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Marginal Notes

Everything I Need to Know about Dialogue I Learned from Aaron Sorkin


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.

Congressman: Yeah.

Toby: What kind of car do you drive?

Congressman: Toyota.

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.