Dialogue And The Games Speakers Play
Written by
Kendra Bonnett
May 2012
Written by
Kendra Bonnett
May 2012

Have you ever known a person who always has a quick, often dismissive, response to every suggestion you offer?

When you're around your parents, do you seem to fall back into behavior patterns reminiscent of your childhood and even communicate differently--even though you're an adult and have been on your own for years?

If you've ever been in an abusive relationship, did your partner typically punctuate each verbal or physical tirade with the phrase, "See what you made me do?"

Do you know someone who always seems to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop...and what's worse they know before anything has happened that things will not work out well for them?

Or perhaps you know other people who are quick to blame someone/anyone but themselves when bad things happen. They turn to whomever is closest and say something like, "You got me into this." Or they include you in their lament by saying, "If it weren't for you..."

If you have experienced any of these scenarios--either in yourself or someone you know--then you also know that its occurrence is not a one-off. The pattern repeats itself. That's because they're trapped in a game.

But this isn't a game of hopscotch or Red Rover. It's not Monopoly, or even Sorry! These are not even games of their own choosing.

Transactional Analysis: Another Tool Writers Can Borrow from Social Science

The examples I've listed above are just a few of the indicators that the player is caught up in a psychological game as defined by transactional analysis (TA). And these examples are just a few of life scripts to which people defer. Quoting from the
Wikipedia article on transactional analysis: "According to the International Transactional Analysis Association, TA 'is a theory of personality and a systematic psychotherapy for personal growth and personal change.'" The article goes on to list several aspects of the study. I'll list only the first: "As a theory of personality, TA describes how people are structured psychologically. It uses what is perhaps its best known model, the ego-state (Parent-Adult-Child) model, to do this. The same model helps explain how people function and express their personality in their behavior."

If you've read any of my posts this week on
character development and
emotions, you probably see where I'm going with this. TA gives us, as writers, insight into personality, which makes it an excellent tool for understanding our fictional characters and even the real people in our memoirs.


Dialogue and the "Yes, But..." Life Script

But my subject today is dialogue. TA applies to that as well. In fact, it's a great tool for digging below the surface of many conversations because our life scripts are often communicated verbally.

Let me give you an example. I grew up with someone who is very close to me. In many ways, we are a lot alike, and we enjoy many of the same things. We should be so very compatible. But we're not. Oh we get along very well for short periods of time. But sooner or later our conversations devolve into an argument. I used to write it off as being simply because we're too much alike. We're both stubborn and hold strong opinions on things. But recently I've discovered that while we are both in our own way responsible for the arguments we get into, she falls into a life script pattern. And I can't break through the pattern no matter how logical I make my case. She relies on the "Yes, but..." life script.

I suppose that to a certain degree so do I, which fits with the study of TA because we both grew up in the same house. We learned the same game. I like to think that I've given more thought to this and tried harder to break the pattern. I may be just as guilty of playing the game in our early exchanges, but usually I stop, listen and try to keep my mind open to other possibilities. Occasionally that doesn't actually happen until the discussion is over, but at least I go away and think about what was said, replay the discussion in my head and try to come up with the best outcome. My sparing partner just turns inward and refuses to budge from her position.

Here's how it might appear in dialogue:

"I'm having trouble with mice in my hen house."

"That's not good," I said. "Are you storing the chicken feed away from the hen house? That's what I do, and I really don't have a problem."

"Well, that may work for you. Your yard's smaller so it's not difficult for you to cart it outside each day. My storage shed is too far away. I'll spill half of it on the ground before I even get it to the chickens. Maybe you should store the feed in a galvanized can the way I do."

"Yes I do that now...in the barn. But since you still have a problem, it's not the storage container that's the problem. Maybe you need a cat. A cat will certainly keep your mouse problem under control."

"Oh sure, like I'm going to get a cat. You know I hate cats."

"I've never understood your disdain for cats," I said. "You claim to love all animals, even--"

"I don't like cats because they kill songbirds. And they're so aloof. Not like a dog."

"Yes, I know. When it comes to birds, cats are natural predators. It's in their DNA, I think. But if you just set up your yard so that the bird feeders aren't near the cat's territory--"

"Yes, but have you ever been able to control a cat? They don't describe getting a difficult situation under control as being like herding cats for no reason at all. Besides I live too near a major highway. I'd never let a cat out to wander. That won't work for me. For that matter you don't let your cats outside either."

"Well I might if I had a problem. Or maybe I'd get a smart old barn cat who knew enough to stay out of the road. Maybe you're feeding too much, and there's a lot of grain scattered about and tempting the mice."

"I keep my chicken coop clean. Besides, chickens are messy eaters, and I can't police every speck of grain in the yard."

"No but maybe you're feeding too much. You should try giving them a little less food during the day so they eat up most everything they sling around."

"I'm going by the book. Maybe I need to pile a few stones and logs near the hen house so that the black snakes will stay nearby and keep the mice away."

"Yes, but don't snakes steal eggs? You've got to be crazy to want snakes near your hens. Have you thought about building a chicken tractor? That way you can move the chickens around in the yard where they'll find grubs and other bugs to eat. Then you can cut back on the amount of food you put out."

"A chicken tractor? That's just another thing to clutter up my yard. And I'll be forever having to move it when I mow the grass. You can't tell me that a chicken tractor keeps mice away from your chickens. You've got snakes and you don't even know it."

"Actually I used to" I admit. "Now I use Snake-A-Way, which is a natural deterrent of, basically, mothballs and sulfur. I wouldn't want snakes near my chickens...or me for that matter. Have you thought of putting your hen house on a cement slab or lining it with hardware cloth? The mice can't gnaw through that. But I still think you need to get the chicken feed OUT of the chicken coop."

"Yes, so you said. But I told you, I can't carry that food across the yard. I'll be leaving a trail for the mice, and the next thing I know, the mice will be in the house."

"You should have a house cat. Your dog would love a nice cat friend."

"Kendra, this whole conversation is ridiculous."

"Maybe, but what you said about cats being aloof. Actually, I've found mine to be quite the opposite. It's all in how you raise them. If you think cats are aloof, you'll treat them to be aloof. It's a self-fulling prophesy..."

About then, my relative gives me the silent treatment. And just before she turns on her heel to walk away, she makes a sour face. I've hated that look all my life.


Learn More About Applying Social Science Research to Your Dialogue

There are a lot of books on the subject of transactional analysis. You could start with a couple by psychiatrist Eric Berne:
Games People Play and
Beyond Games and Scripts. Berne developed the study of life scripts. Also, you can try Claude Steiner's
Scripts People Live and Thomas A. Harris' popular
I'm OK, You're OK. Any of these will help you understand how the games and life scripts play out. If you want to learn more about applying social science research to writing dialogue, check out Matilda Butler's and my new book,
Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep.


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