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Relevance Theory in Relation to Open-Ended Dramas: focusing on the usage of ‘this’ and ‘doubt’ in dialogue

Updated on March 21, 2016
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Andrea loves to write on the zodiac, Myers Briggs, and texting. She is an expert on romance and relationships. She also has two cats.


Through my research using relevance theory, I discovered certain commonalities in language throughout five film scripts which both allows for answers in inferential meanings to grand overall meaning for the entirety of the stories. The five scripts used in this research are: Donnie Darko (2001), The Prestige (2005), V for Vendetta (2005), No Country for Old Men (2007), and Inception (2010). These films were selected for several reasons including: they each have surrealist like qualities leading to open-ended endings, they are all dramas, they were made within a few years of each other, and they have similar themes such as loneliness and paranoia. The main lens to be used in examining these scripts will be relevance theory by Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson; the main methodology that will be focused on in this sample of research focuses on: 1.) commonalities in language from word choice and its significance such as when a word is used frequently across several scripts and also the significance of when a single word is used sparingly across the same set of scripts 2.) with that in mind, the two words that will be most heavily analyzed within this study are ‘this’ and ‘doubt.’

Application of Theory

In order to breakdown these scripts and come to subjective conclusions about what they overall mean, relevance theory will be incorporated so as to look at the surrounding words of dialogue along with the context to derive at meaning. According to Sperber and Wilson, “‘Relevance’ is a fuzzy term, used differently by different people, or by the same people at different times. It does not have a translation in every human language. There is no reason to think that a proper semantic analysis of the English word ‘relevance’ would also characterize a concept of scientific psychology” (Sperber 119). With that in mind, the conclusions that will be addressed throughout this essay will lean more toward subjective reasoning rather than objective. Most of the conclusions that will be made are based on how critical the word choice actually has in the role of the script itself, for relevance believes that “an assumption is relevant in a context if and only if it has some contextual effect in that context” (Sperber 122).


For this research, I counted a number of specific words that appeared to standout across the board in each of the screenplays, or at least most of the screenplays. This allowed me to know if certain words appeared in dialogue more so than others, but what is also important to keep in mind is that in order to find what is significant within these scripts is not just a high index number of an occurring word but also if all five scripts are using one word only a certain amount of times because this may mean that this word is a hint in the narratives of a particular kind of occurrence which gives a great deal of meaning to the piece itself. The following chart -- which will be covered in significant detail -- lists the top words in my research that appeared common throughout the films and or of interest to the study. Sorting the graph was of some difficulty and took a number of hours.

I am trying to find numbers that are in relevance to each other therefore I ended up deciding to make averages out of how many times certain words appeared so that higher averages appear at the top while the chart descends with lower number occurrences of the words being used in dialogue. In this research, I used all variants of words that were spoken in language as well, for instance for ‘love’ I also accepted loveliness, lover, and loved.

Chart 1. Word Occurrence Strength in Films

I want to highlight a few words before giving specific samples of their usage in the films. Obviously, the top 6 or so are frequently used words throughout all the films such as: me, this, know, no, yes, and when. These words should not be shocking to find at the top of the chart, but it will prove worthwhile to focus on the importance of what some of these words signify within the whole of these screenplays, especially the word ‘this.’ On the other end of the spectrum, the words doubt, strange, and marry are all used sparingly meaning that within the films these words more than likely connect to more significant moments within the narratives.

Focus: The Importance of ‘This’ and ‘Doubt’

The significance of ‘this’ throughout these films may reveal how the word is used in films to help move plot along and also as a directional cue to allow for a visual to be inserted or to grab the audience’s attention so that they will be in tune to how ‘this’ is being used, and it is a rather complicated antecedent. In Inception, the initial dialogue used is in Japanese. During a complicated introduction, where the film has transitioned from one leaping setting to another (from a beach to an “elegant dining room [in a] Japanese castle” the word this appears within the first pages (Nolan 2). The first line of dialogue comes from an attendant who reports in Japanese (with English subtitles) on the appearance of a mysterious man to his superior (who is focused on eating): “‘He was delirious. But he asked for you by name. And...’ (to the Security Guard) ‘Show him’” (Nolan 2). The security guard then reports on what the man had in his possession. “‘He was carrying nothing but this...’ He puts a handgun on the table. The elderly man keeps eating. ‘and this.’ The security guard places a small pewter cone alongside the gun. The Elderly man stops eating. Picks up the cone” (Nolan 2).

