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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Write Dialogue that Matters: Lessons from Aaron Sorkin

High school writers often fail to include dialogue in their stories. Perhaps this is because they over-rely on telling narratives. Or perhaps skipping dialogue is a strategy that allows students to elude the punctuation rules that accompany quotations. Regardless, students should be taught that the payoffs for learning a few dialogue-writing skills are ample: dialogue can help develop plot, reveal characters' motivation, create a visceral experience for the reader, and make average stories extraordinary.

The sections below describe how I teach dialogue writing and illustrate some principles of the craft with examples from Aaron Sorkin, the writer of The Social Network, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The West Wing and A Few Good Men.

Exploring and Heightening Environmental Dialogue

If possible, have students study a culture before they write about it. Like Elmore Leonard, the famous writer of crime dialogue who visits police stations to gather source material, Aaron Sorkin observed the crew behind the scenes of Countdown with Keith Olbermann; these conversations inspired his latest show, The News Room.

I send students to eavesdrop at coffee shops, malls, hospital waiting rooms or cafeterias and take notes about how real people talk. Students return to class with pages of notes and typically report that real conversations are more fragmented than they expected. Together, we pick a juicy interaction and mess with it as a whole class, then have students make a conversation fragment they have collected more interesting. As they work, students should read their dialogue out loud, making sure that the heightened language does not sound too artificial: "Would you like me to introduce more ideas about dialogue today?" asked Todd helpfully. Ick!

Another option is to have students take scraps of dialogue that they have collected and create a conversation between two characters from this photo, feathering in character description.

A cheat I use when trying to remind myself about how people talk is to search #overheard on Twitter. In three seconds, I found two gems that your students could expand into a whole page of dialogue.

lizz*@lvvq
"thats a horse, not a monkey" "whats the difference? they both have people teeth" #overheard

John Converse ‏@JohnCTownsend
RT @elisinkus: Larry: "Can you play a gui-tar?" Al: "Man, I can't even play a radio" - Two old guys on a stoop in DC #overheard

Verisimilitude is only a click away.

Learning from Mentor Texts

You can find advice about how to write dialogue from multiple sources. The New York Times' series Writers on Writing is a good place to start. Work by Jamaica Kincaid, John Steinbeck, Evelyn Waugh and David Mamet all contain dialogue worth studying. As is Cormac McCarthy, who writes dialogue that breaks many rules: run-ons, eccentric punctuation, and no quotation marks. Despite these reading obstacles, the voices of his characters sound specific and true:

"Then he had a hose that run down the inside of his sleeve and went to one of them stun guns like they use at the slaughterhouse." - No Country for Old Men

"I will do what I promised." He whispered. "No matter what. I will not send you into the darkness alone.” - The Road

And too many times to count, Cormac McCarthy towel snaps logic and leaves me in awe:

"There is no God and we are his prophets." - The Road

Sorkinology

Aaron Sorkin's trademark dialogue is highly literate, musical, funny, reflective, factoid-heavy, and -- at its best -- breathtaking. To compensate for his lifelong stammer, Sorkin has his characters speak aspirationally, pyrotechnically even.

"I grew up believing," he says, "and continue to believe, that I am a screw-up, that growing up with my family and friends, I had nothing to offer in any conversation. But when I started writing, suddenly there was something that I brought to the party that was at a high-enough level."

Sorkin embraces sentimentality with characters like The West Wing's President Jed Bartlett, the erudite contrast to the W. Bush years, or the fictional anchorman Will McAvoy from The Newsroom, who anguishes about what America has lost:

"We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed. We cared about our neighbors. We put our money where our mouths were. And we never beat our chest."

I've highlighted the occurrences of "we" to showcase the alliteration that Sorkin uses to create musical impact. For another example, watch this video snippet from A Few Good Men. Sorkin amps up the tension between two characters with a musical repetition of the words "truth," "said," "you" and "answer," culminating in Jack Nicholson's snarling rant as Col. Jessup. Another electric video example of this technique occurs in Al Pacino's The City eulogy, written by Ken Lippur, Paul Schrader, Nicholas Pileggi and Bo Goldman.

Besides alliteration and musicality, we can learn several other principles of good dialogue design from Aaron Sorkin.

1) Characters parse their own language like professors of rhetoric.

Rebecca Wells: We're divorced.
Dan Rydell: You're separated.
Rebecca Wells: It's the same thing.
Dan Rydell: No it's not. That's why they have two words. "Separated" means you're thinking of getting divorced. It also means you're thinking of staying together. - Sports Night

2) Self-righteous characters erupt with exasperated monologues.

Mark Zuckerberg: " . . . your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall [ . . . ] They have the right to give it a try -- but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention -- you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing." - The Social Network

3) Dialogue is punctuated by humor.

Kaffee: And don't wear that perfume in court; it wrecks my concentration.
Galloway: Really.
Kaffee: I was talking to Sam. - A Few Good Men

Another example:

C.J.: Sarah's a hurricane.
Josh: Yes.
C.J.: Where is it heading?
Josh: Georgia and parts of the Carolinas.
C.J.: When?
Josh: It will hit landfall by tonight.
C.J.: Is it serious?
Josh: Have you ever been in a hurricane?
C.J.: No.
Josh: Me neither, but they look pretty serious. - The West Wing

4) Dialogue illustrates characters' contrasting points of view.

