More Goodness from Art Holcomb: “Forget Jagger – Learn How to Move Like Sorkin”

I’m a lucky blogger.  When I take a hiatus, which has just about run it’s course, I have folks like Art Holcomb and Jennifer Blanchard (InkyBites) ready to step in.  Here’s another winner from Art, who (like Jennifer) never disappoints. 

Back soon.  Larry

***** 

Forget Jagger – Learn How to Move Like Sorkin

A Guest Post from Art Holcomb

All writers have their gods.

It’s just the way we’re wired.

When I was a boy, it was Robert Heinlein and Harlan Ellison and Tennessee Williams because I loved the language and the cadence and the way they could drop me out of my everyday life into the fantastic with the simple turn of a page. I would read them with a pen and notebook at hand and try to figure out the magic that they brought so easily to their stories because I desperately wanted to be able to do that too.

I tend to read different authors now (with the possible exception of  the eternal Ellison) and, as a screenwriter, I found myself seeing patterns in the types of screenplays I enjoyed. Films like A Few Good Men and Charlie Wilson’s War and television like Sports Night and The West Wing stand out above the crowd as profound examples of the power behind iconic dialogue and burning-white issues.

And this led me Aaron Sorkin.

Among his many other talents as an Academy Award ™ winning screenwriter and playwright, he is a master at the art of dialogue.  His words can pour over you like a song or buffet you into submission with images dense, meaty and vibrantly alive. To be in love with both what a writer says AND the way that s/he says it is a rare treat, and Sorkin brings it every time.

And since dialogue offers considerable challenges to both scriptwriter and fiction writer, I know that he has something that can speak to every writer’s struggles.

While I’ll leave it to you to discover (or rediscover) Sorkin’s exceptional body of work, I wanted to share a rare opportunity for writers: a chance to have a master discuss not only his own work, but to walk you through his technique and process.  Below is a reprint of an open letter from Sorkin and an excellent example of his dialogue style from his brand-new HBO series The Newsroom. (Sorkin’s teaching points are in italics below).

I find something new each time I read this piece. 

I think you will too.

I’ll see you at the end.

********

How to Write an Aaron Sorkin Script, by Aaron Sorkin 

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. In the pilot of The Newsroom, a new series for HBO, TV news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) emotionally checked out years ago, and now he’s sitting on a college panel, hearing the same shouting match between right and left he’s been hearing forever, and the arguments have become noise. A student asks what makes America the world’s greatest country, and Will dodges the question with glib answers. But the moderator keeps needling him until…snap.

Will: It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor, that’s my answer.

Moderator: [pause] You’re saying—

Will: Yes.

Moderator: Let’s talk about—

*Start off easy. First get rid of the two noisemakers.*

Will : Fine. [to the liberal panelist] Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paychecks, but he [gesturing to the conservative panelist] gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so f**kin’ smart, how come they lose so GODDAM ALWAYS!

*The use of inappropriate language has a purpose—the filter’s off*.

And [to the conservative panelist] with a straight face, you’re going to tell students that America’s so starspangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom. Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.

*The fact-dump that’s coming now serves several purposes. It backs up his argument, it reveals him to be exceptional (what normal person has these stats at their fingertips?), but mostly it’s musical. This is the allegro.*

And you—sorority girl—yeah—just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the f**k you’re talking about?! Yosemite?!!!

[Cell-phone cameras are everywhere— people are tweeting and texting away.]

*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.

*To resolve a melody, you have to end on either the tonic or the dominant. (Try humming “Mary Had a Little Lamb” right now, but leave off “snow.” You’ll feel like you need to sneeze.) So Will ends where he started. Then, just to acknowledge that he just sang an aria— which is unusual in the course of a normal conversation—he turns to the moderator who’d been needling him and casually asks…*

Will: [to moderator] Enough?

*******

Did you find something there that you can use? Does it make you think of your dialogue differently now?

One of the lessons in the piece is clear: there are always greater depths available for our characters and ever more chances for us as writers to make a real impact.

Until next time, keep writing!

