Everything I Need to Know about Dialogue, I Learned from Aaron Sorkin February 16, 2016 By Dave King
Man imprisoned for beating his wife: You look down on people.
Will McAvoy: Down is where some people are.
I came across that delicious line while Ruth, my wife, and I were watching what is, sadly, the final season of “The Newsroom,” the HBO drama produced and largely written by Aaron Sorkin, who was also responsible for “The West Wing.” Both shows are a continuous feast for someone interested in quality dialogue. It’s not just that the Wikiquotes page for “The West Wing” is huge. If you compare it to the Wikiquotes pages of other popular shows, you find that the other shows quote moments when the plot changes direction or the characters make a key revelation. Most of Sorkin’s quotes are simply there for the originality of the language.
So how does he do it? How do Sorkin’s characters manage to constantly say things that are so sharp and memorable? What makes his dialogue as good as it is?
First, it’s dense. Sorkin’s characters often speak one or two lines that summarize remarkably complex thoughts. In the example above, Will could have argued that claims of elitism are often a defense against deserved public condemnation. He could have said that the egalitarian ideal doesn’t mean that all people are morally equal, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. Instead, six words, five of them single-syllable, say everything he needs to say.
Or consider this confrontation between Toby Ziegler and a congressman, from “The West Wing” – since it is such a rich source and more easily available, most of my examples will come from “The West Wing:”
Toby: You’re concerned about American labor and manufacturing.
Toby: What kind of car do you drive?
Toby: Then shut up.
Of course, brevity isn’t a virtue in itself. Certain characters should be allowed to ramble on, because that’s who they are. Most of Sorkin’s characters from these two shows are journalists, speechwriters, speechmakers – people who make their livings by saying complex things in simple ways. The density of the dialogue fits their characters.
Other characters, who don’t make a living with words, speak dialogue that’s a bit looser. Josh Lyman, for instance, is the Deputy Chief of Staff on the West Wing, a job that is much less dependent on an elegant command of language. (Josh once described his job as, “The President doesn’t hold a grudge. That’s what he pays me for.”) Here’s Josh describing a disagreement. “You know what this is like? This is like The Godfather. When Pacino tells James Caan that he’s gonna kill the cop. It’s a lot like that scene, only not really.” When Josh loses control of a press briefing, here’s how he explains it to President Bartlett.
Bartlet: You told the press I have a secret plan to fight inflation?
Josh: No, I did not. Let me be absolutely clear, I did not do that. Except, yes, I did that.
Of course, good dialogue demonstrates character in ways beyond how wordy or brief it is. A character’s dialogue also reflects their education, their history, their concerns. Consider Charlie, President Bartlet’s “body man:” a combination of valet, personal assistant, and general gofer. Charlie was a high school graduate, raising his younger sister, when he first got the job, and was not used to moving through the corridors of power. Throughout the series he remains quietly deferential, even when the people he’s dealing with are being difficult. When an arrogant and unwelcome White House visitor demands to see Charlie’s supervisor, Charlie replies, “Well, I’m Personal Aide to the President, so my supervisor’s a little busy right now trying to find a back door to this place to shove you out of, but I’ll let him know you’d like to lodge a complaint.” Or this exchange, when Charlie had to wake the president in the middle of the night:
Bartlet: Charlie, do you realize you are committing a federal offense right now?
Charlie: I’ll take my chances with the feds, sir.
Bartlet: How do you know the First Lady wasn’t going to be naked when you came in here? Come to think of it, where the hell is my wife?
Charlie: Argentina, sir.
Bartlet: Oh, yeah.
Good dialogue doesn’t simply show who the characters are, it shows how they relate to one another. Consider this conversation between Josh and Donna, his personal assistant — who, in her gentle, Midwesterner way, refuses to take him as seriously as he takes himself. She has just made an emergency flight reservation for him.
Josh: And I don’t have to change planes in Atlanta?
Donna: No, even better, you do have to change planes in Atlanta.
Or this exchange, from later in the show’s run.
Josh: You used to love it when I couldn’t dress myself without you.
Donna: I used to love peppermint ice cream, too, but now those little pieces of candy, they get stuck in your teeth in a way that I find irritating.
So how do you do it? How do you get your characters to use language that reflects their personalities?
Even though you’re aiming for character-driven dialogue rather than simple brevity, the two are related. Most of what fills out bad dialogue is linguistic chaff – generic phrases, stock responses, speech without thought. Once you winnow this out, you will not only have something more succinct, you’ll have something more authentic.
I’ve suggested this exercise before, but it’s worth repeating. Gather all the dialogue spoken by each of your major characters into a separate file, and read it all together, all at once. This lets you focus on the language itself without the distraction of how the dialogue advances the plot. How much of what your characters say is generic? I’m not saying you should get rid of every ordinary, stock phrase – they do play a role in conversation. But if you have a lot of bland, ordinary lines, start cutting.
Now look at what’s left. How much of it shows a unique voice? And how distinctive are the various characters’ voices from one another? If you can’t see a character’s history, education, fears, and desires in how they use language, then you have to get to know your characters better. You might try writing key scenes from the point of view of different characters, which forces you to think from inside their heads, to focus on what they want from the scene.
As you do the exercise, keep an eye out for clichés as well. You will rarely find them in Sorkin’s dialogue – most of the metaphors used are fresh. Take this “West Wing” line, said by a Republican attorney to a Congressman who was about to engage in an unfair, and unfairly partisan, attack. “And if you proceed with this line of questioning, I will resign this Committee and wait in the tall grass for you, Congressman.” This image of a patient and relentless hunter is instantly recognizable and visceral, yet I’d never encountered it before.
Or there’s this quick exchange, in which Leo, President Bartlett’s chief of staff, is talking with Toby about how to convince Bartlett to run for a second term.
Leo: Toby, if you knew what it was like getting him to run the first time . . .
Toby: I know.
Leo: Like pushing molasses up a sandy hill.
Even when clichés show up, Sorkin often gives them an original and surprising twist. Take this line, spoken by an election operative to his staff. (Warning: slightly NSFW). “We will work hard, we will work well, and we will work together. Or so help me, mother of God, I will stick a pitchfork so far up your @$$es you will quite simply be dead.”
Or there’s this, from a discussion about how to present a couple of possible Supreme Court nominees to President Bartlett. Note how the cliché is allowed to hang fire a moment before Sorkin circles back to blow it up. “We bring Christopher Mulready in. We bring Lang back in. Hopefully the two of them woo the pants off the President, and he agrees to the deal without noticing he’s standing in the gaze of history, pantless.”
As with generic phrases, you don’t necessarily have to weed out every cliché. They are sometimes the best way to say something. Even when they aren’t, people often use clichés in real life, so an occasional one gives your dialogue verisimilitude. But if a particular passage is flat and flabby, look closely at how much of it follows the well-trodden path. If you’re finding a lot of clichés, cut them and look for something better.
As I finish writing this, Ruth and I are going to watch the last episode of “The Newsroom.” It’s all right, though, since we’ll probably watch the series over from the beginning – we’ve seen “The West Wing” at least twice now. And we’ll probably spot new and better examples we didn’t notice last time.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson