Kay Richardson. Television Dramatic Dialogue: A Sociolinguistic Study. 2010

Why TV dialogue is not mimetic

[Television] "speech is not authentic, if by authentic we mean unscripted, naturally occurring talk among human beings talking for themselves, as themselves; and as a mimetic copy of real conversation (cf. Quaglio 2009) it will always be found wanting, if only because of the functions it must perform over and above those of imitation. But even outside of drama, the line between authentic and inauthentic speech is a hard one to draw. Erving Goffman long ago demonstrated the extent to which performance was an essential part of everyday human interaction, and introduced a dramaturgical model into the analysis of such interaction" (4).

Realistic preference

"In mainstream television and film, there is a preference for realistic rather than stylized or poetic modes of talk in many genres. This approximate, and conventionalized, verisimilitude encourages audiences to take the easy road and hear drama talk as they hear everyday talk. But as all sociolinguists know, even everyday, unscripted talk categorically does not give up meaning without effort on the hearer’s part" (5).

Language is not a sufficient element

"Even when actors are required to talk, the vocal delivery of the words (timing, pitch, melody, voice quality, volume, etc.) already takes us out of the sphere of language and into that of the semiotics of sound (Van Leeuwen 1999), and nonvocal aspects of delivery (gaze, gesture, bodily orientation) take us further still (Naremore 1988). Language has a contribution to make to dramatic expression, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient element of its construction. Its most basic contribution is to assist in the realization of the underlying narrative form and characterization, though there are other less basic contributions too.

Not all language in TV drama is dialogue

"At the same time, not all language in dramatic texts takes the form of dialogue. Those linguists who study literary drama, in its written form, are interested, for instance, in stage directions (McIntyre 2006). Performed dramas may include voiceover components in many productions involving dramatization--common in dramatized documentary and TV commercials, but not unknown in popular drama too: it is deployed in both Heroes (NBC 2006–present) and Desperate Housewives (ABC 2004–present)" (11).

Drama talk must foreclose alternatives

"Most writers on drama dialogue make only minimal comments on why true verisimilitude is not achievable. Comprehensibility is certainly a factor (when there is too much overlap, audiences can’t hear the lines), as is the obligation to convey meaning at different levels (dramatists use character dialogue to get across information about place, time, and action that the characters themselves could probably have taken for granted). Less often mentioned is the fact that real-time interaction leads to multiple possibilities of uptake at all points, and that dramatic versions of talk have to foreclose on all but the most relevant to the ongoing narrative. There may also be, on the part of some linguists, a suspicion that dramatists themselves don’t fully understand what naturally occurring talk is really like. As ordinary language users, they, like the rest of us, mentally edit out disfluency and other complications in the everyday business of making sense--and carry this deafness over to their representational work" (45)

Dramatists who move away from standard dialogue

"Some dramatists and directors certainly do have an awareness of the ways dialogue can be fashioned that move it away from standard-issue, one-speaker-ata-time fluency. Harold Pinter’s pauses, Woody Allen’s repetitiveness and disfluency, and Robert Altman’s use of multiple voices are all well-known examples of divergence from the standard model. Nor is such divergence unknown on television. A current British forensic crime series, Waking the Dead (BBC 2000– present), is very keen on the use of overlapping speech" (45).

Overlapping speech

"The overlapping speech here [in Waking the Dead] is not just in the service of realism. Its use underwrites a sense of urgency and frustration, as well as of competition among the characters to hold the floor and have their views prevail. Audibility suffers: the line that begins 'I don’t believe he would have got rid of it …' is inaudible after historical significance,' when two other voices join in. However, the key points in each contribution (not entirely coherent) are allowed to stand proud of the hubbub--'it’s not the right sword,' says the scientist, 'the right one has been disposed of by now," (46).

Monologues in popular drama

"In January 2008, an entire 30-minute episode of the popular British soap opera East Enders (BBC 1985–present) was given over to a single character, Dot Cotton (June Brown). The pretext for Dot’s talk was that she was speaking into a tape recorder for the benefit of her sick husband--also, as the monologue progressed, she was meant to discover her true feelings about the prospect of having him back to live with her as an invalid, should he ever come out of hospital. This episode required considerable acting stamina and skill from June Brown; the unusual nature of this episode was extensively trailed beforehand, and the actress was subsequently nominated for a BAFTA award (the episode was written by Tony Jordan)" (55).