Mark: As for any charges stemming from the breach of security, I believe I deserve some sort of recognition from this Ad Board.
Administrator: I'm sorry.
Mark: Yes.
Administrator: I don't understand.
Mark: Which part? - The Social Network

5) After creating dialogue that works, repeat yourself.

6) Integrate prosaic imagery during high drama moments.

(The bold emphasis is mine.)

Abbey: You made a promise. We made a deal!
Bartlet: Abbey.
Abbey: When did you decide you were going to run for a second term?
Bartlet: [looks at her with surprise] That's not what tonight's . . .
Abbey: That's ALL that tonight's speech was about. [long pause] You kicked off your reelection campaign and I'm sitting here eating a sandwich cause we had a deal! [holds back tears] - The West Wing

Another example:

Leo: How many Cubans, exactly, have crammed themselves into these fishing boats?
Josh: It's important to understand, Leo, that by and large, these aren't fishing boats. You hear fishing boats, you conjure an image of -- well, of a boat, first of all. What the Cubans are on would charitably be described as rafts. Okay? They're making the hop from Havana to Miami in fruit baskets, basically. Let's just be clear on that. - The West Wing

If you read The West Wing scripts yourself, Sorkin's characters all sound like Princeton-educated twins. In defense, the fictional persons penned by the writer reside in a more optimistic parallel universe, where characters are unapologetically Lincoln . . . no . . . Shatneresque.

Because the writer imbues his characters with such moxie, the reader experiences a contact high and feels passionate about the ideas enacted in the fictional universe. "I am mistaken for someone who knows things," says Sorkin. "I create characters who know things." We could stand to have more smart people around -- whether real or imagined.

THE NEWSROOM episode 1: Jeff Daniels. photo: John P. Johnson/HBO
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M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

There is another component to "Sorkinology" that has been omitted, and that is to routinely impugn right-of-center values and ideas and therefore, suggesting that their proponents are not among the "smart people" he envisions for his scripts.

This Newsroom just reeks of this smarmy elitist attitude. Perhaps the truly "smart people" are ones avoiding this show in droves, according to the more recent ratings reports.

if you want to teach kids about REALLY great scriptwriting, have them read anything written by David Mamet. Mamet runs rings around Aaron Sorkin.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014

Mr. Hauck,

Like you, I marvel at Mamet's technical skills. Nobody doubts that Sorkin is left-leaning (like me). However, he repeatedly gives right wing characters sage dialogue and has them defeat the more liberal characters in debates. In The Newsroom, the main character is somewhere between libertarian and conservative. In a recent episode, when the anchor bullies the communications representative of a republican senator, he is brought up short. I think Sorkin should get some credit for avoiding "straw man" characters.

The notion of "elitism" is tricky. When the characters grow pretentious, Sorkin's scripts inevitably have their ego balloons pop. Ultimately, almost all his characters are written as flawed people trying to do good.

Thanks for reading the piece and taking the time to comment.

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Kris's picture
Kris
Parent of a teenager on the autism spectrum

Mr. Finley, you have written an excellent article on why Sorkin's writing is so engaging, and how the rest of us can possibly emulate this incredible style.
I unfortunately must disagree heartily with Mr. Hauck's assessment, which is loaded with a right-wing concept of Sorkin's writing. If he was really paying attention, he would notice, as you have pointed out, that Sorkin does not attribute all knowledge to the leftist characters. The main character in The Newsroom is somewhat conservative, and he is imbued with all sorts of moral character and smarts and charisma. He is one of the most likeable characters in the series. Perhaps Mr. Hauck should watch a little more of a show before he rails on the "smarmy elitist" attitudes that supposedly prevail in Sorkin screenplays [although I do enjoy his use of the word "smarmy"!].

Anyways, thanks for a fantastic article that I find very helpful as I dissect Sorkin's dialogue to understand why it is so compelling when compared to other writing I see in movies and on television.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014

Thank you , Kris. Looking at the techniques that this dialogue stylist wields so expertly really helped me improve my dialogue writing!

Todd

Alice Verlezza's picture

I see you've hit on all my favorites. Thank you for articulating my obsession with Sorkin so beautifully.

In response to the previous comment, while Mamet may "run rings around Sorkin," it's difficult to use his work in a classroom since it's littered with profanity. Mamet's work stuns and eviscerates, but it rarely inspires.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014

Mr. Hauck,

Like you, I marvel at Mamet's technical skills. Nobody doubts that Sorkin is left-leaning (like me). However, he repeatedly gives right wing characters sage dialogue and has them defeat the more liberal characters in debates. In The Newsroom, the main character is somewhere between libertarian and conservative. In a recent episode, when the anchor bullies the communications representative of a republican senator, he is brought up short. I think Sorkin should get some credit for avoiding "straw man" characters.

The notion of "elitism" is tricky. When the characters grow pretentious, Sorkin's scripts inevitably have their ego balloons pop. Ultimately, almost all his characters are written as flawed people trying to do good.

Thanks for reading the piece and taking the time to comment.

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