Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

as Dramatic or Literary device
and Political Practice

Dialogue is familiar in two contexts: textual and political.

1. Textual or literary dialogue is mimesis, representation, or imitation of speech in a drama, a screenplay, or interactive speech in fiction. Examples of critical usage:

"The story was good but the dialogue was flat."

"Your strength as an author is in writing dialogue."

"The action of the story is limited, but the characters' dialogue intensifies their conflict."

Example of dialogue in drama
from the classical Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, Agamemnon (458 BCE) lines 1098-1106

[Situation: Midway through this play, King Agamemnon has returned victorious but chastened from the Trojan War. His wife, Queen Clytaemnestra, has waited ten years for revenge on Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to the gods so that the Greeks could be successful in warfare. In the scene below, as Agamemnon prepares to dismount from his chariot and enter the palace, Clytaemnestra urges him to walk across a royal purple tapestry as a sign of his greatness—an act of hubris that might anger the gods anew.]

KING AGAMEMNON: You should know I'll not go back on what I've said. [Agamemnon has previously refused to walk across the tapestry.]

QUEEN CLYTAEMNESTRA: You must fear something, then, to act this way. [Clytaemnestra taunts.]
You've made some promise to the gods.    [Clytaemnestra insinuates.]                    

AGAMEMNON: I've said my final word. I fully understand,   [Agamemnon takes a stand.]
as well as any man, just what I'm doing.          ["A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."]

CLYTAEMNESTRA: What do you think Priam would have done,  [King Priam of Troy, defeated in Trojan War]
if he'd had your success?

AGAMEMNON: That's clear—
he'd have walked across these tapestries.  [Agamemnon weakens, admits temptation of pride]

CLYTAEMNESTRA: So then why be ashamed by what men say?   [Clytaemnestra challenges.] 

AGAMEMNON: But what people say can have great power. . . .  [Agamemnon struggles to defend his resolution, but as scene continues, he succumbs and walks across the tapestry into the palace, where Clytaemnestra and her love await to kill him.] 

King Agamemnon in dialogue with Queen Clytaemnestra while holding captive Cassandra

The dialogue above never exactly happened except in this play based on ancient myth, but Aeschylus as a dramatist / playwright created words for characters to say that accomplish at least two purposes for the formal genre of drama:

Characterization: The speakers' words reveal their characters, personality types, or relationships, in the example above imitating or resembling what a husband and wife or king and queen might say to each other under the circumstances. (mimesis) When an audience hears such dialogue, they process it as they would process real speech, by asking "What type of person would say that?" or "Is this person being serious, sarcastic, ironic, honest, cunning, etc.?"

Narrative or Plot Development: The characters' interactive speech propels forward the story, narrative, or plot with little or no direct narration (as with a voice-over in film or video, or a narrator in fiction). Clytaemnestra leads Agamemnon to do what he doesn't want to do and brings him nearer to death.

Dramatic poetry (stage plays, movie screenplays, televisions scripts) work almost exclusively through dialogue, with a few exceptions:

Examples of non-dialogue speech in drama—i.e., exceptions to standard drama-as-dialogue:

Dialogue between two or more characters is standard or conventional for drama (including TV dramas and films), but any drama may also feature characters or speakers who occasionally talk not to other characters but address the audience (more or less).

Especially in classical Greek dramas, a "chorus" of community elders may provide narration, commentary, and background in addition to the main dialogue. In Sophocles's Antigone, for example, the chorus in its first appearance (lines 122ff) recounts the battle the previous day between the Theban forces led by Eteocles and the invading forces led by Eteocles's brother Polynices.

In later dramas the "chorus" may appear as bystanders or, in a play like Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the "stage manager" who directly addresses the audience, providing background information on characters or suggestions how to interpret the dialogue and action.

In Shakespearean drama, a character may speak briefly in an "aside" or at length in a "soliloquy."

In television shows, especially situation comedies, a character may sometimes "break the fourth wall" by addressing the audience or speaking so tha audience may overhear private thoughts or intellectual reflections.

      In The Bernie Mac Show (2001-2006), the protagonist Bernie sometimes expressed his internal thoughts by praying aloud or by addressing "America" directly.

