pragmatics

Final Thoughts | Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Final thoughts: Pamela Meyer quote on relationship between liar and recipientAnd at long last, we come to the final thoughts.

Through real-life patterns of deception, we can identify weaknesses in our writing and shift those weaknesses into strengths. With that in mind, I offer the following summary of this series.

The Poor Liar

  • Fakes emotions in the moment
  • Provides excess details to prevent the listener from questioning their authority
  • Dumps information
  • Forgets or contradicts essential points in their narrative
  • Uses language defensively, as a barrier to keep their listener at bay

In short, the poor liar spoon-feeds their audience because they don’t trust them. They either control every aspect of their narrative so tightly that it loses all authenticity, or they treat it with such vagueness that it never had any to begin with.

The Skillful Liar

  • Mimics authentic emotional patterns
  • Keeps details to a minimum so as not to draw unnecessary attention
  • Strategically withholds information
  • Maintains continuity in their narrative
  • Uses language as the tool it is, as a mechanism to draw their listener close

Skillful liars exploits their audience’s truth bias. They use cooperation defaults to further their deception instead of allowing those defaults to constrain them within the boundaries of truth.

As fiction writers, we need to be skillful liars, not poor ones. Our ability to engage our readers and to keep them engaged depends largely on how well our stories resonate with their perception of truth. Immersive reading only occurs when the reader forgets they have a book in their hands and starts living within those pages instead.

Final Thoughts

In her first chapter of Liespotting, Pamela Meyer shines light on an incredible truth.

“The liar and the recipient participate in a fabric of mythmaking together. A lie does not have power by its utterance—its power lies in someone agreeing to believe the lie.” 

Pamela Meyer, Liespotting, p. 22

This hold true for fiction as well as real life. The author and the audience are partners in creation. Thus, when you engage in Cooperative Deception, your words have power.

So, with that in mind,

  1. Trust your audience. They are with you for this ride.
  2. Lie to them with every pattern of truth you can mimic.

And that is the end of this series. Now get out there, my lovelies, and let your stories take over the world.

***

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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.

***

†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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Excessive Expressive Dialogue Tags | Liar, Liar

Continuing in our series of literary barrier objects, we delve into the boondoggle of excessive, expressive dialogue tags.

The Basics

A dialogue tag, as its name implies, marks who speaks a line of dialogue. It can be an attributive tag or an action tag.

  • Attributive: “That’s nice,” Mary said.
  • Action: “That’s nice.” Mary wiped her hands off on her shirt.

Both types indicate who spoke, but the action tag earns more points because it adds movement to the narrative.

This post deals primarily with attributive tags. That being said, beware the overuse of action tags, particularly if they involve a character turning, looking, staring, etc. Actions should pack a punch, not whiffle their rhetorical impotence against the air.

And thus we begin.

Excessive Dialogue Tags

When every line of dialogue gets a tag (action or attributive), those tags become barriers to the conversation. This form of tagging is great for first drafts, so that the author can keep track of character back-and-forth, but it needs paring in the editing phase.

Long story short: the author who informs their reader which character is speaking every single line demonstrates a lack of trust in their audience’s ability to follow a conversation. Don’t be that distrustful author.

(Although, admittedly, I’d much rather there were too many tags than too few. I haaaaate having to go back and count lines to figure out who’s talking.)

Expressive Dialogue Tags

I fought this one for years, y’all. Every writer has heard the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Inevitably, expressive dialogue tags get paraded out as the prime violation to this guideline.

It’s the ongoing battle of the editors vs. the middle school English teachers. One says only to use “said” and “asked,” while the other gives out lists of alternatives and makes assignments for students to write whole stories without using “said” at all.

word cloud dialogue tags

It’s not a matter of one being right and the other wrong. Tagging dialogue with a descriptive speech word instead of the blasé “said” or “asked” is a form of both show and tell, depending on which layer of language you’re looking at.

  • On the semantic layer, you’re telling the reader how the character spoke.
  • On the pragmatic layer, you’re showing the character’s mood through their manner of speech.

So why should semantics win out over pragmatics? It doesn’t always have to. Sometimes telling the speech style fits better in the flow of the story. (Show and tell should have balance anyway, or stories risk becoming overwrought.) But the battle between these two layers gets tipped, because there’s a third layer of language involved:

  • On the syntax layer, you’re telling the reader who spoke any time you use a dialogue tag at all.

