I’m back, friends! I spent a week in 65-degree upstate New York where I escaped NYC craziness and worked on my YA-in-progress. Despite a pretty great week, I have to say it’s good to be home. (What can I say, I loves me some craziness. The return to 90-degree humidity, however, is a different story…)
While writing this week, I noticed that I write a lot of dialogue. Or at least more dialogue than narration. This is neither good nor bad in my opinion, but it got me thinking about writing conversations in general. I’m a big dialogue person – old-fashioned Bogie and Bacall banter, I eat it up. But how much does it really matter? For me, it’s the first thing I notice when reading or watching something, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the most important thing I look for. When reading requested material, queries, what-have-you, I usually see one of two extremes when dialogue doesn’t work. I’ll call it the George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin problem.
Take George Lucas. Star Wars has proven decade after decade that Lucas’ story of a galaxy far, far away resonates with audiences, regardless of generation. He’s reinvented the franchise yet again with Clone Wars, which is currently being enjoyed by the grandchildren of those who were first shocked over the identity of Luke’s dad. (Don’t worry; I won’t ruin it for you.)
Yet, one thing George Lucas is notoriously guilty of (which he’s even accepted himself) is that he cannot write dialogue. Like, at all. Sure, Han’s “I know” to Leia’s “I love you” was pretty badass, but given the rest of the lackluster attempts at romance, I think this gem was simply the result of Lucas’ inability to convey genuine emotion.
Lucas proves that you don’t need deeply meaningful conversation, witty banter, or even a college-level vocabulary to engage a massive audience. It should come as a surprise to no one that Star Wars is one of my favorite movies, but consider for a minute if it was a novel (and also ignore the many novelizations that already exist). After a few pages of “I’ll be careful”/”You’ll be dead!” exchanges, I think I’d be ready to throw in the towel. Some things just don’t translate to the page with the same effect.
Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. Now, before I explain the “problem” I have with a person whom I consider a master of dialogue, I will state that The West Wing remains one of the greater written shows of all time, and that I’ve loved everything Sorkin has ever written and/or created. With one exception – Studio 60. So, that will be my focus here. Studio 60, to me, represents exactly what not to do as a writer, even if you’re an incredibly gifted writer.
Sorkin has a philosophy that one should never talk down to one’s audience. This is evident in his writing, and he stated it blatantly in Studio 60. I agree with him to an extent, but in the case of this “missing of the mark,” let’s say, he manages to take his trademark smart, witty, heightened language and turn it into whiny, preachy, condescending monologue. Even in near-perfect shows like Sports Night and The West Wing, Sorkin has been guilty of preaching. Since I usually fell into the choir he was he preaching to, I never really minded, but there were times where even I felt the eye roll-worthiness of some of Bartlett and Leo’s seemingly unrelated anecdotes in reference to world-changing decisions.
With Studio 60, Sorkin took his preaching to a new level. Clearly still pissed at NBC for firing him from The West Wing, he managed to create an entire show of monologues that made fairly accurate points about unfairness, network greed, and censorship, among others. What he forgot to do while making these Obama-level speeches was to develop an actual plot. Stories and characters on television are created through dialogue, which is another thing he forgot to write. Or, at least, forgot to write it well. Hence, the show failed.
Lucas’ ability to create a world in which people want to lose themselves is a testament to his talent as a writer. Whereas Sorkin’s apparent inability to use words for anything other than wit and intellect is a testament to his particular talent. On the page, however, a balance needs to be struck, whether you’re writing commercial or literary fiction. Exceptions are always made, depending on genre and style, but (for me, at least) I like seeing both factors given equal, or near-equal, weight.
How important is dialogue to you, and how do you approach it as writers? Does every word count toward the plot, or do you let your characters speak tangentially, the way people do in real life? Tell me how you balance your story, dialogue, and character development.