I. What is Dialogue?
Dialogue (pronounced die-a-log) means “conversation.” In the broadest sense, this includes any case of two or more characters speaking to each other directly. But it also has a narrower definition, called the dialogue form. The dialogue form is the use of a sustained dialogue to express an argument or idea. This article will focus more on the narrower definition, since this definition is generally less familiar to people than the more general one.
II. Examples of Dialogue
Many modern playwrights use dialogue to explore philosophical ideas. One famous example is Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, in which two great physicists – one Danish and the other German – meet in the midst of World War II. Their conversation ranges over science, politics, and their personal relationship, and each of these conversations deeply influences the other two, producing an extremely complex and philosophical narrative, despite having only two main characters.
Perhaps the most famous use of the dialogue form is Plato’s Symposium. In this highly influential work of philosophy, Plato describes a conversation between Socrates and several of his friends. They are all lying on couches in various states of drunkenness, arguing about the meaning of love. Over the course of the dialogue, the arguments become more and more sophisticated, until in the end we see the ultimate conversation between Socrates and his intoxicated student, Alcibiades. Socrates ultimately demonstrates that love is a far more complex and ever-present reality than the simpler notions of affection that his friends have been describing.
III. The Importance of Dialogue
In ancient Greece, drama and philosophy were very closely related. Plays, whether comedy or tragedy, were supposed to express important religious and philosophical ideas, not simply entertain people. As a result, early philosophers such as Plato employed the dialogue form in writing their philosophy. Although philosophy is now written in monologue (with only one voice, namely the author’s), there is still a value to the dialogue form.
Any argument, whether in philosophy or any other discipline, proceeds by responding to counterarguments and reader doubts. It starts by saying something that can be doubted (a thesis or main claim), and then responds to those doubts in order to persuade the reader that the main claim is true.
The dialogue form takes this interplay of doubt and persuasion, and makes it explicit – typically, one or more of the characters represents the reader’s view, while another character represents the author’s view. This allows the author to acknowledge the reader’s anticipated objections in the process of answering them.
IV. Examples of Dialogue in Literature
The dialogue form is not solely an ancient phenomenon. It was also used by Mohandas Gandhi in his famous Hind Swaraj or Indian Self Rule (1909), in which he argues that the Indian people must take control both of their country (then under British rule) and of their souls and emotions. The dialogue is between two characters: Editor, representing Gandhi, and Reader, representing skeptical readers who might disagree with his ideas.
The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most sacred texts in the Hindu faith, is structured as a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna. The two divine heroes discuss virtue, ethical behavior, duty, and enlightenment over the course of a long chariot ride.
V. Examples of Dialogue in Pop Culture
In music, a song sung by two different artists is called a “duet,” but it sometimes has the same effect as a dialogue, with each vocalist expressing his or her own viewpoint. One recent example would be Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” in which the male and female singers have different perspectives on the story. Note that if both singers share the same perspective, it’s not really a dialogue.
Nearly all movies have a significant amount of dialogue – any time the characters speak to one another is dialogue! In many movies, the dialogue takes a back seat to the action, but this isn’t always the case – My Dinner With Andre, for example, is entirely about a long conversation between two characters talking about their lives and philosophies.
Although standup comedy almost always takes the form of a monologue, there are some exceptions – ventriloquists, for example, use dummies (puppets) to “respond” and set up their jokes. There are also routines, such as those of Abbott & Costello, or Monty Python, that employ dialogue in their comedy. Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” sketch actually satirizes the dialogue form by creating a comically unsophisticated conversation. (For most of the sketch, the two characters are just saying “yes it is” and “no it isn’t” back and forth.)
VI. Related Terms
A monologue is an extended speech by a single character – the typical standup routine is an example of a monologue. This is also the form of almost all philosophical and academic writing today. However, there are still a few experimental authors who employ the dialogue form in writing out their arguments.