Instead of directly saying exactly what was in the mysterious man’s possession, the characters politely mention the objects of intrigue. The handgun is brought out first which hardly moves the elderly man who, in his lavish setting, continues eating. But on the second this the object hits home due to its oddness. Rather than allowing the audience to know exactly what is happening with these two objects the scene immediately ends. It can be inferred here that using this is useful in raising questions for the audience. Mystery along with plot is being developed here while also placing specific emphasis on two seemingly unconnected objects: a gun and pewter cone.

In No Country for Old Men, the usage of ‘this’ is also used at the beginning in initial dialogue. The scene opens, yet again, outside in a broad open terrain, this time mountains. “Snow is falling in a gusting wind. The voice of an old man: ‘I was sheriff of this country when I was twenty-five. Hard to believe. Grandfather was a lawman. Father too. Me and him was sheriff at the same time, him in Plano and me here. I think he was pretty proud of that. I know I was’” (Coen 2). Here the usage of this is somewhat different than Inception’s. It is much more reflective and also endearing. The voice of the old man has a sense of belonging, if not of protecting the land which he used to police. As with Inception, both convey a sense of possession before with the handgun and pewter cone, now with a much broader and less tangible concept of country.

There is a great deal of implication here, especially with the title of the film No Country for Old Men; immediately the idea that ‘this’ country in the way the speaker portrays it implies that the man has some degree of attachment to his country, but with such a strong passive voice, it can be inferred that this sense has over time withered into depression. To further resonate the theme of disconnection that’s contextualizing the opening, the screenplay on the same page uses ‘this’ again: “‘I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so [...] There was this boy I sent to the gas chamber at Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old-girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it” (Coen 2). The particular ‘this’ here yet again implies a sense of the past, but this time a much more grim recollection of the sheriff’s role in the area. It can be inferred that through this memory he is focusing on the less appetizing aspects of his career. On the next page, the same usage of ‘this’ transitions as the sheriff no longer remunerates but shifts to the present: “I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job -- not to be glorious” (Coen 3). Here its apparent that the sheriff has worked in his industry for a number of years. He uses the strong qualifier always which shows the magnitude of how he feels and that in relation to his reflections and how dismal they are, it would seem that all of his past and present weighs heavily on him. His next line of dialogue gives even more evidence and relevance to how he feels: “But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand” (Coen 3). Regardless of how he feels, the idea of switching to a new career or chapter in life is even more disheartening.

As with Donnie Darko, the usage of ‘this’ is yet again found within the first handful of pages. The Darko family convenes for dinner. Initially, they eat in silence for several moments. This alone speaks magnitude of relevance considering how it can be inferred that the family is indifferent to each other, in their own individualized thought worlds, or just boredom due to routine. By opening with the family in silence, for the first conversation, raises questions for the audience, which is part of the quest for the first act of a screenplay, which is to build intrigue and raise questions that will be answered in the latter half. In going back to focusing on ‘this’, the dinner conversation starts with Elizabeth, the daughter, who interrupts the silence, “I’m voting for Dukakis” (Kelly 3). The parents bicker about voting rights, the government, and raising children. Donnie jokingly asks if she will be working at ‘Yarn Barn.’ His mother, Rose, corrects him: “‘No, a year of partying is enough. She’ll be going to Harvard this fall” (Kelly 4). Here Rose is taking control of the conversation. She has decided where her daughter is going to school, she mocks her past partying habits, and shuts down Donnie’s remark. Rose will use ‘this’ in a controlling manner three times within this one dinner conversation. Elizabeth tries to gain more of the dinner table’s conversation lead: “I haven’t been accepted yet, mother” (Kelly 4). Note that using the word mother here is disrespectful in a discrete way. For most families, using mother or father is too formal. Here Elizabeth uses mother to knock down her assertion about Harvard and also gain speaking room. The mom cuts down the conversation again and uses the same tactic as her husband to refer to what the parents have done for them and their political persuasions. “If you think Michael Dukakis will provide for this country prior to the point when you decide to squeeze one out, then I think you’re misinformed” (Kelly 4). Yet again, the usage of ‘this’ is used in conjunction with cutting conversation and also being in control of it.

