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Sorkin on Sorkin: Learn Dialogue Techniques from the Man Himself

06.26.12 @ 10:00AM Tags : , ,

Speaking of Aaron Sorkin, if you haven’t seen the first episode of The Newsroom, you should go check it out right now, or at least watch the first scene. In a recent GQ article, Sorkin writes about his own material, specifically how he arrives at the dialogue for the first scene in that episode of The Newsroom. Writing good dialogue is not easy, but knowing the real purpose of the scene and having a deep understanding of your characters will help the words flow out of you. Check out some excerpts from that GQ piece below.

Aaron Sorkin has long talked about the fact that dialogue sounded like music to him when he was younger, and there’s no question he’s always trying to achieve a certain rhythm with his dialogue:

A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing— when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern.

He goes into a bit more detail about another lengthy bit of dialogue:

Now we slow down and get a glimpse into his pain. The oratorical technique is called “floating opposites”— we did, we didn’t, we did, we didn’t… But rhythmically you don’t want this to be too on the money. You’re not just testing the human ear anymore; you want people to hear what he’s saying.


We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and 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. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.

Whatever your opinion of Aaron Sorkin and his work (and most of you have one), he’s a maestro with words. It’s always interesting to hear a screenwriter talk about their craft, but especially interesting when they go in-depth about their technique and what they are trying to achieve with specific pieces of dialogue. Be sure to watch that first scene, and then head on over to the GQ article to read the analysis from Sorkin himself. Thanks to Scott Myers over at Go Into The Story for the link. Again, if you’re a screenwriter and you’re not following Scott’s blog or his twitter feed, you’re really missing out.

Link: How to Write an Aaron Sorkin Script, by Aaron Sorkin – GQ

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  • I can improve on the last line of this speech:

    “America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

    My version:

    “The world no longer views America as its greatest country.”

    Much more active, dynamic. Same amount of words. More subtext.

    • much less provocative due to a weakening of statement.

      • Completely agree. The original last line is a quick, precise, and impactful statement. Your ‘improvement’ is squirelly. It has a ‘uh i mean it still is but you know i guess the world doesnt think so anymore heh uh yep,’ quality to it (ie it makes him appear unsure of his argument; insecure). You might as well have him say the original line and then follow it with ‘i mean, am i right guys? i could be wrong. let me know if i should back track on this one,’ which is far from making a powerful last statement.

    • Yeah, gotta agree with everyone else here. The original line is way better. Your “improvement” changes the meaning, removes the agency and responsibility from America to “the world” (thus undermining the entire speech) and totally weakens the statement.

  • I disagree, you completely changed the conversation because now you are making a statement about them, “THEY no longer VIEW us as great”, as opposed to making a statement about us, “WE are no longer GREAT.”

    Sorkin’s is simple and hits at our self-esteem, your’s is more complex and hits at our ego. Who cares what the world thinks if we still believe we are great, but if we view ourselves as sub-par, it doesn’t matter if the world thinks we are great.

  • Billy_Dee_Williams on 06.26.12 @ 11:38AM

    This guy recycles dialogue all the time:

    • BFD, I recycle things every day, we all do. Many/most people speak in clichés. Much of what we say is banal trite and vapid. Good dialog sounds like everyday speech, not stilted monologs. YMMV.

      • What has persuaded you that “good dialogue sounds like ordinary speech”? Or do you just mean that good dialogue needs to sound unforced, in which case it could bear little or no relationship to language heard in the street?

        Much American speech today reflects idioms picked up from network TV; recycling these cliche in HBO dramatic programming, which the classic HBO series absolutely do not do, might be inadvisable, unless this lame cliched language is intended to reveal the characters’ unoriginality of mind.

        • Over twenty years spent on the sets of TV commercials, TV shows and feature films helps to inform my opinion.

          Like it or not the crew hears the dialog over and over. On one popular three-camera-show the crew learned the lines faster than the lead actor. Bob and Madeline wrote many sit-com and their dialog (no matter how off the wall) always fit the character, and should have been easy to learn.

          If the actors are to be believable, they need to talk like a real person would in the same situation. Most people know if the dialog rings true …

          • Sorry to put it this way, but as any writer can tell you, there’s a difference between dialogue which sounds like it could have been spoken by a real person, and dialogue which reproduces real speech. The difference is between artful dialogue and insufferable dialogue.

            Any college student, for example, can tell you that the dialogue in The Social Network is ludicrously unrealistic. But reproducing the way college students actually talk wouldn’t have been dramatic. Not to mention a deadly bore..

    • Wow…this is awful stuff.
      Take a rt. turn on Bored Blvd.
      and head straight to Cliche City.

  • john jeffreys on 06.26.12 @ 1:54PM


    • I think 2 posts out of 1400 is hardly anything to get worked up about. Ideally they would have been one article but I had just seen that HBO put it online and wanted to share that first.

      • Joe, I really dig everything you post, way to stay on top of things.

      • It’s probably no this site’s Sorkins posts, but more the heavily orchestrated Sorkin PR blitz that is on overdrive right now that is getting to people. I don’t really get the appeal of his work, but to each their own. He’s definitely tapped into the zeitgeist of the cosmopolitanist class.

