From Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass

Dialogue Case Study: The West Wing

Aaron does a deep dive into the musical nuances of dialogue in the Bartlet–Ritchie scene.

Topics include: S3E21 of the West Wing


Aaron does a deep dive into the musical nuances of dialogue in the Bartlet–Ritchie scene.

Topics include: S3E21 of the West Wing

Aaron Sorkin

Teaches Screenwriting

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When I talk about dialogue being musical, most of the music-- I mean, sometimes there will be a line or a speech which by itself has the kinds of musical qualities that I'm talking about. But in order to create that music, you need-- So in order to create music-- literally, real music-- you don't just need the first note. You need the second note before it's music. [HUMS ONE NOTE] That is not music. [HUMS TWO NOTES] It is music. Or [HUMS NOTES] You need the second note for it to become music. With dialogue, you generally need the next line for it to be music. It's going to go back and forth. [MUSIC PLAYING] Caught me. Mr. President. Governor. You enjoying the play? I am. How about you? Well, we just got here. We were at the Yankee game. We got, you know, hung up in traffic. Yeah, I know. Listen, politics aside-- and I don't want to make a big deal out of it, but you probably insulted the Church. And you can head it off at the pass if you speak to the Cardinal tonight. Well, I didn't mean to insult anybody. No. And it's a baseball game. It's how so ordinary Americans-- Yeah. No, I don't understand that. The center fielder for the Yankees is an accomplished classical guitarist. People who like baseball can't like books? Are you taking this personally? Something horrible happened about an hour ago. CJ Craig was getting threats, so we put an agent on her. He's a good guy. He was on my detail for a while, and he was in Roslyn. He walked into the middle of an armed robbery and was shot and killed after detaining one of the suspects. Oh. Crime? Boy, I don't know. We should have a great debate, Rob. We owe it to everyone. When I was running as a governor, I didn't know anything. I made them start Bartlet College in my dining room. Two hours every morning on foreign affairs and the military. You could do that. How many different ways do you think you're going to find to call me dumb? I wasn't, Rob. But you've turned being unengaged into a Zen-like thing, and you shouldn't enjoy it so much, is all. And if it appears at times as if I don't like you, that's the only reason why. You're what my friends call a superior sum bitch. You're an academic elitist and a snob. You're, uh, Hollywood. You're weak. You're liberal. And you can't be trusted. And if it appears from time to time as if I don't like you, well, those are just a few of the many reasons why. [MUSIC PLAYING] They're playing my song. In the future, if you're wondering, crime, boy, I don't know, is when I decided to kick your ass. I'm looking at the beginning of the scene. And at least at the beginning of the scene, I am making a concerted effort for it not to be musical. I want to be stilted and awkward between these two. I want it to be slightly formal. And I'm lookin...

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Aaron Sorkin wrote his first movie on cocktail napkins. Those napkins turned into A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson. Now, the Academy Award-winning writer of The West Wing and The Social Network is teaching screenwriting. In this class, you’ll learn his rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell. By the end, you’ll write screenplays that capture your audience’s attention.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Great insights from Aaron Sorkin, got to know the way he works and some trade secrets of his that I may apply to my own work.

Excellent. Unpolished therefore more reliable in my mind.

This class helped me a great deal. The little things like "read your dialogue out loud." It's so simple but I never thought of doing that. I would definitely recommend this course.

Wonderful insights and advice. "Intention" and "obstacle" -- learn these words.


Richard D.

I'm making a concerted effort not to make it musical.. rather stilted, and awkward between these two, slightly formal... Ritchie says, We just got here, we were at the Yankee game, we were, you know, hung up in traffic. Rewrite to: Ritchie says, We just got here, we were at the Yankee game, we were, you know, we were hung up in traffic. Sorkin says, "It comes out more naturally with the second 'we were' in there." So subtle. Can you see it? Do you agree?

Judith M.

I felt the need to watch the entire episode for context because I've never seen the West Wing. If you need to do so go to .Having watched the scene in isolation and in context, I found that Aaron had actual woven the entire episode to reach this point. Including the play. It was difficult to see this in isolation, because half of the intro music is in the subplot. The bodyguards death foreshadowed by the white and red roses appearing, Shariffs death by the play 'War of the Roses' again, red and white roses of Lancaster and York, then the white and red roses here in their dialogue setting the scene for verbal bloodshed. (The rose colours are considered a portent of death or blood on the deck when in a bouquet by themselves.). Even the female press secretary in red and white at the beginning. A masterpiece of set and costuming underlining the dialogue theme. I could feel the music between Ritchie and Bartlett but for me it was the swish of verbal blades, and rather than the thud of percussion, the grating of two blades discordant as they pushed off against each other. I'm not sure what Aaron would choose to change, apart from that one sentence that he pounced on himself, I think I would have left it the way that it was.

Rowan S.

I'd love to see the rewrite, or hear how he'd do it., try to understand what doesn't work for him.

A fellow student

Gary Thomas, WA I liked the lesson a lot. These are fine points: between Bartlett and Richie. In order to have music in dialogue you have to have more than a start; you need a second line. Sorkin likes to start awkwardly; with even a cough. You can start off with an awkward moment and move toward the music. As it is, Bartlett says Richie has insulted the Catholic church. Richie tells Bartlett that the president says a guy who puts baseball before this event can't have the wisdom of current events. Riches informs the president that he is a liberal snob who is rude and a liberal. That give Bartlett the opportunity to tell Richie why he doesn't like him, He does all of this in a musical way.

Steve P.

It kills me how Mr. Sorkin can compose such a masterpiece of a scene, then lament that he'd like to rewrite it. SMH.


I had the pleasure of watching the 2008 Democratic National Convention and the 1988 Republican National Convention. The tone in both speeches for George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama are the same. If they were speaking to one person, we would hear an orchestra.


You can hear the symphony between Kevin Spacey and Jack Lemmon. The words string along perfectly and tell us that Spacey is more reserved, in control, even when he's angry. Lemmon is more hot-headed and runs bullshit out of his mouth.


We don't have a local showing of the play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but I did read the dialogue script. the rhythm sounded familiar...and then it hit me. Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" transcript. LOL


Very helpful. I'll remember the music when I write my dialogue. I love that Mr. Sorkin wants to rewrite the scene at the end of the lesson. Something most of us say to ourselves. Always trying to make it better.

Dennis F.

If it appears that I don't like you. If it appears that I don't like you. Brolin's character one-ups the president, who fires back at just the right moment. "They're playing my song." Then punches him with "that crime, mm.." was when I decided to kick your ass." as he walks up the steps. A blue-collar worker in a bar saying that and ascending the stairs would be yanked back and punched. But Brolin can't do a thing. Not a thing. Brolin was really great with that dialogue. What a great scene. The intro, the conflict, answers a question, the climax, and leaves a question to answer going forward.