As with the quote, Rose is showing a high amount of allegiance to the country and what is socially acceptable and normal. What she thinks is the law, as well as showing her superiority for having met the requirements of a secure American lifestyle, this is of course what she believes, which it can also be implied that she is pressing upon her value system to her daughter, Elizabeth. ‘Squeeze out’ is to mock Elizabeth in that Rose has already accomplished her supposed woman requirement of giving birth while her daughter has not, but to Rose her daughter must one day. The metaphor of ‘squeeze one out‘ is clarified through dialogue with Donnie and the younger sister Samantha: “‘When can I squeeze one out?’ Donnie responds to his sister ‘Not until like... eighth grade‘ (Kelly 4). This seemingly harmless joke between the younger siblings annoys both Rose and Elizabeth who have at this point been taking the heart of the conversation. Elizabeth name calls Donnie and he responds with “‘Whoa, Elizabeth. A little hostile, there. Maybe you should be the one in therapy. Then Mom and Dad can pay someone two hundred dollars an hour to listen to all of your thoughts... so we won’t have to” (Kelly 4). This quote has a great amount of density. Donnie’s comeback insult is far stronger than Elizabeth’s while it also gives the audience some material to work with -- Donnie’s in therapy -- he also ironically mocks Elizabeth suggesting that she needs therapy even though he currently is in this situation, and he blatantly asks that she stops talking that way the family no longer has to listen to her. After more squabbles with the two older siblings, the mother interrupts again and controls and even limits conversation: “‘We will not have this kind of language at the dinner table” (Kelly 6). Clearly, Rose is showing disgust toward her children, and is referring to their strong language in as indirect and as polite as possible. Lastly, rather than being direct about what type of words her children are using that offend her, she refers to it as “this kind.”

The appearance of ‘this’ yet again strikes at the beginning pages in a screenplay with The Prestige. As with the voiceover introduction in No Country for Old Men, the setup here begins with an emcee to a magic show. “‘Are you watching closely?’” (Nolan 1); the emcee, Cutter, invites the audience in to investigate and look closely at what will be developing from start to finish. The language he uses helps to draw in the audience and develop a close proximity to his character and trust. He uses the previous mentioned line in a broad sense then focuses on specific props “The magician shows you something ordinary -- a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object, and pledges to you its utter normality.” In this context, the speaker uses ‘this’ to create proximity, focus, and intrigue into the work of a magician. Its all there to help build wonder, raise question, and for story building. The word ‘this’ is used in a powerful way which anchors the object with the audience so as to bring novelty to the film’s focus: magic. The next usage of ‘this’ in fact brings into focus the main magic event which ends up being the winning act. A prosecutor, who is looking into the crime about this particular magic trick, inquires into the subject matter by using the word ‘this’: “So, Mr. Cutter, was this water-filled tank beneath the stage part of Mr. Angier’s illusion-- the illusion billed as ‘The Real Transported Man’?” (Nolan 5). The inspector uses the word ‘this’ in relation to the water-filled tank to show that he finds it a mystery. He is unsure of what exactly its purpose is in the show or how it was used and as someone who is investigating crime, he must come to some conclusion about what was revered as illusion. Again, the word ‘this’ which has been in this type of example a number of times already, is putting focus on a particular object or idea.

Without fail, as the ‘this’ pattern continues, in V for Vendetta, the word yet again appears in early dialogue. The main protagonist Evey starts with the same voiceover technique used in the other mystery engaging films. She starts the story by reflecting on the Guy Fawkes event that took place in 17th century England. “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot [...] Those were almost the very first words he spoke to me and, in a way, that is where this story began, four hundred years ago, in a cellar beneath the House of Parliament” (Wachowski 1). The similarities with these five scripts and their openings is quite spot on, considering in each one within the first few pages ‘this’ is used in dialogue, each raises questions and the implement of ‘this’ helps to raise those necessary questions to develop out the screenplay. Here with Evey she gives a frame of reference for what this piece centers around and its grim nature, except here it can be inferred that she is reflecting positively as though there is some room for romantic thought in this man she is considering. Evey gives the sense that she has a deep story worth telling, that it’s complicated since it connects to an event from four hundred years ago, and that in the course of the next couple of hours, this story will be made known.

The next usage of ‘this’ is used on the next page: “‘This, then, is the story of that idea, of that spirit that began with an anarchist’s plot four hundred years ago’” (Wachowksi 2). A tear rolls down her face as finally what comes into view is “Guy’s body hang[ing] in silhouette, lifeless against a red morning sun” (Wachowski 2). In relation to the dark image and the sadness of the speaker, the word ‘this’ becomes all the more passionate as she is more than likely greatly connected to this man; and therefore, this story is not just about the dead man but herself. Yet again, ‘this’ is being used in polite respectful terms, although this contrasts against how the mother used ‘this’ in Donnie Darko -- considering she continually tries to control conversation. Evey wants you to feel the emotion of what she’s feeling -- which is the strength of the writing: which is to instantaneously capture the audience, have them ask questions, and immediately side with this young and sad speaker.