Attributive tags blatantly remind the reader that they are reading a book. The sole purpose of these tags is to clarify who says what, but if that information is already clear, they become redundant. (Yet another reason to use action tags more often.)

If you need to give attribution, the boring “said” and “asked” can easily fade into the narrative background, whereas more expressive tags mark this already-conspicuous construct further.

A Small Addition

In this category of “expressive dialogue tags,” we also include the “said + [adverb]” construct. In general, we use adverbs to prop up weak verbs. However, we use “said” specifically because it is weak, and thus largely invisible. If you’re changing “he snapped” to “he said angrily” for the sole purpose of eliminating expressive tags, you’re better off leaving it as “he snapped.”

(Although, admittedly, I love me some beautiful adverb usage, and I admire writers who toss them in without worrying about calling down the wrath of armchair editors everywhere. So.)

Excessive, Expressive Dialogue Tags

Our barrier object of excessive, expressive dialogue tags manifests when dialogue tags become so frequent and so flamboyant that they interrupt the story to call attention to themselves. Consider this passage from Chapter 3 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865):

excessive expressive dialogue tags in Wonderland

In this exchange between only two characters, every line of dialogue is tagged. We have said, cried, and pleaded, along with modifiers severely, humbly, sharply, and angrily. The excessive, expressive tags not only appear on every line, but they draw further attention through lack of pronoun use. (It’s always “Alice” or “the Mouse” speaking, never “she” or “it.”)

The barrier, then, becomes two-fold:

  1. The tags interrupt the spoken dialogue of each character, with sentence structure that blocks the flow of the full line of speech.
  2. That interruption in turn prevents narrative immersion, creating a block between the reader and the story.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the “I had not!” line of dialogue, whose subsequent tag might cause the reader to miss the joke in Alice’s response. “A knot? Oh, do let me help undo it!”

Carroll gets a pass because A) he’s writing in the mid-1800s and B) he’s writing for a young audience. Today this style of dialogue would be more prevalent in early-reader chapter books. It should reduce with Middle Grade and disappear from YA/Adult genres altogether.

A Good Barrier

Dialogue tags can gum up a conversation, but they can also act as pauses for when a character doesn’t rattle off their full line of dialogue in one go. Take this line from the excerpt above:

“A knot!” said Alice, always ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. “Oh, do let me help to undo it!”

The action of Alice searching for this supposed knot very nicely punctuates her first exclamation from her second. And while, had I been Carroll’s editor, I likely would have eliminated the “said” and made “looked” the main verb of the sentence (my above caveat against “looked” et al. notwithstanding), the placement of the tag in context really is lovely.

I’m also a fan of the occasional expressive attributive tag. They flavor a narrative when you can’t always shove an action into the mix, and they do it succinctly.

When used with care, dialogue tags of all types can become an asset rather than an obstacle.

However, One Final Caveat

With regards to expressive dialogue tags, beware mistaking action tags for attributive ones. You can’t shrug a line of dialogue. Or grin it. Or chuckle it. These and other similar tags are actions separate from speech. More specifically, they’re intransitive verbs, so they can’t structurally take a line of dialogue as their object.

(Because, as intransitives, they can’t take objects at all. Haha.)

/prescriptivism

***

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Too Much Information | Liar, Liar

Too much information quoteWordiness is a classic tell for deception. Instinct says that if you have all the information, no one will question your story. Sadly, instinct is wrong.

In Real Life

Too much information triggers skepticism in your audience even if they don’t overtly detect the lie itself.

A Cornell University study in 2004 paired 66 participants for text-based conversations. The researchers were studying online communication, but in a form that precluded video or audio input. (This becomes relevant to us as writers because text is our treasured medium for dialogue.)

Before the study began, the researchers pulled half the participants aside and instructed them to lie about two of the five topics they would discuss. They gave the liars five minutes to prepare, and the study went forward.

None of the lies were detected.

However, when the researchers went back and analyzed the conversations, they discovered that the liars used approximately 30% more words when they lied than when they told the truth.

That’s right. Fabrication bloated their word count by a healthy 30%.

But that’s not all.

Those being lied to used more words in response to the lies. Of greater significance, they also asked more questions. Somewhere in their brain, whether conscious or subconscious, their skepticism triggered and reacted.

