Constructed Dialogue in Storytelling and Conversation

boy talking with his dog - constructed dialogue
I thought I heard the puppy say, "I really like you, buddy.". (Destinations by DES-Desislava Panteva Photography/Getty Images)

Constructed dialogue is a term used in conversation analysis to describe a re-creation or representation of actual, internal, or imagined speech in storytelling or conversation.

The term constructed dialogue was coined by linguist Deborah Tannen (1986) as a more accurate alternative to the traditional term reported speech. Tannen has identified 10 different types of constructed dialogue, including summarizing dialogue, choral dialogue, dialogue as inner speech, dialogue constructed by a listener, and the dialogue of non-human speakers.

Examples and Observations 

  • "Jeff got up on the platform and made a little spiel. He said in effect, 'I am a hobo, and I am running a hobo cabaret. A hobo is a man who always works for his living but has wanderlust and loves to travel. A tramp is lazy and would rather have a handout than work, and a bum is a guy who is even lower than a tramp. I don't want any tramps or bums.'"
    (Ed Lowry, My Life in Vaudeville, ed. by Paul M. Levitt. Southern Illinois University Press, 2011)
  • "The executioner was whistling and swinging his axe idly, because at the moment he had nothing to do. In spite of his business, he really seemed to be a very pleasant man.
    'The King says you must chop off my head,' said Bartholomew.
    "'Oh, I'd hate to,' said the executioner, looking at him with a friendly smile. 'You seem like such a nice boy.'
    "'Well . . . the king says you have to,' said Bartholomew, 'so please get it over with.'
    "'All right,' sighed the executioner, 'but first you've got to take off your hat.'"
    (Dr. Seuss, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Vanguard, 1938)
  • Dialogue of Nonhuman Speakers
    "In the morning [the child] woke and took the waterpot, and went to the river; she sat down and wept. As she was crying, there came out a great frog, and said, 'Why are you crying?' She said, 'I am in trouble.' The frog said, 'What is troubling you?' She replied, 'It is said that I am to become the wife of my brother.' The frog said, 'Go and take your beautiful things, which you love, and bring them here.'
    ("The Frog and Umdhlubu," from African Folktales, ed. by Paul Radin. Princeton University Press, 1970)
  • Choral Dialogue
    Most people seem to be saying, "I expect the average gambler to lose money, but not me!"
  • Dialogue as Inner Speech
    We've got one microphone stuffed right in the speaker, and I'm going, "No, with years of training, one would know that just won't work."
  • Deborah Tannen on Constructed Dialogue
    "The term 'reported speech' is a misnomer. Examination of the lines of dialogue represented in storytelling or conversation, and consideration of the powers of human memory, indicate that most of those lines were probably not actually spoken. What is commonly referred to as reported speech or direct quotation in conversation is constructed dialogue, just as surely as is the dialogue created by fiction writers and playwrights. A difference is that in fiction and plays, the characters and actions are also constructed, whereas in personal narrative, they are based on actual characters and events. . . .
    "[C]onstructed dialogue in conversation and in fiction is a means by which experience surpasses story to become drama. Moreover, the creation of drama from personal experience and hearsay is made possible by and simultaneously creates interpersonal involvement among speaker or writer and audience."
    (Deborah Tannen, "Introducing Constructed Dialogue in Greek and American Conversational Literary Narrative." Direct and Indirect Speech, ed. by Florian Coulmas. Walter de Gruyter, 1986)
  • Constructed Dialogue as a Discourse Event
    "[Deborah Tannen] argues that lines of dialogue in conversation, owing to characteristics of human memory, are probably not exactly the same as those that were actually spoken. Thus, the lines of speech are not actually reported verbatim but rather are constructed by speakers based on real people and events.
    "Further evidence for the notion that dialogue is constructed is based on the fact that some lines of dialogue in stories are the thoughts of the participants in the stories, or are interjected by listeners. . . . Constructed dialogue can occur between hypothetical persons or animals. . . .
    "Lines of dialogue can also appear in lectures, as a type of discourse event. . . . [Constructed dialogue can] serve the function of making lectures interesting or vivid."
    (Cynthia B. Roy, "Features of Discourse in an American Sign Language Lecture." The Sociolinguistics of the Deaf Community, ed. by Ceil Lucas. Academic Press, 1989
  • Ventriloquizing
    "In my analysis of family discourse, I identify and examine a particular type of constructed dialogue, which I call 'ventriloquizing.' I use this term to refer to instances in which a family member speaks in the voice of another who is present, such as a nonverbal child or pet."
    (Deborah Tannen, Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue, and Imagery in Conversational Discourse. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Constructed Dialogue in Storytelling and Conversation." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Constructed Dialogue in Storytelling and Conversation. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Constructed Dialogue in Storytelling and Conversation." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).