Dialogue at Cross Purposes


(By request!)

In my opinion, nonfiction writing is writing about facts, while fiction writing is about feelings about facts. So while we are writing fiction dialogue, the order is pretty much fact, feeling, fact, feeling, fact, etc, to convey information and emotional reactions to the changing, evolving facts.  Never give only fact. Never give only feeling. Facts are boring. Sorry, but they are. It is emotion that novel and fiction readers want, feelings supported by changing facts.

In Dialogue at Cross Purposes, this is especially true, as it is all about facts bouncing off one another and the characters’ confused responses. Kinda like ricochet shooting, bullets bouncing everywhere, things getting hit, with purpose, but from the wrong direction. The reader can tell and understand what is happening, but the characters are doing a poor job of it. The characters misunderstand one another, blinded by their own world view and the “facts as they see them”. They each attach a different meaning to what is said. Such a conflict my be continued indefinitely and add to the complications and furtherances and hindrances of an existing plot line. (Furtherances and hindrances are also devices, but they are self explanatory, don’t you think?)

Dialogue at Cross Purposes is a device usually used by writers in the middle third of the book, not in the beginning third, not in the last third. Why? In the beginning third of a novel, a reader does not know enough to attach proper significance to dialogue presented with this device. In the end third, the writer better have done enough conflict and suspense building so that it would no longer be effective. So we use it in the middle, when we have a conflict still to build and build upon, and the characters, while known, still offer surprises.

Editors today want a lot of dialogue, but then they often reject manuscripts for too much dialogue… Which can be really confusing to writers trying to break in to the business. Why do editors do this? What do they want? Why do they reject my book? Because it is/has boring dialogue. Dialogue should always contain elements of conflict!  And that is easily accomplished with dialogue at cross purposes. 

I’ve set a few examples of Dialogue at Cross Purposes below. They are not written from the fantasy genre, but from period pieces because, well, every time I wrote something for this blog in the fantasy genre, I wanted to use it myself, later….

Just to get us started, here is a very short example:

Eva couldn’t stand the silence any longer.  Standing, she thrust out her hand.  “Pleased to meet ya.”

The duchess raised her brows and a monocle to one eye.  “I’m quite sure you are.”

In the next, longer example, Stanley, who works at a bank in the 1940s, has been in love with Becky since high school. And Becky had a bad marriage, her husband deceased for a year. Becky is bound by her upbringing and culture, unable to tell Stanley what she wants, and Stan’s self image is bad he can’t tell her. This is like chess moves on the board, if all the pieces are glued down except the pawns. Ex:

Stanley held out his hand as if to take hers. When her eyes settled on it they widened and he realized his presumption. He jerked back his hand and curled his fingers under. “Come on Becky, don’t go. I… your children need you.”

“My children are grown, Stan. I’m not needed here anymore. Not really. I haven’t been needed here for a long, long time.” She looked around the small town square. “I need more than what life offers me here, in Yorktown. I need…I just need…more.” She smoothed her apron over her dress as she talked. It was starched and whiter than the clouds in the sky. And the dress she wore was blue like the sky, like freedom and happiness and all the things he wanted in life. Like her eyes. It was the same color as her eyes.

Stan turned and walked away, whirled and walked back again, back and forth, thinking, trying to put it together, his shadow a short jerky mimic beside him. He wanted to beg her to stay, but he didn’t know the words. He wasn’t good with words like her husband had been, and he knew he couldn’t offer Becky the “more” that she wanted and that she deserved. He couldn’t offer her the kind of life she had lived with Judge Brandt, despite the whispers and scandal attached to his name. He stopped his mad pacing and clenched his fists, shoved them into the pockets of his Sunday-best suit jacket. “But there’s your house. And the roses you been growing. And the bake sale comin’ in June. And the basketball team’s gonna need you to raise money for it again this year. And…and…and all that stuff.”

“That’s just things, Stan. I need more. And…” Becky flushed just a bit and turned away. “I’m not the kind of woman who can… live alone.”

“But you’re not alone,” he said, a jolt of excitement stopping his mad pacing. “There’s your Sunday School Class, your Sewing Circle, the Book Club you started. All those folks love and need you.”

Becky shook her head and looked away, biting her lip.

“What about the feud between the McElroys and the Browns,” he said. “You’ve always been the one to keep those two hotheaded families in line.” Becky sighed, the sound frustrated and sad, and he knew it was because of him. But he didn’t know what to do fix it. All he wanted in life was Becky. And he was losing her. And he didn’t know how to fix that. “I…We need you Becky. Don’t go.”

