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.
"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
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.
Kaffee: I was talking to Sam. - A Few Good Men
C.J.: Sarah's a hurricane.
C.J.: Where is it heading?
Josh: Georgia and parts of the Carolinas.
Josh: It will hit landfall by tonight.
C.J.: Is it serious?
Josh: Have you ever been in a hurricane?
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.
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!
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
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