The Mountebanks of Questionable Construction

mountIn the previous article in this series, I introduced the idea that conversation sorts people into power groups. To back this up, we looked at the general example from English grammar of pronoun replacement:

A student in the American Higher Education System should be able to study whatever he wants.

It’s beyond obvious that convention’s choice to use the singular male pronoun [whenever the group of people referred to contains mixed genders] has been a subconscious instrument supporting the subjugation of women to men for at least the last few millennia. I believe this example [which is simple enough to be universally believed] establishes that it is entirely possible speech can redistribute power.

Now that we’ve established the possibility, let’s move in for the certainty.

We will begin our discussion by first appropriating the standard division of sentences initially introduced to us by our middle school grammar textbooks:

1. Declarative—The pool is warm today.
2. Interrogative—Is the pool warm today?
3. Imperative—Get in the pool.
4. Exclamatory—Wahoowa, the pool is warm today!

I doubt anyone would argue with me if I state that imperative sentences always CLAIM power. If I am trying to make you do what I want you to do, then [necessarily] I am asserting power over you. You may resist my attempt to control your actions, but you can’t do anything to erase the assertion. Even if you thwart my desire, I have still claimed [by speaking to you with imperative sentence structure] that I am more powerful than you.

I also doubt that anyone will argue with me if I claim that interrogative sentences always cede power. Whenever I ask you a question [whether I meant to do it or not] I have implied that you have more information about the situation we are in than I do. To ask a question is to imply that a judgment is trusted and guidance is welcome. I may be overreaching but [in this moment] it seems like the whole of civilization is owed to this sentence structure. We can’t signal lack of aggression ANY MORE CLEARLY than by asking a question. [I bet if someone undertook a study of CEO’s making many millions of dollars, she would find that their speech is overwhelmingly comprised of declarative and imperative sentences. My intuition tells me they would hardly ever be caught in an interrogative.]

Exclamatory sentences seem so limited in everday application that I don’t feel the need to examine them closely. I suppose power could go either way in these constructions depending on the type of exclamation but, in general, they will cede power just like interrogative sentences.

At last, we get to the interesting case—declarative sentences. These sentence types are interesting because it is impossible to tell, just from how they’re punctuated, if the power flows to or away from the speaker.

Engaging conversation REQUIRES declarative sentence constructions.

This is because the only way the power flow of a conversation is in doubt is if the majority of it is punctuated by periods. Look at the difference between these two lines of dialogue:

BOB
Where is the CSL summary report?

And

BOB
The CSL summary report is not in my box.

[We will assume Bob is directing his dialogue at a person standing face to face with him in an office environment. We will call this unseen person, Gwen.]

In the interrogative version of Bob’s line, it’s impossible to tell what the professional relationship is between Bob and Gwen. Are they equals? Is Bob the boss? [I think we can rule out the possibility that Gwen is the boss. I’m confident that if this were the case, Bob’s line would begin even more diminishingly. Something like:

BOB
I misplaced the CSL summary. Have you seen it?

The declarative version is much more explicit in terms of power flow. In that example it’s clear that Bob is the boss. It also seems likely that Gwen is about to be in trouble. From the grammar of his statement, it appears Gwen has somehow failed in her job with relation to the CSL summary report and now Bob is beginning the process of reprimanding her.

As writers, we can use these facts about sentences to inform the subtext in our stories. If Bob is the boss in our story and we want him to be a jerk, then we’ll write him with a lot of imperative sentence constructions. If we want the relationship between him and Gwen to tilt toward Gwen, then we will have him asking her a lot of questions. If we want him to be in charge without being a tyrant, we will fill his dialogue with declaratives.

I believe these ideas about sentence construction are as important as the “verbal eye patch” idea I always recommend for use in character individuation. (1) After you know who your characters are, and you’ve got a decent version of your story cobbled together, go back through your script and do an edit for types of sentences. Make sure your vision of your character matches the constructions most uttered by your character.

The above explains how sentences naturally accrue power values just based on the punctuation which completed them, but how do you get your characters to fight for power in a specific conversation? Let’s expand our conversation between Bob and Gwen to see what filters out. [I’m going to add an additional constraint that our expansion take place solely with the use of declarative sentences.

BOB
The CSL summary report is not in my box.

GWEN
The PLU and MKD reports are in your box.

BOB
I meet Jan in 20 about the CSL summary.

GWEN
Nathan does the CSL. I do the PLU and the MKD.

BOB
You AND Nathan report to me.

GWEN
And you’re only missing the CSL.

BOB
There is no I in team.

GWEN
There is no Nathan in team either.

Bob takes a minute to consider Gwen’s remark.

BOB
I’ll call Nathan.

GWEN
I’ll see if I can do a quick summary. Something
that’ll get by Jan.

BOB
Thanks, Gwen. (2)

In this scene, Bob tries to abuse his authority to get Gwen to take the blame for an assignment which was missed by Nathan. Gwen refuses to accept this blame and she gracefully maneuvers Bob to an admission that he is being unfair. After which, she reveals herself to be a true team player by bailing Bob out of a difficult meeting with Jan with an offer to work up a passable version of the CSL summary. This scene reveals a lot about the underlying characters of both Gwen and Bob. It’s interesting to read because control of the conversation remains in doubt until Gwen scores the knockout blow with her remark about the spelling of team.

Now, let’s rewrite the conversation, allowing all sentence types:

BOB
Find me the CSL summary report.

GWEN
Where’s Nathan?

BOB
Not here.

GWEN
Did he send it to you in an email?

BOB
If he sent it in an email, I wouldn’t
be asking you to find it.

GWEN
You want me to text him?

BOB
I want the fucking report! I meet with
Jan in 20, and she’s not going to give a
Shit about your text from Nathan.

GWEN
I can probably work up something passable.

BOB
Then, get on it.

Same characters, same facts, wildly different scenes. I submit this second scene is not as interesting as the first because the balance of power is never in doubt. Gwen continually cedes power to Bob because she speaks only in interrogative constructions. On the other hand, Bob consolidated power throughout the exchange by speaking solely in declarative and imperative constructions. He wields these sentence types so well that, by the end of this dialogue, Gwen has bailed him out with Jan by agreeing to cover for the irresponsible Nathan.

I’ll grant it’s possible I’ve manipulated my impromptu scenes of dialogue so well they have the characteristics I’ve been arguing for owing [strictly] to the manipulation. However, it could also be true the scenes imply the things they do about the flow of power because the case I’ve been making in this article is correct. Perhaps, the thought that any debt is owed to manipulation is actually the counterfeit idea—one circulated by the mountebanks of questionable construction. Ultimately [and with the weight of an unenforceable writing maxim], let us say, when revising your dialogue:

Edit at least once for types of sentences only.

Footnotes:

1. If you’re not sure what I’m referring to by verbal eye patch, read part one of my breakdown of the Coen Brothers script, A Serious Man. That screenplay offers a master class in the technique.

2. As I do every time I write one of these example dialogues, I will now dismiss the scene as inferior writing. It isn’t meant to demonstrate quality dialogue writing. It is simply meant to illustrate the point of the article. Namely, that power is best contested with declarative sentence structures.

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