“I’m going, Stan, to the city, to start a new life. I want more from life than being a widow and a grandmother, Stanley. I want more.”

The device is a good way to show conflict and hidden anger. In the following example, Mazie is a bored housewife, ignored by her husband, who spends way too much time with the boys in sports pursuits. Last night it was softball. Tonight it is bowling. To fill her empty days, Mazie is going back to school in the community college. Mazie has a man’s card in her pocket. Mazie is tempted.. Ex:

            “I saw your bowling ball and shoes in the car.” Mazie thumped the grocery bag onto the counter and said carefully, “Again.”

            “Boy’s night out. Beer, cigars, bad jokes, and deep dish pizza.” Herman buttoned his league bowling shirt, the vibrant purple and yellow garish in her perfectly neat kitchen. “Why? You got other things to do, right? All that school stuff.”

“School stuff,” she said softly. He didn’t even know what she was taking; he didn’t care enough to ask. “Yeah. I have school stuff.” Mazie opened the cabinet that held canned goods and began stacking corn and tomatoes in their neat rows. She kept her eyes on the cans and her husband in her peripheral vision. “I study hard. I give it a lot of attention because it’s important to me. And human beings pay attention to things that are important to us.”

“Right. Like bowling,” Herman chuckled, brushing back his hair with both hands.

Mazie narrowed her eyes at the carefully stacked veggies and took a calming breath. She turned from the cabinet and backed up to the counter, her hands behind her on the Formica top, her small breasts outthrust. When she moved, she felt the business card in her shirt pocket. It felt warm through the thin material. Demanding. “Other things are important, Herman. Other things need attention.” She blushed, knowing she was quoting Butch. Seeing again his bright blue eyes and his ready smile. All for her.

“I know, I know. I’ll mow the grass on Saturday. Promise. And I’ll paint the guest bedroom that yellow color you like so much. This winter. First snowstorm.” Herman leaned across the narrow table and kissed her cheek. “I’ll be late. Don’t wait up.”

Dialogue at Cross Purposes can be used over and over again and it seldom gets boring because the reader gets so much more out of the dialogue than do the characters. I usually keep the use of it short and sweet, because dragging it on can make the reader want to shake the characters and shout, “Wake up! Are you an idiot? Can’t you see what’s happening?”

Have fun with it in your own writing.


9 comments to Dialogue at Cross Purposes

  • Hm…odd…guess I didn’t really know what that was called. I just kinda did it on instinct because it made sense. I actually had to go look it up. There’s always more to learn. I do a lot on instinct. I think I was a writer in another life. Musta wanted another go at it. 😉

  • I do it all on instinct too, Daniel. But long ago, when I was first asked to teach writing at seminars, I discovered that I didn’t know how to teach, because I didn’t know how I did what I did. So I started studying, using college-level course books I could study and learn at home, without benefit of a teacher. I discovered that there’s names for everything we do automatically. For some of us, giving it a name and practicing the divice make all the difference in the quality of a manuscript. But it all comes back down to communicating emotions of a character and the conflict of a story.

  • I never really thought that this brand of dialogue had a name, an official tag name. Thinking back on the two novels back I do remember using it on instinct. It’s fascinating to me to see how many things we use as tools and never really learn what they are called. Thank you for the examples and the placement advice.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Faith. It does make a huge difference in the writing itself. 😀

  • Harry, storytelling is in our very makeup, our genetic structure. We write because we *have* to write. Therefore, storytelling *is* all instinct! Giving what we do a name allows us to teach it, explain it, analyze it, and share it. It allows us to say, “This device is why this story works. Lack of this device is why this other story does not work so well.” It allows us to read and write analytically, which makes us better writers. Sometimes I even play with writing devices to keep my mind sharp and my writing fresh. Do I still make mistakes? Oh yeah. I still read my own work and think, “This is boring. I should have done something else here.” But learning writing devices adds another tool to my writer’s tool box. And anything that makes me a better writer is good news to me.

  • I have to admit that I’d never heard the term for this, either. But it’s an enormously useful tool, particularly when your point of view character is unreliable or obtuse — as Faith says, it’s a way of giving your reader more information, or at least more understanding, than your character might have.

  • David, I like the device. The first person I heard use it was Walter S Campbell, who taught writing at the U of Oklahoma for 40 years. I don’t know that he named it, however.

  • Oh, I knew about that. I’ve even done it. So it has a name. Nice. I feel edumenkated.