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Review of  Television Dramatic Dialogue

Reviewer: Jessie Sams
Book Title: Television Dramatic Dialogue
Book Author: Kay Richardson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 21.5041

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AUTHOR: Richardson, Kay
TITLE: Television Dramatic Dialogue
SUBTITLE: A Sociolinguistic Study
SERIES: Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics
YEAR: 2010

Jessie Sams, Department of English, Stephen F. Austin State University


This book was published in the Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics Series. As the
title and subtitle suggest, Richardson's primary goal is to study dialogue in
television shows from a sociolinguistic perspective, and she presents her study
in three sections: (1) an analysis of what the term ''television dramatic
dialogue'' means and previous research in the field; (2) how to study such
dialogue from a sociolinguistic perspective; and (3) more specific analyses from
two television shows, 'Life on Mars' and 'House'.


Richardson begins her study by defining TV dramatic dialogue ''as
onscreen/on-mike talk delivered by characters as part of dramatic storytelling
in a range of fictional and nonfictional TV genres'' (p. 3). Her definition of TV
dramatization includes more than those shows that would typically fall under the
genre 'drama', pointing out that even ''[g]eneric categorization is no guarantee
of similar language use'' (p. 15). Studying dialogue to understand the overall
impact of TV shows on audiences is particularly important, as ''speaking voices
have a potential hold on viewers' attention that is qualitatively different
from'' other types of auditory input (p. 17).

The first chapter not only defines the type of dialogue Richardson will be
concerned with throughout the book but also focuses on the variety of purposes
dialogue can serve in TV shows. When looking at dialogue, she does not solely
focus on linguistic content, per se, but rather on the linguistic structure of
the interactions and their contextualization, and she notes the differences
between vocal and verbal meanings of dialogue.

After defining TV dramatic dialogue and its purposes and importance in TV shows,
Richardson provides an overview of previous studies that are relevant to the
sociolinguistic analysis of dialogue. Her survey covers ''[g]eneral attempts to
understand the communicative basis of screen dialogue'' and studies more focused
on ''particular kinds of dialogue'' or ''communicative forms'' (p. 40). Her survey
also includes cognitive approaches to TV dialogue; she writes that such studies
serve ''the useful function of drawing attention to social meanings brought *to*
the text *by* the audience, as well as those that might be taken away from the
text by them'' (p. 41).

Moving on from definitions and previous studies, Richardson examines differing
approaches to studying dialogue, including looking at dialogue from
screenwriters' and audiences' perspectives, as well as thinking about dialogue's
place in studies of social interaction and cognition. She first focuses on the
differences between TV dialogue and characteristics of the types of dialogue
found in conversational speech, written genres, and nonscripted journalism. For
instance, when comparing characteristics of TV dramatic dialogue to those of
conversational speech, she points out that comprehensibility is a major factor
of TV dramatic dialogue; if there is too much overlap of utterances in the
interaction, audiences may not be able to understand or follow the interaction.
While TV dramatic dialogue differs from conversational speech, it is trending
toward realism; that is, screenwriters are attempting to make dialogue more
representational of what audience members might hear on a daily basis. This
trend toward realism is showing up in formulaic utterances in dialogues, and
Richardson points out that ''[f]unctionally basic dialogue in television … need
not be uninteresting or poorly written'' (p. 57).

Richardson also focuses on the separation of screenwriter from actor, actor from
character, and representation from audience interpretation, pointing out that
''[i]t is instructive to learn about how and where the lines are drawn between
writing, acting, and directing, and the effects of these demarcation lines on
the product'' (p. 85). She states that screenwriters, actors, and audiences
understand that drama is a representation; as a representation, TV dramatic
dialogue simulates everyday dialogue without being everyday dialogue (i.e., TV
dramatic dialogue is moving toward realism, not necessarily naturalism).

One way that Richardson separates the screenwriters' responsibilities from the
actors' is that the writers are expected to provide words for the utterances but
the actors are expected to put realism into those utterances. One way such
realism can be injected into dialogue is through the insertion of disfluencies:
''… expressions of disfluency are not part of *the (verbal) meaning* but instead
are performance *errors*. Writers are meant to manage meaning only up to this
particular water's edge'' (p. 65). In other words, writers provide what the
actors need to say, leaving how those words will be performed to the actors.

