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I recently watched Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on screenwriting. One frustrating section of it (overall it's quite good, IMHO) is about dialog, and Sorkin says that dialog is important, it can't be taught, and it is music.

To be precise, he first says that dialog is like music, and then says that dialog is music.

One other thing that he says, which makes perfect sense, is that you can't write dialog that reflects how people "actually talk".

There is definitely a discernible style of screenplay dialog, with different screenwriters having their own sub-styles or related styles (David Mamet is particularly distinct). Can we characterize that style beyond Sorkin's terse "it's music"?

He does analyze some of his own dialog from The West Wing and I think he's talking about rhythm and meter. In my own beginning attempts at writing dialog for the stage, I have noticed that making it deliberately metrical seems to bring it closer to the "screenplay dialog style".

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I don't pretend to be able to interpret Sorkin on this, but I would make this point: When we write, we have punctuation to break sentences into meaningful phrases. In speech, unless you are Victor Borge, you do not. And in writing, if the reader does not get the meaning of the sentence the first time, they can go back and read it again. In conversation, they can stop you and ask you to clarify. But on stage or screen, there are no second chances.

So, dialog has to make its meaning crystal clear the first time though. A large part of this is making sure that the stresses fall in the right place, that the line, as naturally spoken, causes the key words that convey its essential meaning to be highlighted.

To me, this is what rhythmic prose is all about. It is not exactly metrical because by and large the unstressed syllables don't matter. It is all about making sure that the important words fall in the stressed positions.

One of the things that makes metrical poetry so hard to write and (unless it is written brilliantly) so hard to read, is that the syntax has to be manipulated to fit the meter. And in the hands of anyone less than a genius, this means that the syntax is tortured to fit the meter.

It is much easier in prose rhythm to make the syntax fit the rhythm. But it equally possible to ignore it altogether, and it seems that many writers simply have no ear for this at all. (Which may be what Sorkin means by it not being possible to teach dialogue.)

As I noted above, you can get away with it in prose because the reader can stop, slow down, or go back and read again until they work out what was important in a passage. But in dialogue, which the listener only gets one shot at in real time, fitting syntax to rhythm becomes much more important.

This, of course, is just to do with the basic problem of conveying meaning. Drama needs dialogue to convey more than just meaning. It must also convey emotion and beauty.

Music, as we know, can have a powerful emotional effect, which is why most dramas have a soundtrack. And music is rhythmic and much of its emotional power comes from that rhythm. It follows that the admittedly more subtle rhythm (or dissonance) of prose can have an emotional effect as well.

Finally, beauty has a profound relationship to order and order to rhythm, so again prose rhythm adds to the beauty of written work and to the beauty of dialogue.

  • "But on stage or screen, there are no second chances" I went to a particularly bad musical production last night and this was my biggest takeaway. I'm so glad you've written this answer because you clearly know a lot about writing and I know this will help me. Thanks! – Todd Wilcox Feb 23 '18 at 21:17
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Well. I'm learning as I go and I haven't seen the series. But here's what that sounds like to me.

You've identified rhythm and meter. Maybe these can be imagined as dialog that varies in its staccato or legato elements.

Here are a few more ideas.

1. There are different genres of music. (and different types of dialog can work.) One type of music is the blues. Here are some lyrics from Muddy Waters:

Baby please don't go.

Baby please don't go.

Baby please don't go, down to New Orleans.

You know I love you so.

The pattern in the blues is repeat, repeat, change.

In a lot of other styles of songs (and maybe blues too), there is a pattern of verse, verse, bridge, verse.

So, music, even music that is geared to adults, has elements of both repetition and novelty woven into it.

Dialog can do this sometimes too. The repetition can have the effect of reinforcing certain ideas. The repeats can be spaced or immediate.

'What are you doing?'

'What am I doing? I'm leaving.'

'Leaving? (etc)'

This ain't a great example, but I think the idea of repetition is worthwhile.

2. Music has chords, multiple notes, multiple instruments, and also high notes and low notes. Put that complexity into dialog.

Pairing characters with opposing values in dialog can move a story. Or simply be interesting. Imagine a mother who wants to protect and raise her child safely, and a child who just wants to go out and see the world. What is their dialog?

Or an angry boss and a meek employee. Or a single character arcing from patience to frustration during a conversation.

The dialog can reflect these 'opposing' pairs, as 'high and low' notes.

3. Music has harmony and balance.

Dialog should, too. If you have two characters arguing a point, they will not each state their case in completion and then listen to the other case in its completion. Instead they will go back and forth, and the amount of this from either character should balance out.

4. Chopsticks is hard to listen to.

So is dialog that repeats a sound again and again.

'Stop shaking the salt shaker.' is hard to read. 'Will you stop that? You have plenty of salt.' is easier.

5. Playing by ear.

I think Sorkin's right? It seems like a person picks it up with time. I don't know if it can be taught or not but I think it can be learned.

  • You've reminded me that repetition was something that Sorkin pointed to also. Instead of, "I won't go here, there or anywhere", he might write, "I won't go here. I won't go there. And I won't go anywhere". This synergizes with Mark Bakers warning that "But on stage or screen, there are no second chances." Repetition can help the audience understand the dialog if they didn't quite hear it at first. Thanks! – Todd Wilcox Feb 23 '18 at 21:21

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