Film & TV

Dialogue Case Study: The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 12:01 min

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

Aaron Sorkin
Teaches Screenwriting
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting in 35 exclusive video lessons.
Get All-Access


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...

Your script starts here.

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.

Genial, es el orador que necesitaba escuchar, me lleno de energía para continuar con mis proyectos y siento que no esta tan lejos el sueño de vivir haciendo lo que me gusta. Muchas gracias

The writers room section was amazing. The more in-process content, the better. Sorkin is impressive to watch in action with young writers as his stories on screen are. Amazing master class.

Very Informative. Although I feel like some things need to be improved. More stuff on how to write action properly. And I wish this had more movie talk instead of Tv talk.

Having no previous experience with screenwriting, Aaron Sorkin's class has been a brilliant introduction to the craft. His insights helped me to fine tune my first screenplay, and now I've sent it out, and will keep writing until one of my screenplays sell.... Thank you Mr. Sorkin!



I find it interesting that you describe dialogue as being musical. I hear all writing as musical, not just dialogue. I actually hear the words like music and it translates into colour for me as well. I think it's because words have a sound, a rhythm and together they form a string of sounds that not only deliver meaning but they are basically sounds that have all the effects that other types of sounds have--laughter, music, relaxation, giving you a headache etc. When I'm listening to words, an incorrect word (just a word that doesn't belong) sounds like a chord that's off key or discordant sound. The rhythm is off. At around 4.20 mins into this lesson, you read some of your dialogue out loud. I was intrigued by the "you know" hiccup as you call it. I like to actually record the words someone uses. What words do they use to distinguish themselves or make them sound like who they are? I found an interview with Ray Dalio, an American billionaire and hedge fund manager, who in "Life Lessons with Ray Dalio, the knowledge project Ep#23", says at 3.33 mins "You know" 4 times in about 20 seconds. 4 times! Intriguing.

Nina T.

I appreciate how Aaron walks us through one of the scenes and discusses how parts of the scene he wrote was stilted while other parts of the dialogue he wrote to sound like music. And I must admit I laughed out loud when at the end of this session - he read an excerpt from the scene and said he wished he could rewrite it! I think that’s something all writers do as we progress and become better writers - we’re never fully satisfied - we’re always looking to improve. That to me is a sign of a great writer. Well done Mr. Sorkin.

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