While focusing on the separation of duties in creating realistic TV dramatic
dialogue, Richardson states that the duties are understood but not often
explicitly stated; in fact, she notes several times that there is not a wealth
of guides available for writing quality dramatic dialogue. Instead, good
screenwriters are often those who are thought to implicitly understand what
incorporates realistic dialogue and how to write such dialogue without
overdramatizing: ''Screenwriters do, consciously, know about such things as
hesitation phenomena, discourse markers, and hedges, and about some of the
functions these can serve in spoken interaction. … They know how to use dialogue
as a way of advancing the narrative, and they also appreciate that such usage
creates a source of problems for the naturalism they are also obliged to
sustain'' (p. 83).

Richardson also looks at how audiences respond to dialogue through threads,
blogs, review columns, and fan fiction, and considers different types of
audiences, including the professional review, the fan, and the ''ordinary''
viewer. One way that TV dramatic dialogue takes on a life outside the TV
imagined world is through catchphrases -- those phrases that become so
associated with a particular character that audience members repeat the phrase
in similar real-world situations where the character might say it. One thing
Richardson notes about catchphrases is that they are oftentimes made up of quite
ordinary language. One example of such a catchphrase is Joey's ''How you doin'?''
from 'Friends', which is ''unremarkable, linguistically'' (p. 101).

Richardson continues her survey of possible methods for using TV dramatic
dialogue in sociolinguistic studies by looking at dialogue as social interaction
and then analyzing characters and their dialogue through theories of social
cognition. When audiences cognitively process characters, they have the option
of top-down processing (i.e., schemata) or bottom-up processing (i.e., building
a picture of who someone is through linguistic cues in the dialogue). Richardson
notes that with dramatic language, there is a ''… double articulation of its
discourse architecture (communication *among* characters embedded as part of
communication between author and audience *via* characters)…'' (p. 147). That
double articulation is what makes studying dramatic dialogue so intricate -- the
number of possibilities for analyzing any given interaction is quickly
multiplied when the sociolinguistic layers are separated.

Richardson concludes her study with two in-depth analyses of television shows:
'Life on Mars' and 'House'. The 'Life on Mars' study focuses on analyzing the
dialogue as ''quality'' dialogue and its place in the ''ethnography of
communication'' (p. 167). In other words, that particular study is concerned with
analyzing the interaction between the actors and audience. The 'House' study, on
the other hand, focuses on the pragmatics of interactions, specifically
analyzing the interactions through politeness theory (or, rather, through
impoliteness theory).


Richardson's book is, at its core, a survey: eight of the ten chapters are more
focused on the breadth of linguistic analysis (i.e., looking at all the possible
ways TV dramatic dialogue could be studied within sociolinguistics) while only
two chapters focus on the depth of linguistic analysis (i.e., looking at
specific case studies and putting analyses into practice). It is important to
approach the book as a general reference book and not as a solidified case study
(an example of a more in-depth case study on TV language is Quaglio 2009).

One of the strongest chapters in the book is the second, which focuses on
providing a solid background of previous sociolinguistic studies: It could
potentially serve as a stand-alone paper to help students understand the field
of sociolinguistic research as it applies to media. Throughout the book,
Richardson relies on a strong base of diverse sources, including ''pop culture''
sources like blogs. The reliance on so many types of sources strengthens her
presentation of how dramatic dialogue can further sociolinguistic study. Another
strength of the book is its appendix and notes section; these will benefit
students and scholars who are interested in furthering their own pursuit of
sociolinguistic study and TV language.

The only concern with the book is that it could be too ambitious in terms of the
amount of material being covered in so few pages; with so much ground being
covered (especially in the breadth analyses), it might be disorienting for
students who do not have a strong background in sociolinguistic theory. However,
this book would serve as a good text for a course studying media through
linguistics, where each chapter could then serve as the backbone for material
which will be covered from week to week.


Quaglio, Paulo. 2009. Television Dialogue: The sitcom 'Friends' vs. natural
conversation. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Jessie Sams is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX. Her primary research interests include the intersection of syntax and semantics, genre studies based on linguistic features, and English quotatives.

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