The Agreement Turnaround

08Mar12

Today at SpecTechnique I’ve got a short article about a neat little dialogue trick I like to call the agreement turnaround.

One sure sign of limp dialogue in a story is when it follows a boring question-answer, question-answer, yes-that’s-very-interesting pattern. So to generate conflict and delight, I think it’s helpful to break up that flow whenever possible, using zingers, slams, rhetorical questions, non sequiturs, comebacks, euphemisms, and snide remarks of all types.

The agreement turnaround works as a conversational judo throw in which B appears to agree with an original statement made by A… except the meaning is caustic, rather than complimentary.

Here’s an example from Chapter II of Mary Gentle’s Rats and Gargoyles:

Something about her made him want to drop all pretense. “Actually,” Lucas said, “I’m the heir to the throne of Candover. Prince Lucas. Eldest son of King Odorno.”

She trod on the end of the satin stole, and swore.

“Incognito?”

“That was my idea.” He pushed his fingers through his thick springy hair. “I thought it would be good. To not be a king’s son. I suppose I thought people would treat me the same; that it would show through, naturally, somehow — what I really am.”

The White Crow said drily, “Perhaps it does,” and straightened up with a much-thumbed pack of cards.

As usual, I ripped off my next example from M. John Harrison, who was commenting in Kathryn Cramer’s archived New Weird discussion thread. (A thread well worth reading, all 80,000 words of it.) This example isn’t from fiction, it’s about fiction, but the effect is still delightful

As Steph Swainston said above, the New Weird has high levels of particularity, colour, specificity, a real sense of a world. Part of the trick of doing that is to know when an idea is foregroundable or should stay as background. The cruellest thing I ever heard said about an f/sf writer came in response to a boast he made that he had twenty or thirty new ideas in a morning. Someone said quietly from the back of the room, “Yes, & the problem is you develop all of them.” You need to know how to keep detail distinct, & your background in the background, even–in fact especially–in widescreen. Part of the carpetbagging syndrome is the mining by a second generation of the background ideas & characters of great imaginers.

The agreement turnaround can also be an indirect way to show that the meek listener B is socially pressured into agreeing with windbag A’s inflated bloviations. Here’s an instance from Dostoevesky’s Demons:

The fogginess increased for poor, trapped Sofya Matveevna when the story turned almost into a whole dissertation on the subject of how no one had ever been able to understand Stepan Trofimovich and of how “talents perish in our Russia.”  It was “all so very intelligent,” she later reported dejectedly.

This summarized dialogue has got more pep than many a flat, expository conversation I could name.

Turgenev, supposedly the model for Stepan T.

Another variant allows the shrewd A to set a trap for B by setting up a statement he’ll feel forced to agree with. This instance also comes from Dostoevsky, but from The Gambler. (For both these Dostoevsky quotes I’ve used the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations, because I don’t know enough about Russian to decide if another translation is superior.)

A: (indicates a group of people in the distance)  “…You’ve noticed them, of course?”

B: “Oh, yes.”

A: “They’re not worth noticing…”

But my all-time favorite example of the agreement turnaround was a famous quip from Sidney Morgenbesser, a Philosophy professor at Columbia. Quoting his 2004 obituary from the Independent:

Generations of philosophers and linguists have heard the story of the Columbia lecture in the 1950s in which the eminent Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin explained how many languages employ the double negative to denote a positive (“he is not unlike his sister”), but that no language employs a double positive to make a negative. Morgenbesser, sitting in the audience, waved his arm dismissively, and retorted: “Yeah, yeah.”

Next time at SpecTechnique, our topic is “evacuated description.”

If you want to find out what I mean by this, you’ll have to return tomorrow. :-3

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