Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Aaron Sorkin trick

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The Social Network

When we talk about great dialogue in movies and television, one of the first names that always comes up is that of Aaron Sorkin. And it isn’t without reason. Sorkin isn’t a perfect writer, and I’ve noted before that it’s his sheer technical facility—all that crackling talk and offhand eloquence—that allows deeper flaws to persist in a series like The Newsroom. But when a show like House of Cards tries and fails to replicate that music, it reminds us how difficult Sorkin’s brand of persuasive chatter really is. It’s a dialect of distinctly narrow scope: Sorkin has rarely been comfortable writing for characters who weren’t smart, articulate, and white. But like the singer Judy London, who moved so beautifully within the range that nature afforded, he’s done wonderful things in that one particular register. As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the reasons that the optimism of The West Wing resonates so deeply is that Sorkin was always at his best when writing for characters who represent how we’d like to see ourselves. And even when he tackles less admirable personalities, like the fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network, we’re inclined to forgive their flaws just because it’s so much fun to hear them speak.

What makes Sorkin especially interesting to other writers is the fine line he walks between earnestness and trickery. As he once said to Terry Gross: “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other.” It’s a knack, once you’ve developed it, that can go very far, and Sorkin is particularly good at drawing attention to his own contrivances even as he uses them to generate emotion. The famous YouTube supercut of Sorkinisms—the phrases, lines, and even entire monologues that he repurposes from one project to the next—testifies both to his instinctive ability and to the artificiality of so much “great” dialogue itself. If a line can be transferred intact from one character, scene, or story to another, it implies that it had less to do with the needs of the situation than with the tingle it inspires in the listener. Sorkin produces such lines as easily as a magician adapts a piece of sleight of hand when asked to improvise in unfamiliar surroundings. Half of drama, from Shakespeare to Mamet, consists of such good tricks, and even if the more crucial half revolves around applying them to worthy material, you can still learn a lot from the moments in which the machinery comes into view.

The Social Network

There’s a specific Sorkin trick that fascinates me, and I recently devoted the better part of a day to unpacking exactly how it works. For convenience, I’ll stick with examples from The Social Network, in which it recurs repeatedly. In the opening scene between Mark and Erica, Mark mentions that he got a perfect score on the SAT. Erica asks: “Does that mean you actually got nothing wrong?” Mark ignores the question, and for the next eight lines, they talk about the different ways he could distinguish himself at Harvard. Then, in the middle of an unrelated exchange, Mark interrupts: “Yes, it means I got nothing wrong on the test.” Later, Erica asks him which final club would be the easiest to get into, and Mark says testily: “Why would you ask me that?” They shift to a different subject for a while, and then Mark circles back, as if he’d been mulling it over: “I think you asked me that because you think the final club that’s easiest to get into is the one where I’ll have the best chance.” An even showier example occurs in a later scene, in which Divya briefs the Winklevoss twins on Mark’s work with Facebook: “He’s expanding to Yale, Columbia, and Stanford.” The conversation continues for two full screenplay pages before Cameron says: “Why Stanford?” Divya replies: “Why do you think?” And the scene ends there.

Each instance leaves us with the impression of characters who are talking past each other, or following their own trains of thought, only for the conversation to double back around on itself once the inner monologue catches up with what’s being said. If most dialogue is basically linear, Sorkin introduces a second dimension, so that the exchange becomes less a straight line than a surface in which statements are stuck like pins. It’s a nice effect in itself, and it’s no surprise that Sorkin returns to it so frequently. What I really like about it, though, is that it’s a technical trick that results in a simulation of a character’s inner life. Sorkin takes one side of the conversation and shifts it a little bit forward or backward, while keeping the other half where it is, so it feels like one character is responding to a statement from three lines earlier. He probably does it instinctively, but it could also be done mechanically: I’ll sometimes write out a conversation and see how it reads if I move a statement and its response further apart. At its best, it generates a second, unspoken dialogue in parallel to the one we hear with our ears—we’re being asked, in essence, to listen to one of the characters thinking. Creating the illusion of real thought, rather than a rote recitation of lines in a script, is one of the greatest challenges any writer faces, and Sorkin, consciously or otherwise, has hit on a reproducible way of making it happen. It doesn’t work every time. But it works often enough that it belongs in every writer’s bag of tricks.

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2015 at 9:00 am

One Response

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  1. This is a great analysis! I will make good use of it when I write my own dialogue. Thanks for sharing one of the tricks of the masters.

    Celia Reaves

    July 7, 2015 at 9:27 am

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