Six functions of dialogue

"[Kozloff’s schema of television dialogue:] In the first, basic group, she gives us the following:

1. Anchorage of the diegesis and characters

2. Communication of narrative causality

3. Enactment of narrative events

4. Character revelation

5. Adherence to the code of realism 6. Control of viewer evaluation and emotions (2000: 33)" (53).

"In addition to the six basic functions in Kozloff’s account, there are three "value-added" ones--to use an economic metaphor [...]

1. Opportunities for star turns

2. Exploiting the resources of language

3. Thematic messages/authorial commentary/allegory" (54).

Exposition in theatre

"In theater, the expositional responsibilities of dialogue (encompassing functions 1 and 2[anchoring and communication of narrative causality]) may be greater than they are in cinema, because of the limitations of the physical space. In radio, they may be either fewer or greater. They will be fewer when a narrator is given most of the expositional work. Otherwise, they will be greater, because there is no physical space that can be shown to audiences." (53)

Sex and car chases, confessions and declarations of love

"This conception of action [enactment of narrative events] treats sex, fights, and car chases on a par with confessions, declarations of love, and threats: those that are linguistically 'lite' with / those that are linguistically full. The difference between a car chase and a confession is roughly as follows: a car chase is an event in which talk may occur as an adjunct feature: 'Go, go!' 'That way, quick!' 'Lost him!' A confession, by contrast, is an interpersonal event in which talk is likely to take a lead role: 'I’ve been seeing other men.' However, the distinction between talk and action in this context is a scale, not an opposition, because the car chase undoubtedly requires some talk, and the confession exists as much in exchanges of gaze and body language as it does in its wording." (53-4)

Kozloff, Sarah. 2000. Overhearing film dialogue. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Viewers are also eavesdroppers

"We are accustomed to using the idea of the filmgoer as a voyeur, surreptitiously spying on the actions of the on-screen characters. What has often been overlooked is that viewers are also listeners; in fact they are eavesdroppers, listening in on conversations purportedly addressed to others, but conversations that — in reality — are designed to communicate certain information to the audience" (60)

TV dialogue must pay regard to its audience

"TV dialogue shares with everyday talk the goal of mediating social relationships in a wide range of interactive situations, whereas it shares with media talk its public quality, its obligation to have regard for an audience" (62)

TV and film dialogue do not produce identifical results

"In comparing TV dialogue with representational talk in other fiction and nonfiction contexts, its closest relation would seem to be dialogue in feature films, because both work with essentially the same visual/aural resources, whereas the resources available to prose fiction, stage drama, printed drama texts, and radio each make for very different affordances, to use the term in its social semiotic sense (van Leeuwen 2004). Despite the similarity, film and television drama do not produce identical results in all cases as far as dialogue is concerned. Long-form drama, for instance, may present greater opportunities to use language for characterization than feature film does. When television drama was ephemeral, it tended not to produce memorable quotes as the movies did ('Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn'), but, like radio, it did produce catchphrases, by virtue of extensive repetition ('You may think that, I couldn’t possibly comment' — House of Cards, BBC 1990). Conditions of television distribution are very different in the twenty-first century, though catchphrase repetition may still be significant ('Save the cheerleader, save the world' — Heroes, NBC 2006–present)" (62).

The TV process

"TV production starts with an idea, which becomes an outline (which may have references to speech, but no dialogue as such), which becomes a script (in which dialogue is first introduced), which goes through several passes and several drafts before entering production. Production may then require further written drafts on the way to becoming an audiovisual product. The original writer is usually asked to rewrite his or her own work on the basis of notes (practical criticism) from others; some rewriting may also be undertaken by script editors and/or executive producers (showrunners). This is different from the world of cinema" (66).

