I’ll be writing about the video An Intro To Sorkinian Dialogue – writing advice based on the work of Aaron Sorkin, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
I’m going to be writing about the dialogue style of the writer Aaron Sorkin. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he’s an American writer known for screenwriting TV shows such as The West Wing and The Newsroom, and films such as The Social Network and A Few Good Men. He also wrote stage adaptations such as To Kill A Mockingbird and A Few Good Men, which went to Broadway. Aaron Sorkin is an exceptional writer in all ways, and worth studying in general, but today I’m going to be focusing on the way he writes dialogue.
Dialogue Heavy Scenes
Aaron Sorkin writes fast spoken, dialogue heavy scenes, which if you’re familiar with any of the shows I’ve mentioned above you’ll recognise. He also writes in a very clever and skillful way that brings the scene alive in a rich and exciting way.
Because his style is dense with skills you could learn from, I’m going to be doing an introduction because I think entire books could be written on the subject.
Characters All Motivated To Talk
Imagine a scene with four characters in. You have your main plotline which is what the focus of that scene will be on, it’s what the characters will be concentrating their energy on. However, what Sorkin does is gives each character in that scene their own pressing subject they want to talk about and focus on, and that they compete with the other characters to discuss.
This battle of wills between which conversation line becomes dominant, between four equally driven characters who are all the protagonist of their own story, forces scene level conflict into that moment in a really intense way. You also get a lot of character development, as who they are as people comes through in what it is they care about and how they choose to try and win that conversation battle.
Whilst I always advise that every character is a protagonist in their own right, and they’re all motivated to persue what matters to them, these goals will often be peripheral to the main storyline. You’ll be riding on the shoulders of your protagonist, and the story will follow them and their goals, and the other characters will be doing things and interesting, but mostly you focus on your protagonist.
What Sorkin does is crash everybody else’s story and goals into the protagonist so there’s constantly multiple main storylines and multiple conversations happening within one scene and one conversation.
Keep Dialogue Dynamic
Dialogue heavy scenes can be quite flat. The protagonist is looking for something, and the other characters can either help or not. If the scene is focussed on conversation not action, that can be about as far as the scene gets.
However, when you supercharge the scene with competing goals and equally motivated characters all talking about their issues at the same time, whilst still engaging in the conversation that the other characters are having, a dialogue heavy scene is dynamic and exciting. You need to show the conversation is hopping between different points and different characters, whilst still maintaining a cohesive continuity which means your audience understands what’s going on, and the protagonist still gets through the conversation they set out to have.
Multiple Conversation Points
When you go deeper into a Sorkinian dialogue scene, you’ll find that a lot of the time the characters don’t just have one thing they want to talk about, they’re actually carrying multiple subjects that are pressing on them to discuss. Whilst they might be focussing on the one that matters most to them in that moment, the fact that they also have other things on their minds that they want to discuss will creep into the conversation and into how they talk to one another.
Something Sorkin often does, and you see this in The West Wing all the time, is if you have those four characters, three of them will want to talk about serious things. The show is about the White House and American politics, so there’s no shortage of important and serious issues that the characters can be motivated to discuss. However, the fourth one will have something almost absurd that they want to discuss, with equal urgency and passion as the serious subjects, but the contrast is extremely funny.
Tricky Technique But Worth It
If you can master this technique, your characters will immediately become more relatable to your audience, because everybody is human and nobody is just a prop. Your scenes will also be more vibrant, more alive, and more exciting. It’s not easy, and you need to be able to balance a lot of different things and structure conversations around multiple plotlines and competing goals, but if you can do it then it’s worth it.
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