Exploring the art of prose


Dialogue at Cross-Purposes

Dialogue is the one of tools we have for showing us who the characters are and how they relate to each other. The best dialogue includes some amount of subtext and conflict. One of the good ways to get at this is to write dialogue where the characters are speaking at cross-purposes. They refuse to respond directly to what another character has just said. It could be that they don’t answer a direct question. It could be that they’re not listening. Or it could be that they follow their own thought path, giving little regard to what others are talking about.

No matter how it’s accomplished, it has the effect of telling us much about the characters, not only in what they say but in the way in which they refuse to respond to the other. And it’s realistic. How many times have you asked someone a question, just to have them ignore the question and prattle on about something else? People rarely say what they really mean, and using dialogue in this manner only emphasizes that point.

One of the best examples of dialogue at cross-purposes is in “Emergency” by Denis Johnson. Here’s a great exchange of dialogue from midway through the story:

We lay down on a stretch of dusty plywood in the back of the truck with the daylight knocking against our eyelids and the fragrance of alfalfa thickening on our tongues.

“I want to go to church,” Georgie said.

“Let’s go to the county fair.”

“I’d like to worship. I would.”

“They have these injured hawks and eagles there. From the Humane Society,” I said.

“I need a quiet chapel about now.”

The narrator and Georgie have two completely different ideas about where they would like to go next. The only connection between these lines of dialogue to that they are both responding to the idea of where to go. But other than that, each character is on their own path. We learn more about each character and their interests/desires; we also learn about them by how they don’t respond to the other’s request.


A couple is flying from California to New York. Midway through the journey, one character tells the other that she would like to visit the Statue of Liberty. Her partner—who is having an affair with someone who lives in New York—has other plans. Write a scene of dialogue where the couple talks about how they will spend their time in New York, each character on their own path and rarely directly responding to the other.

by Laura Spence-Ash