Three types of TV dialogue

"[Rib Davis's] three main stylistic categories are naturalistic, heightened naturalistic, and nonnaturalistic. He rejects the label realistic because of its ambiguity: naturalism as Davis uses it refers unambiguously to mimetic intentions. Naturalistic dialogue comes in two subtypes: selective naturalism and extreme naturalism." (69).

"is is dialogue that displays the following:

… a consciousness of the class, gender, geographical origins and upbringing of each speaker, as well as the particular register employed for the specific setting […] each individual will tend towards a particular phraseology, use of certain vocabulary and even, in some cases, distinctive sentence construction. Then, naturalistic dialogue has to conform to the general messiness of spoken language — the unfinished or ungrammatical sentences, hesitations, repetitions, interruptions, simultaneous speeches and verbal shorthands, much of it resulting from interaction between individuals […] dialogue is fundamentally affected by the agendas — conscious, semiconscious and unconscious — of each character. (2008: 44–45)"

Selective naturalism is the style of writing which attempts to faithfully imitate dialogue as we normally speak it, but, unnoticed, manages to omit all those passages — not only beginnings and endings but also all sorts of other uninteresting sections — which would add nothing to the production. For it is not enough merely to imitate life: scripts are not straight, one-for-one imitations of slabs of life. In selective naturalism they are crafted, moulded to appear as if they were. (Davis 2008: 48) (69)

Davis, Rib. 2008. Writing dialogue for scripts, 3rd ed. London: A and C Black.

Against Propp, Greimas and Frye

"To be imaginatively caught up in the reality effect [,all] that is required is collusion with the artifice — a slightly more active mental state than mere suspension of disbelief. This accords with Chatman’s advocacy of an 'open theory of character' (1978: 119–126): 'A viable theory of character should preserve openness and treat characters as autonomous beings, not as mere plot functions. It should argue that character is / reconstructed by the audience from evidence announced or implicit in an original construction and communicated by the discourse, through whatever medium' (1978:119). Chatman was arguing against the purely structural view of character in fiction (deriving from the work of such scholars as Propp, Greimas, and Northrop Frye). Chatman believed that we draw on the same resources to interpret characters as we do to interpret the people we meet in real life: 'The same principle (of inferring character and personality) operates with new acquaintances; we read between their lines, so to speak; we form hypotheses on the basis of what we know and see; we try to figure them out, predict their actions, and so on' (1978:118). Herman (1995: 45) talks about the fragmentary or 'gapped' evidence that drama provides about the nature of the characters featured in it. Our evidence about the nature of 'real people' is likewise fragmentary." (129-130).

Chatman, Seymour. 1978. Story and discourse. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Herman, Vimala. 1995. Dramatic discourse: Dialogue as interaction in plays. London: Routledge.

Mixing comedy, drama and sentiment

"Like much successful TV drama, the series [Life on Mars] aims for a mixture of the comic and the dramatic (including the sentimental). The relative proportions of comedic and serious elements, and the terms of their relationship, vary by genre, but the idea of such a mixture is not restricted to quality drama. Soap operas such as Coronation Street (ITV 1960–present), as well as situation comedies such as Friends (NBC 1994–2004), have certainly recognized the value of such a combination." (153)

'American quality programming'

"[Robert J.]Thompson (1996) was one of the first to write about the distinctiveness of 'American quality programming,' [...]: was the identification a judgment on the value of the shows or just a matter of identifying distinct generic characteristics?. The characteristics that Thompson proposed are still much cited. They include the following:

(Thompson 1996:155).

Controversy in TV drama

"Subject matter is liable to be controversial when it is of sociocultural relevance, as with issues of policing and society. This is an area in which the evaluation of drama and the evaluation of nonfictional shows such as news and current affairs have something in common. The other criteria in Thompson’s list tend to privilege merits of a broadly aesthetic or formal kind, but as far as subject matter is concerned, the grounding shifts. Viewers might be expected to learn something, for good or ill, from a drama’s subject matter, and this must raise issues of ethics and truth alongside those of its style, construction, and pedigree." (155)

Thompson, Robert J. 1996. Television’s second golden age: From Hill Street Blues to ER. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.


Richardson, Kay. 2010. Television Dramatic Dialogue: A Sociolinguistic Study. Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-537405-6.