can have a shouting match and still be cooperative if each wants to communicate their frustrations to the other.

In contrast, someone who withholds an honest opinion for fear of offending is non-cooperative if their partner truly seeks their feedback. Politeness actually inhibits cooperation in that scenario.

However, if someone wants politeness from their conversational partner instead of the truth, bluntness becomes non-cooperative. There’s a bit of mind-reading involved.

Cooperation, then, occurs when both parties have their conversational expectations met.

4 Maxims of Cooperation

So how exactly does the Cooperative Principle break down? Grice identifies 4 categories that speakers must meet for cooperation:

  1. Quantity: Do not speak more or less information than necessary. No TMI. No skipping or withholding necessary details.
  2. Quality: Do not speak that which you know to be false or for which you lack evidence. No lying or gossiping.
  3. Manner: Speak in a clear, brief, orderly manner. No rambling, muttering, ambiguity, obfuscation, etc.
  4. Relevance: Speak only that which is relevant to the topic. No tangents.

(This is the simplified version, by the way. If you want more in-depth explanations, see his article reference at the end of this post.)

I’ve listed Relevance last because some pragmatists hold that it is the umbrella principle that everything else falls under. Lies and word vomit are not relevant to a topic, and speaking affectations draw away from intended meanings. Regardless, these four categories work together to produce solid communication.

The Cooperative Principle and Fiction

3 Layers of Dialogue in Fiction: Character to Character, Narrator to Reader, Author to AudienceAnd all of this circles back to our 3 layers of dialogue. Why? Because “Good communication happens by keeping the Cooperative Principle, but interesting communication happens by breaking it.”†

The only layer of dialogue that should always adhere to the Cooperative Principle is the Author to Audience layer. But remember, as an Author, you’re only being cooperative if you deceive your Audience.

In other words, your characters and your narrator should routinely break the Cooperative Principle.

Which is what we will explore next.

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†This is either a quote or a paraphrase from my Pragmatics professor, Don L. F. Nilsen, whose name I had to dig through old boxes to find because it was well over a decade ago. But the sentiment has always stuck.

Reference:

Grice, H. P. (1975) “Logic and Conversation.” Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3, Speech Acts, ed. by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan. New York: Academic Press. Pp. 41-58.

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