Wordiness breeds skepticism.

Too Much Information In Writing

As fiction writers, we already have one strike against us. Somewhere behind that suspension of disbelief, our audience knows we’re making stuff up. When we glut them with too many details, we stoke that instinct to overthink, to question.

In your average novel, too much information can appear in the following forms:

  • Backstory info dumps
  • Wall-o’-text setting descriptions
  • So Much explanatory narration
  • The Never-ending Introspection
  • ALL THE WORLDBUILDING!!1!

We’ve all been there, stuck reading a book where the narrator rattles on for pages and pages about ultimately skim-able schlock. The MC’s entire life history. Every piece of furniture crammed into a room, including its age, style, material, and exact spacial placement. Memories and mental processing ad nauseam.

If it plays into the plot, it’s either tangential, or grossly inefficient.

Symptom of a Greater Problem

This degree of detail reveals an author too afraid to trust their reader. They exercise tight control over every angle of their story, lest the reader form an inaccurate picture of events.

But books, despite their fixed sequence of words on the page, are not static. Every reader recreates them anew, informed in that creation by individual experience and understanding. No two readers will ever produce the same mental imagery for a book.

And that’s a good thing.

One of the most powerful tools an author can access is their reader’s imagination, but imagination intrinsically thrives on the unknown. The engaged reader will pick up on subtle cues and run with them. They’ll fill in minor gaps for scenery and settings in their anticipation for what is yet to come.

You might have in mind the exact 19th century antique mahogany Chippendale dresser that graces your main character’s boudoir. But do you really want your reader’s brainpower focused on trying to conjure its likeness? Unless it plays a central role in your plot, the answer is no. Details should be evocative, not completely inaccessible, and not so profuse that they overwhelm.

Clot your story with too much information, and your reader’s imagination may well fail to spark.

A Worldbuilding Caveat

Worldbuilding can be an author’s best friend and their worst enemy at the same time. The greatest problem with these exercises, from the simple to the mind-bogglingly complex, is the danger that they might trick us into including all those details in our book.

We did the work. We created monetary systems and team sports and land formations and political dynasties, and we can’t let it all go to waste. The reader needs to know we did our work.

Except that the reader doesn’t need to know. They need a final draft polished and focused upon its themes, not a glut of extra information that muddles more than it enhances.

Worldbuilding is awesome and empowering, but its primary purpose is to acquaint the writer with the inner and outer workings of their own creation. When we shoehorn every last category or detail into our draft, we’re just as likely to inspire annoyance as awe.

Too much information weakens a story. (As my next post will illustrate.)

***

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Repetition, Repetition, Repetition | Liar, Liar

repetitionNext up in our patterns of deception: repetition.

In Real Life

One very basic tell for deception occurs when someone repeats a question verbatim:

Person A: “Where are you going this afternoon?”
Person B: “Where am I going this afternoon?”

Not, 

“This afternoon?” or “Where’m I going?”

Partial repetition indicates a desire to clarify. Repetition in full is a subconscious mechanism that occurs to delay answering, giving a split-second more for Person B to formulate a less-than-truthful response.

And there could be a totally legitimate reason for Person B to deflect. Person A could be a creep. They could simply have no right to know Person B’s schedule. Regardless, this deceptive tactic shows Person B’s reluctance to tell the truth.

Seasoned liars also take advantage of the Illusory Truth Effect. Research shows that the more often we hear something, the more likely we are to accept it as true, even if it has no basis in fact. This phenomenon falls in line with the infamous “repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” quote often attributed to propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

The Illusory Truth Effect feeds gossip threads and conspiracy theories alike. It drives smear campaigns and old wives’ tales.

Fake News™ on both sides of the political aisle relies on the Illusory Truth Effect to oil its gears. Lie, lie, repeat, repeat, repeat. Sooner rather than later people believe a story not because it’s true, but because they’ve heard it so many times that they accept it must be true. True Believers, when presented with evidence to the contrary, often retreat into the Fake but Accurate defense.

Ultimately, we each believe what we want to believe.

Repetition In Writing

Repetition in writing falls under greater scrutiny than the spoken word. Its forms include the following:

Repetitive diction

­Example #1: using the same descriptors multiple times throughout a passage

Everything is tiny. Or blue. Everyone is standing or walking or turning. Or going back, turning back, backing up, looking back. Repetition of this type manifests when an author feels the need to describe every minute action that their characters take, every slight angling of the body, every tilt of the head, every twinkle of the eye.

