Thursday, March 11

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, March 11, 2010 10 comments
You might well wonder what I mean by "negotiation." I get the term from Sandra Scofield's The Scene Book. She calls it "another approach to conflict" and describes it as "an exchange of character desires and denials and relenting, until some sort of peace is carved out, or else the interaction falls apart."

Negotiation is a way of approaching conflict as power plays, in which each character tries to get what he or she wants. How those power games and assertions of will play out will depend on the characters' temperaments, the strength of their desires and the nature of their relationship--especially if there is an imbalance of power. Scofield notes that "once in a while a character will scream at the top of her lungs, but most of the time you will see attempts at manipulation, negotiation, subterfuge, flattery or any other strategy that works for victory without drawing blood."

I thought it might be most helpful to see a negotiation in action and do a mini-analysis. I'll work with the scene from Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring that will be familiar to many of you. Notice that the weaker party tries to assert his power through defiance of the other's authority, while the stronger party uses multiple approaches--reasoning, persuasion, flattery, appeasement, challenge, shaming, intimidation and at last giving aid.

To reacquaint you with the context, in this scene the powerful wizard Gandalf is trying to convince the brave little hobbit Bilbo to leave his magic ring in the Shire when he takes his next journey.


Gandalf looked again very hard at Bilbo, and there was a gleam in his eyes. 'I think, Bilbo,' he said quietly, 'I should leave it behind. Don't you want to?' [persuasion: notice Gandalf exercising meekness--strength under control--with his soft voice.]
'Well yes--and no. Now it comes to it, I don't like parting with it at all, I may say. And I don't really see why I should. Why do you want me to?' he asked, and a curious change came over his voice. It was sharp with suspicion and annoyance. [disturbance and growing agitation--notice the escalation with each sentence, culminating in the change of voice tone] 'You are always badgering me about my ring; but you have never bothered me about the other things that I got on my journey.' [counter-attack]
'No, but I had to badger you,' said Gandalf. [justification] 'I wanted the truth. It was important. Magic rings are--well, magical; and they are rare and curious. I was professionally interested in your ring, you may say; and I still am. I should like to know where it is, if you go wandering again. [reasoning and attempt to look mild and less powerful] Also I think you have had it quite long enough. [challenge] You won't need it any more, Bilbo, unless I am quite mistaken.' [persuasion]
Bilbo flushed, and there was an angry light in his eyes. His kindly face grew hard. [physical changes indicating fight-or-flight kicking in] 'Why not?' he cried. 'And what business is it of yours, anyway, to know what I do with my own things? [counter-attack] It is my own. I found it. It came to me.' [justification and defiance]

'Yes, yes,' said Gandalf. 'But there is no need to get angry.' [appeasement]
'If I am, it is your fault,' said Bilbo. [counter-attack] 'It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.' [justification and defiance]
The wizard's face remained grave and attentive, and only a flicker of in his deep eyes showed that he was startled and indeed alarmed. [retreat and retrenching] 'It has been called that before,' he said, 'but not by you.' [reasoning--calling upon shared knowledge and a shared story and a veiled shaming by comparing him to an enemy]

'But I say it now. And why not? Even if Gollum said the same once. It is not his now, but mine. And I shall keep it, I say.'[justification, more defiance]
Gandalf stood up. He spoke sternly. [assertion of authority and veiled intimidation--there's a huge height difference] 'You will be a fool if you do, Bilbo,' he said. [reasoning, attempt to shame] 'You make that clearer with every word you say. It has got far too much hold on you. [persuasion] Let it go! [challenge] And then you can go yourself, and be free.' [persuasion, offer of a prize]
'I'll do as I choose and go as I please,' said Bilbo obstinately. [defiance]
'Now, now, my dear hobbit!' said Gandalf. 'All your long life we have been friends, and you owe me something. [flattery, calling up a debt] Come! Do as you promised: give it up!' [challenge of Bilbo's character, his trustworthiness as a promise-keeper]
'Well, if you want my ring for yourself, say so!' cried Bilbo. [counter-attack on Gandalf's character, a veiled accusation] 'But you won't get it. I won't give my precious away, I tell you.' [defiance] His hand strayed to the hilt of his small sword. [veiled threat of violence]