Examining Doubt

In contrast, the word ‘doubt’ has a low frequency within all five of these scripts, but its significance should not be disregarded. This particular word is key to the hero’s journey in that it signifies one of the major turning points that are generally within standard screenplays: a time of reconsidering that perhaps the hero will not be able to accomplish his or her own goals and may end up having to forfeit said journey. The word occurs well beyond the first handful of pages in these scripts, and generally is in the middle of the scripts. In Inception pages 39, 131, and on 134 the word is dropped in critical ways to question and foreshadow the conclusion, which pertains to whether the protagonist is dreaming or awake; No Country for Old Men uses ‘doubt’ twice in pages 29 and 30 to focus on the protagonist Llwelyn Moss and questions what exactly is his role in this western drama; Donnie Darko’s references with ‘doubt’ also reflects heavily on the protagonist, for instance, on page 65 of the script his neighbor lady confesses issues she has with Donnie’s behavior to his mother, Jim expresses a deep seated sadness for doubt and people’s inability to take chances on page 88, and on page 122 Ms. Farmer uses it again in reference to Rose’s family; The Prestige uses doubt from an outside character to create conflict with the two competing magician / protagonists on pages 98; and lastly with V for Vendetta, on page 52 of the script, the word ‘doubt’ is used to undersell the protagonist Evey and her potential beauty, which is a large part of the script’s theme of innocence and hope. For the sake of brevity, I think it will be best to focus on a couple of examples from these scripts and expand upon what exactly seems to be coming out of the language that is hinted from the scripts and what is actually occurring in these plots on a multiplicity of levels.

The Inception examples are of interest to me because I feel they really hit at the main crux of the film. The first instance of the word ‘doubt’ is used on page 39; at this point Ariadne is being trained to become a dream thief to help extract pertinent information to help Cobb to prove his innocence and therein go back home to his children who have been waiting for him for years. Arthur, Cobb’s assistant, explains to Ariadne that she needs a totem; a key which allows one to know if they are dreaming or awake and that these totems are very particular to the user “‘No one else can know the weight or balance of it” (Nolan 39). In this scene, it is written that off screen Arthur’s voice is heard while Cobb’s totem spins and wobbles over: “‘So when you examine your totem... You know, beyond a doubt, that you’re not in someone else’s dream” (Nolan 39). At the end of this screenplay, the totem continues to spin and there is no way of knowing whether the totem will ever stop or if it is in perpetual motion leaving the script open for interpretation on whether Cobb is dreaming or if he is awake. The implication of ‘doubt’ heavily ties the end scene with this scene where Ariadne is being trained, and where we as reader and audience learn the logic of how this story world works.

At the end, the word doubt is used twice; both to refer to Cobb’s state of mind and the chance that he has been dreaming this entire script. Mal, Cobb’s deceased wife who he envisions in his dreams, speaks to him at the bottom of a lucid dreaming level -- a place so entrenched into the subconscious that it’s nearly impossible to escape. She warns him that the reality he holds to so dearly is just a creation of his mind and that she is not actually dead but is in reality. “‘No creeping doubts? Not feeling persecuted, Dom? Chased around the globe by anonymous corporations and police forces? The way these projections persecute the dreamer” (Nolan 131). With the word ‘doubt’, Mal attempts to persuade her husband, or rather the projection of his dead wife attempts to persuade him, so that he will reconsider what he is holding so dearly, and so that he can finally escape this dream and go home. Unfortunately, Cobb sees it from another angle. He believes this is a projection, a haunting to try and ends his life. Cobb tries to confront it, but is in actuality feeding his dream state to continue further into this dream limbo. He attests, “That you were wrong to doubt our world. That the idea that drove you to question your reality was a lie... because it was my lie” (Nolan 134). He believes that he placed in her mind the idea that this was not reality and that this drove her to madness and eventual suicide. Perhaps, this is a matter of faith and doubt where the protagonist adamantly believes one direction but is limited in scope and therefore what he believes may be hindering him, but in the end, even the script leaves room for question and that perhaps Cobb has not created a fantastical construction of a false reality but that he is in fact plagued by Mal’s death deep within his subconscious. It would seem that by using the word ‘doubt’ in such an expert fashion that this script has allowed room for questioning and making a case on what exactly is Cobb’s reality.

As with Donnie Darko, the word ‘doubt’ appears three times, once from the school principal and twice from one pivotal side character who causes Rose to question her son’s habits:

Rose, I’ll tell you this because our daughters have been on dance team together for two years, and I respect you as a woman. But after witnessing your son’s behavior today, I have... significant doubts... Our paths through life must be righteous. I urge you to go home and look in the mirror and pray that your son does not succumb to the path of fear. (Kelly 65).