        • john jeffreys on 06.26.12 @ 4:21PM

          the social network, the steve jobs movie, the newsroom, all of his works are just capitalism/america jerking off to itself

      • john jeffreys on 06.26.12 @ 4:22PM

        hes such a cliche writer, this blog never posts cool artsy shit bruh

        • Cliche or not, he knows what he’s doing and he does it pretty well, which is why I’m sharing this stuff.

          Cool artsy shit like Timescapes (which people also complained about)? I’d say a non-story with beautiful images is about as artsy as it gets. What about Unnamed Soundsculpture?

          What about any of these?

          I think you’ll find that what you are talking about is a niche, and like all niches, they have their place with our coverage, but there aren’t going to be a few posts every day about experimental work – because if you’ve watched television of seen a movie in a theater recently, the majority of content is still pretty standard in structure.

          • No good deed goes unpunished ;-) You should know this by now. Don’t let them get to you.

          • john jeffreys on 06.28.12 @ 4:06PM

            Hey, I appreciate your effort in this site to cater to everybody. I admit, I am probably a representation of a very small community within an already small community (filmmaking). So I really don’t matter, but I like to think i do. I visit 2-3 websites as part of my routine internet surfing these days; nofilmschool, disturber, and pas un autre. occasionally i check abelcine blog or canonrumors, etc to get up to date on new equipment and stuff. i feel that this site is really “corporate” and professional in that all the comment posters are working on larger projects, refer to their collaborators as “clients” and in general tend to be very conservative and hollywoodian in their approach. which is great education for me, but i feel it would be a lot more fun if you guys posted more renegade, like more edgier shit

            • The audience is actually extremely varied, and there are plenty of comment posters that aren’t professionals and working on larger projects. I mean – if you’re getting paid on a job other than a movie – I’m not sure what else you’d call them but a client. Even wedding video/photo people at the lowest level call them clients. So for someone that reads absolutely every single comment on this site, I can tell you that there is a healthy mix of amateurs, intermediates, and professionals, and we try cater to all of them at the same time (which is very difficult). You should post some links to what you think would be considered more renegade and edgier, and I’ll look into posting more of it in the future. That’s a slightly vague definition for me.

              I think we strike a pretty good balance though, and as we grow, there will be more and more short films posted that are well outside the mainstream.

  • The Newsroom, in my opinion is the most well written show on Television right now.

  • Joe, you are doing a wonderful job posting on NFS. I find the stuff you share to be right up my alley. As much as I love gear and filmmaking tips and tutorials to better me as a Director/DP, the articles you post add enlightenment to us serious filmmakers out here. Had it not been for your post I would have never even heard about the show probably, and because of it, I am in love with The Newsroom.

    • Thanks for the support! I really enjoyed the first episode of The Newsroom, part of the reason I shared it. I had read somewhere in a review and I totally agree with this, that even though we already know everything about the oil spill, I was still on edge, and I didn’t know where the show was going to take me – and that I think is what’s special about it and about the writing.

  • “Whatever your opinion of Aaron Sorkin and his work (and most of you have one), he’s a maestro with words.”

    That’s one point of view, and there’s no arguing with an opinion. But based on the passage above, or Sorkin’s body of work generally, it’s not an inevitable conclusion. An admission of that fact might have avoided the unpleasantness which ensued here.

    • If you take that sentence for face value it applies whether you think his dialogue is good or not. I can literally post anything about anyone, regardless of accolades or talent, and there will be unpleasantness. This is the internet, of course. I’m sure you’ve got examples of writers or filmmakers you think are a cut above the rest – and there will undoubtedly be those that disagree.

  • Fine. That Sorkin is a maestro with words is an inconvertible fact, whether I like Sorkin or not, and whether I think Sorkin is a maestro with words.

    Glad we were able to settle that one.

    • LOL – that was an awesome “ownage” of someone … “Sorkin is a maestro of words whether you think his dialogue is good or not” was a woeful argument. I had previously thought dialogue was primarily comprised of words, but I’m willing to keep learning …

  • Sorkin really is an example of a style driven writer, you never hear about his plotting or or unconventional narrative structures, more or less only his dialogue. This is what I believe makes him polarizing, he sells his brand of energy, if you can get on its level you’ll probably like it (I do), if not, you probably won’t.

    There are only a few writers (I can think of) that have such an overwhelming style that they can be recognized straight off of dialogue: Sorkin, Tarantino, and Mamet. In all three cases, their style is so heavy, that often their dialogue scenes become the “spectacle” of their works, which can make their films divisive. Ultimately, Tarantino has been the most successful “voice” of the three, thanks to directing is own works and being able to build worlds around his style. However, Tarantino hasn’t limited his script styling to dialogue alone, also having his structural style, this I believe has also contributed to his greater zeitgeist.

    Mamet has also directed some of his own scripts, to (imo) pretty mediocre effect. He shows that left to his own devices, he will let his script styling totally consume his films.

  • I appreciate what Sorkin is doing, putting something out there that’s different from the norm. But there’s something about the Newsroom that I find very awkward and it was constantly breaking my suspension of disbelief. The actor interactions aren’t snappy and seem staged. I have a feeling Sorkin has a larger-than-usual hand in the production side of things and his theatre tendencies have creeped into this show,