And yes, I’m drumming in the fault with an overuse of “every.” Repetitive diction used on purpose drives home a point. By accident, it chafes like a bur stuck in your reader’s sock.

­Example #2: Repeating names instead of personal pronouns when the referent is clear

Wanna know a secret? Proper nouns aren’t nouns. They fall into a grammatical class called “Determiners,” the same grammatical class that pronouns and articles belong to. 

If you say that “Mary” is your favorite Jane Austen character, your listener may wonder if you’re talking about Mary Musgrove, Mary Crawford, or Mary Bennet. (They also might question your taste in characters; it seems that Jane wasn’t too fond of “Mary” in general, because all three of hers are sort of pests.)

Proper nouns only have meaning according to their surrounding context, and they can only be swapped for another Determiner or Determiner Phrase. So, for example, “Mary” can equal “she” (D) or “the woman” (DP), but not simply “woman” (N).

However, they are marked determiners, and any marked part of speech draws attention to itself if used more than necessary. The unmarked form, personal pronouns, blend in with the surrounding narrative unless their context (their referent) is missing. In which case they become marked.

John entered through a side door, laughing. He rubbed his hands together. “You’ll never guess what I just saw,” John said.

That last “John” is clunky, right? When we already know who a narrative refers to, the unmarked personal pronoun becomes the preferred determiner.

Repeated details

This type of narrative repetition includes the following:

  • ­Paraphrasing and/or repeating information the reader has already received
  • ­Recounting events the reader has already experienced within the narrative

The temptation to paraphrase or recap events often comes as part of the drafting process. Sometimes weeks, months, or even years can pass between when you write one scene and its follow-up, and you instinctively want to make sure that the reader remembers that earlier event so they’re not lost. However, in a total immersion reading situation, a reader can consume the whole book in 5-7 hours. It may have been as little as 10-15 minutes since they encountered that information. In general, they don’t need you to revisit it, and certainly not in great detail.

For example

The following paragraph, taken from the first draft of an unpublished manuscript, illustrates some examples of repetition and paraphrase. (I have changed the character’s name, but nothing else.)

 Mary knew she was a selfish creature—she had been for years. If there was anything life had taught her thus far, it was that she could only rely on herself, that no one else really cared whether she lived or died. That was an exaggeration, of course—her grandfather tried, but his hands were tied from so many directions, including his own ingrained beliefs. He had changed, she knew, and probably still was changing, but she only trusted him to a point nonetheless. She had been left to her own devices too many times and had come to realize that everything was much simpler if she assumed she would receive help from no external sources. So long as she kept that cynical outlook, she owed nothing to anyone else; as an added benefit, she was not tethered down by any sense of loyalty or obligation to help others.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with this excerpt, but I’ve highlighted instances of repetition, both exact and rhetorical.

Analysis

  • First, we have a repetition of narrative frame: “Mary knew” and then halfway through the paragraph, “she knew,” again. Y’know. Just in case you forgot we were still inside Mary’s head.
  • Paraphrase (A) tells us she’s selfish. Three times over.
  • Paraphrase (B) tells us that her life’s experiences molded her into this selfishness. Twice.
  • Paraphrase (C) tells us how she interacts with the world because of her selfishness. Or rather, that she doesn’t interact with anyone.

Basically, this paragraph is roughly three times longer than it needs to be. The revised version reduces it from 149 words to only 46:

Mary had been a selfish creature for years, left to her own devices too often to rely on others and resentful when others tried to rely on her. This cynical outlook freed her from any sense of loyalty or obligation toward the rest of the world.

The revision condenses the many evidences of Mary’s selfishness into two sentences, ditches the narrative frame, and omits the details about her grandfather. We state simply what Mary is, why she is that way, and how it shapes her worldview.

The reader doesn’t care about the details of Mary’s selfishness, except in how that selfishness will drive her actions through the plot.

(And if you’re wondering why Grandpa got the narrative boot, it’s because the reader already knows he and Mary are on the outs from earlier in the story. There’s no need to repeat that detail here.)