Ms. Farmer’s seemingly kind words to Rose are nothing but unkind and judgmental. She first tries to place herself on the same plane as Rose by saying they are both women and have shared experiences due to their daughters’ dance team; however, it takes a twist right at ‘but.’ She places all the real negative criticism on Rose’s son acting as though he is a miscreant and a dangerous, unstable human. She makes it sound as though the protagonist is of a different kind of class than Rose, Elizabeth, and herself. It is not just a minor amount of doubt either; it is ‘significant’. She stops herself after saying that and then urges Rose to become isolated in an odd sense of worship where instead of confronting and consoling her son, Rose should look at her own self in the mirror (not her son.) Ms. Farmer suggests that Rose should pray for her son so that he will not take on the path of fear, a metaphor for something ambiguous, but more than likely implies that the path Donnie is on will lead only to bad, evil things. Ms. Farmer walks away from Rose at this point, after admitting what she really feels. This quote is convoluted, and offensive on many levels. For one, it makes the protagonist sound like what he is up to is causing significant harm to society and that his character is poor, in fact, that Rose and Elizabeth are clearly beyond him in terms of social class. Secondly, this quote is a huge generalization of the thought life and interaction of religious individuals. Ms. Farmer has made herself sound superstitious with such words as ‘succumb’ and ‘fear’, she has represented herself as a gossip who means well, but really has no interest in Rose’s life because she immediately walks away after this conversation, and if anything Ms. Farmer does not pray with Rose about her family, she asks her to go into a quiet place away from everyone so she can face her own humiliation without society having to deal with it. This is an incredibly dense quote, and one that should garner a sharp reaction from the reader.

The next instance of doubt within this script parallels Ms. Farmer’s hysterical point-of-view. Jim Cunningham, the high school principal, stands in front of a live audience of high school students and tries to rally the crowd for anti-drug persuasion. Before starting a short public service announcement video, Jim states to the audience after finally getting them to respond his ‘good morning’ greeting:

Now that’s what I like to hear! Because too many young men and women today are paralyzed by their fears. They give to their feelings of self-doubt... they surrender their bodies to the temptations of drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex. Empty solutions. These are toxic chemicals... and disease-spreading behavior. (Kelly 88)

It is apparent here that the principal is trying to motivate good behaviors against bad behaviors, which is what Donnie seems to be indoctrinating himself into since he has chosen a life of thinking slightly out of the box. In actuality, he is more at the whim of bad circumstances than actually intently being evil toward his school, neighborhood, and family. Gretchen, Donnie’s close friend, suggests that they leave, but Donnie focuses on the presentation. His mind is somewhere else. In the next scene, Donnie, still trance-like, tries to garner Gretchen’s attention: “‘We’re moving through time’” and Gretchen responds “‘What?’” (Kelly 89). The significance here is huge. At the end of the film, Donnie actually achieves time travel which answers why some of his questionable “behaviors” were occurring in the first place, along with answering questions raised about his visited visions by a demonic oversized rabbit and his need for therapy and medication. Donnie is not an evil adolescent, as the way the people of his town portray him, he actually has enough faith to conquer one of the most incredible feats possible: time travel. He is a genius, but the whole town doubts him, his family, friends, school, and so forth. Here yet again the usage of the word ‘doubt’ hits the nail on the main purpose of the script, as with Inception in the dreaming vs. awake scenario, Donnie Darko’s twist is that of a loner high school student achieving time travel and his town’s doubts of him.

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With this study, in compiling the data, it can be persuaded that the high number of instances that words are used in dialogue among scripts of a similar genre can help reveal tropes, such as the one’s found in the five scripts used here with the single word ‘this.’ It would seem that other connections could be made with some of the more frequently used words here in that they can be extremely valuable in helping establish the story world from the very beginning of the script while also making relational connections with both the tangible and intangible, such as Cobb’s handgun and pewter cone or Evey’s idea of ‘story.’ On the other end of the spectrum, focusing on a single word that seems to appear only a handful of times among several scripts of a similar nature can also show where significant moments are occurring in the writing itself. By following the word ‘doubt‘ this study shows how the word plays a central part to the protagonists in each of the screenplays while uncovering truths and even pinpointing where the evidence can fall for how to make a case for an open-ended film.

Works Cited

Coen, Joel, and Ethan Coen, writer. No Country for Old Men. Print.

Nolan, Christopher, writer. Inception. 2010. Print.

Nolan, Jonathan, and Christopher Nolan, writ. The Prestige. 2006. Print.

Kelly, Richard, writ. Donnie Darko. 2001. Print.

Sperber, Dan, and Deidre Wilson. Relevance: Communication & Cognition. Second ed. N.p.: Blackwell Publishing, n.d. Print.

Wachowski, Andy, and Lana Wachowski, writers. V for Vendetta. 2006. Print


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