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Riffing on Scripts: An Exercise

Recently, I've been binging on a TV show: The West Wing. I'm a little late to the party (the series ended in 2006), but the fact that it's a current events political show from more than 10 years ago hasn't made the show any less addictive. And there's one person I want to thank for that: the show's creator and writer, Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is well known as a master of dialogue (does "You can't handle the truth!" ring a bell?). He's so passionate about it, in fact, that he recently broke his nose while reading some of his own writing in the mirror.

While I plan to keep my nose in tact, I was wondering how I could take my obsession love for Sorkin's style of dialogue and use it to pump up my writing. I could never steal Sorkin's voice, of course, but by studying his scripts and trying to hone in on what makes his writing so darn good, I was hoping to learn a thing or two about how to make my own voice sharper, fresher, funnier. Better.

So I tried an exercise. Using a West Wing online script source, I tracked down a memorable exchange of dialogue:
DONNA: It turns out I'm not an American citizen, so Secret Service wanted me to talk to INS.
C.J.: What?
DONNA: I was born in Warroad, Minnesota, only I wasn't, 'cause INS just clarified the border, and it's now in Manitoba.
C.J.: You're not an American?
DONNA: Missed it by four miles.
AMY: You seem pretty calm about it.
DONNA: No, I'm very upset. I don't know the words to my national anthem. I've been throwing out Canadian pennies my whole life. I've been making fun of the Queen. We don't do that.
(The West Wing, Dead Irish Writers, Season 3, Ep. 16) 
And I put my characters in their place, using a situation from my WiP:
ROLLO: Turns out I haven't been running a legitimate business.
ANNA: What?
ROLLO: Propping surfboards up in the garage and hand-painting signs isn't recognized by the IRS.
ANNA: You going to prison?
ROLLO: White collar. Martha Stuart style.
RAINER: You seem pretty calm about it.
ROLLO: No, I'm worried. I've never lifted weights or played softball. And I don't understand what a Ponzi scheme is. There's no way I'll fit in.
 It's not the same, but I understand a lot more about Sorkin's use of cadence and downplayed humor by mimicking it. And it was fun!

So I took to the internet to see what other TV shows writers watch for dialogue. Below are some of the most-recommended shows, and resources for where to finds scripts of your favorite episodes. Read a few, pick out a few scenes, and try this exercise for yourself!

What other shows do you watch for the dialogue? Have you ever tried writing your WiP as a script?
Sarah Enni

Sarah is a young adult author and host of the First Draft podcast. She is represented by Sarah Burnes at The Gernert Company.

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  1. I wonder how both situations played out!

    1. Well, SPOILER ALERT! Donna citizenship was reinstated :) And as for Rollo, heck if I know! LOL.

  2. I've watched so much Sorkin, I think it would be impossible to write without channeling his cadences at least a little! (In grad school, I took an internship that involved slogging through Times Square in all kind of weather on a daily basis just because the office was involved in his most recent Broadway show. It paid off--I got to speak to him for like 30 seconds at the first preview, and it was basically the highlight of my life to date.). But I love the idea of grabbing specific snippets and using them as templates for playing around with characters from a WIP. Very cool!

    1. AAHH! That's incredible! I am way jealous.

  3. I friggin' LOVE The West Wing!!!! Where are you watching it? Netflix? Hulu? Enlighten me!!!!!

    1. I am lucky enough to have a BFF willing to lend me her box set of the entire series! It's fantastic :)

  4. I'm doing Script Frenzy right now, and I'm using it to outline a potential future novel. I should use some Sorkinizing to up my humour.

    1. Ooh Script Frenzy sounded so fun! Good luck!!

  5. Hmm, tempted to have some fun and write my YA Horror Doctor Who style or maybe Supernatural. This could make a really interesting blogfest!

    1. So true, it really would! And I'd love to see a YA horror in the Doctor Who style, LOL!

  6. sorkin dialogue is such amazing stuff. i'm a huge fan of sports night, myself. besides the shows you've mentioned, i'd also recommend 30 rock and slings & arrows.

  7. Joss Whedon is really great with dialogue! I heart Firefly. I think House has some pretty good exchanges, too.

  8. David Mamet... also kick ass with dialogue.

    Actually, I was teaching a class the other day, on conversational implicature (i.e. not saying what you mean), and I snagged a script of a David Mamet play and made my students go through it and point out where the characters are being non-literal and how they're doing it. A lot of the humor came from when one character would imply something and the other would ignore the implicature and take what she said completely literally. But those characters were nuts.

    I love Donna. (I think this piece of dialogue works because she's such an earnest person, and though it's hilarious that she's sloughed her citizenship so quickly, you believe that she might actually take being Canadian very seriously, even if no one else would.) Characterization and cadence!

  9. One of the other shows I watch for the dialogue is Pysch.
    Silly, but hilarious!


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Item Reviewed: Riffing on Scripts: An Exercise Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Sarah Enni