Gandalf's eyes flashed. 'It will be my turn to get angry soon,' he said. 'If you say that again, I shall. Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.' [counter-threat] He took a step toward the hobbit, and he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow filled the little room. [intimidation]

Bilbo backed away to the all, breathing hard, his hand clutching at his pocked. They stood for a while facing one another, and the air in the room tingled. [fear response and impasse] Gandalf's eyes remained bent on the hobbit. Slowly his hands relaxed, and he began to tremble. [retreat of weaker party]
'I don't know what has come over you, Gandalf,' he said. 'You have never been like this before. [accusation] What is it all about? It is mine, isn't it? I found it, and Gollum would have killed me, if I hadn't kept it. I'm not a thief, whatever he said.' [reasoning]
'I have never called you one,' Gandalf answered. [reassurance] 'And I am not one either. I am not trying to rob you, but to help you. I wish you would trust me, as you used.' [persuasion and reassertion of friendship] He turned away, and the shadow passed. He seemed to dwindle again to an old grey man, bent and troubled. [retreat from intimidation]
Bilbo drew his hand over his eyes. 'I am sorry,' he said. [peacemaking] 'But I felt so queer. [justification] And yet it would be a relief in a way not to be bothered with it any more. It has been so growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me. And I am always wanting to put it on and disappear, don't you know; or wondering if it is safe, and pulling it out to make sure. I tried locking it up, but I found I couldn't rest without it in my pocket. [explanation with lots of blame shifting] I don't know why. And I don't seem to be able to make up my mind.' [veiled request for help]
'Then trust mine,' said Gandalf. [persuasion] 'It is quite made up. Go away and leave it behind. Stop possessing it. [challenge] Give it to Frodo, and I will look after him.' [persuasion, offer of help]
Bilbo stood for a moment tense and undecided. [deliberation] Presently he sighed. 'All right,' he said with an effort. 'I will.' [surrender]
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. 1954. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. 41-43.

What techniques do you see in Tolkien's craft that you can emulate?


  1. Wow. I'm really kinda envious of your mad analytical skills. :) You do analysis very well. And going down your list of techniques, I think I've used justification, defiance, intimidation, the threat of violence, and blame shifting in my writing. I'm not sure what that says about me, but that's my story.

  2. Great analysis. And I always love to read anything Tolkein :)

  3. This is interesting, never thought of it from this angle before.
    Thanks and blessings,

  4. Sarahjayne: Thanks. It's kind of fun, like being a sports commentator. "And Bilbo defies! No, wait, Gandalf persuades again!" Your list is interesting--you must have very heated conflict in your work!

    Jemi: I don't usually think of Tolkien as a dialogue guy, but this scene is pretty killer.

    Karen: I like Scofield's observation that most conflict is an attempt to arrive at peace, and that manipulation, flattery and other "soft" ways of fighting can be very effective.

  5. Wow - thanks so much for breaking it down like this! I agree: great analytical skills. I'm jealous!

  6. I think it takes a certain brain tick/ability to be able to analyze a conversation to this degree. But these posts and conversations are important because, as we learn these things, they become easier to see and create. Even if we don't realize we are doing it. Does that make sense?

  7. Good visiual on how to do it well! Thanks.

  8. Talli: Thanks. I don't do this kind of thing often, but it can be helpful to look at a passage you admire and try to discover the inner workings.

    Tess: Hee hee. Obsessively analyzing is a tick of the thwarted academic (I hate public speaking, and professors are expected to teach rooms full of people, dagnabbit!).

    But yes, I'm happy to put my bizarre hobby on display for my blog readers' instruction.

    Bish: You're welcome. It was interesting to see how the more powerful character restrains himself so much in this interaction. I found that in particular very eye-opening.

  9. Thank you for sharing your gift and your work on this. I am using it right now as I develop my script. All these elements of negotiations are going on. It also makes you think how people manipulate in real life interactions. Of course, mine is a realistic drama.

  10. I think I have a scene! BUT it's not just dialogue. I'm going to scroll around and see if I can email this to you or how you want it sent.