Conclusion

Unwitting repetition gums up a story’s efficiency. Worst-case scenario, it drives a reader crazy and turns them off the book. If you’re wondering whether to keep or toss a repeat or paraphrase, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this repetition serve a purpose?
  • Does it fulfill that purpose?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it necessary right here?

If you answer “yes” to all four, forge ahead. If not, revise.

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A Minor Hiccup in a Hedge

AverageEverygirl091

Nestled among the marked (or “dispreferred”) behaviors of discourse we find a lovely little linguistic feature known as “hedging.”

Hedging is the default refuge of anyone who doesn’t want to be held 100% accountable for what they say. The speaker tempers their words to lessen the impact of their speech, thereby creating a verbal trap door through which they can escape should the need arise.

It’s the linguistic equivalent of tiptoeing and a useful hallmark of lawyers, politicians, bloggers, and anyone else who might worry about getting caught in a lie by their own soundbites.

Shifty behavior isn’t the only factor that lends towards hedging. Politeness plays a strong part as well. You don’t want to speak in bald absolutes? There’s a hedge for that.

Modal Hedges

Modals provide a ready means of hedging. Compare the solid, reliable sense inherent in can, will, shall, and must with the weaselly, conditional sense of may, might, could, should, and would. You can almost hear the retractions formulating in a speaker’s mind:

“I told you I might help, not that I will.”

As modals, by their definition, indicate a speaker’s mood toward the statement they utter, use of the conditional models is a dead giveaway for a hedge. The speaker may follow through, but then again, they might not.

Verbal Hedges

Verbal hedges come in at least two varieties. The first is the pull-your-punch linking verbs that people like to substitute for the solid “to be”:

  • to seem; “She seems nice.” (I don’t know if she actually is, but she seems that way right now, so don’t hold me accountable if she turns out to be a massive jerk.)
  • to appear; “It appears we have an agreement.” (We have one, but I don’t want to trample on your sensibilities by declaring is so boldly, in case you’re having second thoughts.)
  • to look; “He looks angry.” (Every visual cue for anger is there, but there’s a slight chance he has one of those angry faces, so I won’t definitively label him as being angry just yet.)

The second type is a shell verb that dilutes the main verb of a sentence to allow for exceptions to the statement. For example,

  • tend to; “I tend to shriek when I’m scared.”
  • try to; “I try to obey traffic laws.”

Such hedges can be useful, but remember: the longer the verb phrase of a sentence, the weaker its effect. In strong, efficient writing, verbal hedges get the boot.

Adverbial and Adjectival Hedges

Adverbial and adjectival hedges are, as their name implies, adverbs, adjectives, or adverbial phrases that qualify another lexical part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition).

Some of these hedges reflect “smallness” in their literal meaning, the better to minimize the rhetorical impact of the word or message they modify:

  • a little; “I may be a little late.” (“I won’t be there on time, but it’s nothing to get upset about.”)
  • a bit; “Your voice is a bit loud.” (“Tone it down, Brunhilda.”)
  • slight; “We’ve run into a slight snag.” (“Something’s gone wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.”)
  • at least; “I called your name at least five times.” (“I lost count after five, but there were more than that. Or I’m exaggerating to make you feel bad.”)

Others reflect “variety”:

  • kind of; “I’m kind of happy.” (“I’m happy, but saying it outright is too much.”)
  • sort of; “You’re sort of a jerk.” (“You’re totally a jerk. Mend your ways.”)

The “frequency” adverbs often and sometimes serve to temper their absolute counterparts, always and never.

My personal favorite with adverbial hedges is when they pile up on each other, à la kinda sorta (“I kinda sorta like you, Jimmy.” *blushblushblush*) or when they directly contradict the adverb they’re modifying.

Kind of really, my love, I’m looking at you. “I’m kind of really annoyed right now” actually means “I’m really, really annoyed right now, but I’m tempering one of those reallys with a kind of because I’m showing restraint, but if you don’t take the cue I might end up wringing your neck.”

Yes, in a strange twist of language, kind of really is a hedge that augments and diminishes at the same time, people.

(Which is why I love it so.)

When it comes to narrative writing, adverbial and adjectival hedges are mostly superfluous (YSWIDT, haha?) and can be edited out. A slight snag is a snag. A minor hiccup is a hiccup. And if you’re a little late, you’re late. Period. No qualifying necessary.

Except when you kind of really need to, I mean. And then it’s pretty much okay.