Art

Art Holcomb is a successful screenwriter, comic book writer and frequent contributor to Storyfix.com.  A number of his recent posts appear in the Larry Brooks’ collection: Warm Hugs for Writers: Comfort and Commiseration of The Writing Life.  He appears this summer at the San Diego Comic-Con and the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Conference, and begins teaching screenwriting and graphic novel writing classes at the University of California in Fall 2012. His most recent screenplay is FINAL DOWN (a NFL team disaster film) and his short story OLIVER AND THE FOUR-PIECE, REGENCY-STYLE BEDROOM SET OF DOOM is being adapted for the screen.

12 Comments

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12 Responses to More Goodness from Art Holcomb: “Forget Jagger – Learn How to Move Like Sorkin”

  1. Mr. Holcomb,
    After anticipating the series for months, I saw the first episode of The Newsroom two nights ago (I have been out of town). Your parallel between good dialogue and music hit home for me.
    I am a percussionist and listening to Sorkin’s dialogue gave me the same feeling of euphoric panic that I felt playing the syncopated 2:4/4:4 section’s of Horner’s Titanic score in a recent symhpony concert.
    It was like base-jumping from the most beautiful mountain in the world and trying to sight-see on the way down.
    Since starting to write seriously, I have often thought that the desire to thrill an auditorium full of concert-goers and cause a reader to take that sudden breath that only artful prose can bring, are rooted in the same part of my psyche. The reader is listening, unconciously for the same meter and rhythm that touches the soul of the music lover.
    Thank you for this insight.
    Play on!

  2. trudy

    I loved reading all that he wrote. It built up to a crescendo in my chest. Here’s my thing, though. I watched this show and found it pretentious, lecturing, info-dumpy and well, self-righteous. Not that I even disagree, but the problem with his dialogue is that it was you-projected, instead of me-honest introspection. The show script was an hour lecture blended with treating women horribly. this writing worked as you said on paper. but not when I listened to it.

  3. Sara B.

    This is a great post to read while I’m elbow deep in revision, and I’ll certainly be looking at my few speeches differently as a result.

    But Larry: “it’s?” REALLY?

  4. GORGEOUS! I finally get it.

  5. Oh, my. I. Am. In. Awe.

    Thank you so much for sharing this, and for outlining the musical beats. Now to put on some Chopin or Tchaikovsky or Dvorjak. May I someday write dialogue as moving as their scores.

  6. I think you just gave me an ‘Aha Moment’ for my WIP 🙂 My dialogue hasn’t been feeling like it’s going anywhere…I think it’s because of the lack of ‘musical beats’ and I haven’t been resolving to the ‘Tonic.’ Thanks so much Art for the help 🙂

  7. Paul Rose

    Not to malign Art at all, but you guys DO realize that it was Sorkin who was pointing out his own melody/symphony score in the Vanity Fair article, right?

    Thanks, Art, for making me read through it again. Any writer like Sorkin that has other skilled craftsmen like Straczynski looking up to him always has my attention.

  8. I read both the classics and contemporary fiction. You can’t find passages today like you find in Dickens, Faulkner, Fitzgerald… modern readers won’t stand for it. And that’s fine. It’s a different time, readers want different things. I love Sorkin’s work, and when I watched what was essentially a soliloquy in the beginning of The Newsroom, I was moved by the language. But Daniels had the benefit of camera angles and lighting and sound backing him up. We, as authors, only have words. We can’t rely on music or special effects or dramatic pauses to support our words, and readers today don’t often wait through Shakespearean-length speeches for our characters to get to the point. When I sit down to write a poignant scene, I’m often terrified to do something like what Sorkin did in The Newsroom, because without the benefit of the visual and auditory elements, I don’t know that it can be pulled off. Definitely on screen. I’m not certain about in novels.

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  10. Art Holcomb

    Thanks for all the great comments.

    @Staci: While you can’t find dialogue just like this in novels, there is cadence and poetry and sharp images to be found in Chandler, Falukner, Hemingway of the past all the way through Rice, Crichton, and Francis of the relative present. Every format, every genre, produces its own opportunities to shine like this – perhaps more difficult because you ‘re crafting these beauties in the mind’s voice of the reader, but clearly doable. Give it a shot, and thanks again for all your interest.

  11. I agree that the imagery is there, just not in the dialogue. And certainly not in my works yet. Thanks for the great posts; you always give me something to consider and work on!

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