Response Possibility Fields

no country for old men 3A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that I had left the fifth installment in my latest series on dialogue construction incomplete. The months have piled up and I, an unusually zealous task completion fanatic in ordinary circumstances, seem to have grown mammoth [if not fat] in this, specific, circumstance…

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before [in one of these 130 posts] Coleridge’s critique of the character Hamlet—that he suffered from “an overbalance of the contemplative faculties”. In stilted English, what Coleridge was saying was that Hamlet had an introspection disorder. The problem with Hamlet wasn’t that he could only see himself in the mirror;

The problem with Hamlet was that he couldn’t see the mirror.

I bring this up now, because I have known for the last eight months [the time this series has been incomplete] that the reason I did not write the last installment was because I did not have the resolution to my series “story” firmly in the grasp of my comprehension.  I could see the link between the observations made, and the overall [refabrication] thesis of Bowdlerizing Kant, but I couldn’t form the words that would make that link new.

I was looking so hard at the wall, I couldn’t see the mirror. (1)

It is past time to be industrious. I will first sum up the important points made in parts 1-4:

Part 1

  1. A conversation is a social construct designed to force people to trust one another.
  2. Conversations have a goal.
  3. Participants in conversations are trying to gain something. [An inference based on the truth of two.]
  4. There are always conversational winners and losers.


Part 2

  1. There are three conversational “routes”: 1. Cooperative–>Confrontational 2. Cooperative–> Cooperative 3. Confrontational–>Confrontational
  2. Great scenes result from intense thematic “arguments”.


Part 3

  1. Human preference is fundamentally a group exclusion principle.
  2. The ways in which we speak divide us into social power groups.
  3. There is “physical” necessity in the form of conversation.
  4. Every sentence has a physically necessary complement.
  5. The aggregate of this necessity is equal to a particular, and thereby finite, response possibility field.
  6. Writing great dialogue involves denying the scope of a particular response possibility field as often as possible.

Part 4

  1. Engaging conversation REQUIRES declarative sentence constructions.


Look at the insight provided into the mind of  their author these thirteen sentences provide. There are two arguments preceding side by side which are stridently related. Argument A is metaphysical, clearly prioritized, and concerns the intensely limited nature of our most impressive tool—communication. Argument B is empirical, marginalized, and posits that Art is subject to mechanical analysis.

I laughed at myself [and thought of Hamlet] because of how much effort I put into trying to shield the fact that:

The conclusion of Argument A is identical to the conclusion of Argument B.

I have offered the ontological and the existential proofs of the existence of mechanical forces in the creation of Great Art. I don’t know what psychic force it is that ties my rationalism so rigidly to my empiricism, but sometimes I cannot keep my writing from exposing the ways in which the Western philosophical divide cauterizes my thinking. In those moments, I find myself…comical.

This comedy should not preclude me from finishing my argument. It is a good one. The idea that there is a “response possibility field” which defines our culture is lucid enough to warrant more investigation. The ensuing idea that this field brings physical necessity to the structure of our interactions with each other also warrants more investigation. If true, it means there is a Newtonian determinism underlying civilization which is detrimental to our ideas about free will and- even more importantly- creativity.

If what I say in response to you is calculable, then I had no choice in saying it.

Further work in expanding the spirit behind the adjacency pairs would, I believe, show this fact about language to be undeniable.

If you work back through the preceding four segments in this series, you will find that I arrived at this conclusion because of how I framed the argument. The first principle of my conversational thesis is that conversation is a human tool designed to facilitate trust. If you accept that the work I did in showing that primitive to be true is valid, then you will have to allow that you end at conversational determinism.

As writers, we should find the empirical analysis even more fascinating. Because stories are mental manipulations of real life events [a Humean treatment of Story would be rewarding] the elements of conversation are far more tightly bound than they are in reality. You first acknowledge that the response possibility field is limited by sensicality, and then you choose your dialogue as often as possible from the blurry edges of sensicality.

The following conversation makes no sense:


What is your name?


Colorless green ideas.

It strays to far outside the response possibility field.

I will cite one further example and then call the argument proved. It is from No Country for Old Men, by my favorite brothers:


…Will there be somethin’ else?


I don’t know. Will there?


The proprietor turns and coughs. Chigurh stares.


Is somethin’ wrong?


With what?


With anything?


Is that what you’re asking me? Is

there something wrong with anything?

The proprietor looks at him, uncomfortable, looks away.


Will there be anything else?


You already asked me that.


Well… I need to see about closin’.


See about closing.




What time do you close?


Now. We close now.


Now is not a time. What time do you



Generally around dark. At dark.

Chigurh stares, slowly chewing.


You don’t know what you’re talking

about, do you?




I said you don’t know what you’re

talking about.

Chigurh chews.


…What time do you go to bed.




You’re a bit deaf, aren’t you? I

said what time do you go to bed.



A pause.


…I’d say around nine-thirty.

Somewhere around nine-thirty.


I could come back then.


Why would you be comin’ back? We’ll

be closed.


You said that.

He continues to stare, chewing.


Well… I need to close now –


You live in that house behind the



Yes I do.


You’ve lived here all your life?


What is fascinating about this dialogue is how expertly the Coens choose Chigurgh’s lines from the blurriest sections of the response possibility field. Chigurgh ALMOST doesn’t make sense. One doesn’t respond to pleasantries about the weather with lines like:

Now is not a time. What time do you go to bed? You live in that house behind the store? I could come back [when you’ve gone to bed—to see if you’re telling the truth].

Chigurgh blatantly cuts the line of trust between him and the proprietor. He does this by defying the response possibility field AS MUCH AS ALLOWABLE while remaining outside the world of colorless green ideas. This is why this scene is brilliant, and, it is wholly calculable.

There are such things as Literary Slide Rules.


1. I’m sure that sentence reads like something people write when they want to create the impression of depth—literary chiaroscuro. I actually think that is the clearest thing I have ever written.




2 responses to “Response Possibility Fields

  1. Hooray!

    One thing I find interesting about great dialogue is how questions are wielded as something other than interrogative sentences. They become these tools of control within the conversation, often acting like primers to guns that are firing off a broadside of new declaratives.

    (Btw, I would just point out that the above scene is essentially verbatim out of the book NO COUNTRY and so should also be attributed to McCarthy…a book that is on the Mt. Rushmore of useful works on screenwriting in spite of being a novel)

    • I wondered about the attribution. I have no problem thanking Cormac for this fabulous scene. I believe everything necessary to write great dialogue is contained within that scene. I give the brothers credit, then, for including it in its entirety.

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