Television dramatic dialogue

Television dramatic dialogue: A sociolinguistic survey. By Kay Richardson. (Oxford studies in sociolinguistics.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 255. ISBN 9780195374063. $29.95 (Pb).

Reviewed by Thomas Hoffmann, University of Osnabrück

Television is one of the most important mass media sources of our time and, as Kay Richardson points out, many shows make heavy use of dramatic dialogue. In this book, she takes a sociolinguistic approach to investigate the ‘onscreen/on-mike talk delivered by characters as part of dramatic storytelling in a range of fictional and nonfictional TV genres’ (3).

Following an introduction (3–20), in which R outlines the scope of her study and discusses central issues such as what counts as television dramatic dialogue and why this is an interesting subject of study, Ch. 2 (21–41) gives an overview of previous related research. Here R identifies two major strands of research, one focusing on dialogue from the perspective of television drama studies, the other being more linguistic in nature, looking at dialogue as language in use from stylistic and sociolinguistic points of view.

Ch. 3, ‘What is TV dialogue like?’ (42–62), compares the characteristics of television dialogue with other types of (non-)mediated and (non-)representational talk. While R shows that television dramatic dialogue is, of course, closer to feature film dialogue than authentic, ‘realistic’ face-to-face conversation, she also points out significant similarities with the latter (e.g. ‘the goal of mediating social relationships in […] interactive situations’; 62).

The following three chapters focus on different perspectives on television dialogue, starting with Ch. 4, ‘What TV screenwriters know about dialogue’ (63–84). In this chapter, R takes a closer look at the production of television shows and how it constrains the writing process. In addition, she explores what is considered ‘good’ dialogue from the screenwriters’ point of view. In contrast, Ch. 5, ‘What the audience knows about dialogue’ (85–104), investigates the role that dialogue plays for critics, fans, ordinary viewers, and aspiring writers. Ch. 6, ‘Dialogue as social interaction’ (105–26), adopts an interactional sociolinguistic approach and analyzes television dialogue from the perspective of communication ethnography.

The creation of characters through dialogue is explored through the lens of schema theory in Ch. 7, ‘Dialogue, character, and social cognition’ (127–50). In the following chapter, ‘Dialogue and dramatic meaning: Life on Mars’ (151–68), looks at how dialogue contributes to the meaning of a dramatic work, based on a case study of the British series Life on Mars. Ch. 9, ‘House and snark’ (169–87), examines the strategies of impoliteness in the American television show House. Finally, Ch. 10 (187–97) concludes the book with an overview of the topics discussed as well as suggestions for potential future research avenues.

Television dramatic dialogue is a fascinating read that draws on a wide variety of television shows from 24 and CSI: Crime scene investigation to Coronation street and Desperate housewives to Doctor Who and House, to name but a few. This book should be particularly interesting to researchers with a background in the sociology of language, but it should also appeal to any linguist working on language in use.