      On Seinfeld (1989-1998), the protagonist Jerry indirectly commented on a show's conflicts or action through a stand-up routine or comic monologue.

(Stage directions in the text of a play may suggest settings and instructions for how characters act, but detailed stage directions are rare, especially in early dramatic works, and productions often vary authors' stage directions significantly.)

Types of dialogue: The only type of dialogue in drama that receives wide attention is "expository dialogue" (explained below, but other forms of dialogue are probably as many and various as human speech, so regard the following list as no more than an attempt at suggesting this range:

Interrogatory dialogue (questioning or interrogation):

       In a police or detective drama or in a scene of a job interview, one character interviews or questions another, a

       In a suspense-action drama or film, "What do we do now?" dialogue > "Let's try this . . . " > "But . . . " > "What if . . . " > "Wait! I remember something . . . " > etc.

Rising tension as dialogue develops knowledge, clarifies conflict, drives judgment and resolution, also revealing and developing characterization and narrative or plot.

Competitive boasting or one-upmanship, as when two warriors face off. (cf. professional wrestling; dialogue as substitute for actual combat)

Pleading or nagging

Speaking so others cannot speak; domineering speech.

Expository Dialogue is the most widely observed (and often derided) form of drama, identifiable in nearly any play, TV show, or movie.

Exposition (Oxford English Dictionary): The action or process of setting forth, declaring, or describing, either in speech or writing.

Expository dialogue is explanatory dialogue—speech that shares information and provides backgrounds and settings or reveals pre-existing conflicts or issues.

Simple example: A character walks in and says, "It's cold outside."

More complex example revealing conflict or plot: As two lovers argue, one says, "You're trying to make me say what neither of us wants to say." (Such language cues the audience that a secret or a problem will be revealed, worked through, and somehow resolved.)

Such techniques are part of any drama we watch. If the exposition is too obvious or direct, it indicates inferior quality, and even an unsophisticated audience can smell the difference. (In cheap monster movies, characters repeatedly call the Mad Scientist "a genius" or "one of the world's foremost authorities" even when he wasn't acting smart or demonstrating intelligence.)

In well-written drama we rarely notice expository dialogue. Instead the expository details are subtly blended with the action and characterization so that we feel as though the information is really happening and almost as though we are there and involved with the story and characters.

Cop Show example: Cop shows make expository dialogue less tedious and more viewer-friendly by having several members of the cop-team speak briefly in sequence. Cop shows have to compress a lot of information into a short span.

Example from classical Greek tragedy: In Sophocles's Antigone, the opening scene shows Oedipus's two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, demonstrate expository dialogue by reviewing the battle that took place the previous day and the new royal degrees by King Creon, but these expository materials are mixed with expressions of Antigone's bold character, Ismene's cautious character, and Antigone's plan to bury her slain brother Polynices.

2. Actual or historical dialogue is interactive speech between two or more actual people or parties or their sometimes fictionalized representatives. Examples:

  • "The U.S. State Department is trying to open a dialogue with the new nation's government."

  • "We're not agreeing about anything except to continue our dialogue."

  • "Dialogue's nice, but if we keep talking we'll miss our chance to make a change."

In abstract reasoning, dialogue may appear as dialectic, in which two distinct symbols or ideas are made to share, exchange, and augment meaning.

The concept of intellectual or didactic dialogue in Western Civilization derives ultimately from the "Socratic dialogue" represented in Plato's writings including The Republic (), Laws (), and other dialogues, in which the primary character Socrates (who was Plato's teacher) debated with other historical or composite figures from classical Athens who expressed familiar opinions that, under Socrates's question, became objects of analysis and improvement.

More on actual or historical dialogue as interactive speech between two or more people or parties.

Dialogue and intertextuality are parallel or homologous but distinct.

Dialogue denotes speech shared directly by people (fictional or historical).

Intertextuality denotes words, images, and other signs shared between texts—-not directly between people, that is, but between their products.

Dialectic denotes dialogues between ideas, forces, or agents of history.

The terms phase in and out of each other. However, their differences justify the use of both words rather than exclusively one or the other.