Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Probably a whole lot of you have seen the film, "When Harry Met Sally." There are a lot of memorable moments in that film, and I find when I think back on it that I remember mostly the incidents that occur between the main characters. Harry and Sally - it's their movie, so it makes sense.

But one of the most marvelously insightful elements of that film was the series of tiny vignettes with married couples talking about how they met, and about how they live. I remember the Chinese couple's story where the man sneaked into the next village to see if his intended bride would be beautiful. I remember the way the movie wrapped up with Harry and Sally appearing in such a vignette, which tied the whole thing together in a neat bow. The other one that stands out for me though, is the East Coast couple who kept talking over each other. I remember thinking "Wow, that's crazy," and also, "If these are actors, it must be really hard for them to pull that off."

If you haven't seen the vignette in question, here's what it involves. The couple collectively tells a story. For each new element, the man begins the narrative. Then, maybe a little over halfway through his sentence, the wife starts in with her own infusion of narrative that contributes to the same "plot point." He finishes his sentence, but she keeps going and finishes again a few seconds later.

I have never met anyone who speaks that way, and at the time I watched the film my sense of East Coast accents was even more vague than it currently is. So if any of you can pinpoint precisely where their dialect - or their turn-taking style - comes from, please do let me know in the comments.

The point of this whole discussion is this: turn-taking is a big deal, and you should give it some attention.

We learn turn-taking before we learn to speak. Long before. A lot of research has been done on this; here's a sample link to a psychology article on the topic. Mothers will interpret their children's gurgles, burps, etc. as legitimate turns, and respond to them. I know I talk to my cats, and let them take their "turns at conversation."

My husband's turn-taking sense is slightly different than mine. You can imagine that this caused some frictions early in our relationship. I couldn't say if this is due to Australian vs. American culture, or whether it's just our families - after all, he was the last of five kids in his family, which made for much more active dynamics.

Here's one place where turn-taking becomes relevant for a writer. We want to make our characters' voices distinct, maybe even show dialect, but we don't always want to alter the spelling of words to indicate difference in pronunciation. Well, one place to make differences noticeable is in turn-taking. In fantasy or science fiction, you can have a community of people who recognize different kinds of moments as opportunities to break into a conversation. Or you can portray frictions between two different groups who take turns differently.

Its something worth thinking about.


  1. In contrast to turn taking have you ever seen John Sayles first film, Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980)?

    It's an amateur cast and very low budget so look past the acting and pay attention to how Sayles handles the dialog and how long time friend and lover talk past, to, around and together.

    It's really interesting take on conversations, IMO.

  2. Juliette- Found the clip of the old couple. I could identify it as NY so I played it for my partner whose from the NJ suburbs of NY to see if she could place it any more specifically, but she said it was actually a surprisngly generic NY accent. Couldn't identify burough or ethnicity.

    Its not that unusual a turn taking style to me- the couple that finishes eachothers sentences- and its an easy trick to pull off in acting. (But maybe that's b/c I live in an East Coast Urban center, lol) Most of the time your action que comes quite early in the previous line and you wait until the line que to speak. Here the action que and the line que for the wife are essentially the same.

  3. Wow, K, thanks for the research. You'd know better than I do how easy or hard something is in the acting arena, of course. I appreciate your insightful comments.