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
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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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To all the people throughout the course who've been complaining about Sorkin's many "um's and aa's." He explained at the beginning of the course that he's "a writer not a talker." It also goes to show why writing like people really talk usually isn't a good choice. That being said, it in no way feels confusing, and I think people are expecting a thesaurus to come flowing out of the guy's mouth, which isn't fair. This was my favorite lesson so far, and anyone who's disappointed by his average way of speaking needs to cut him some slack.


Hi everyone! Message from the MC Community team -- make sure you join Aaron Sorkin's Class Community! There you can discuss writing techniques and other class material, network with other students, trade tips and reviews, and stay up to date on class contests & activities. Link here: Also, FYI! We recently launched a contest to win 2 tix to Sorkin's latest screenplay adaptation on Broadway, To Kill A Mockingbird. Learn more and enter here: Contest closes this Sunday, Nov 24 at 10pm PT. Can't wait to see your submissions!

Katharina R.

Never bothered about Aaron's way of talking, but this time he interrupted so many times that I couldn't understand what he meant to say.

Adrian R.

Aaron Sorkin is a virtuoso of dialogue! The music comparison is very interesting and definitely is something to strive for!

Tara Jade B.

I really liked this lesson and how he described and dissected this particular scene (dialog). I would love to copy him in the music comparison while I write, but I just find I´m not musically talented enough to do that. But I really liked him explaining it: it just gave me a hint of what could be possible to do with a dialogue to make it even better. And I'm really glad they didn't edited out his opera singing! He's got voice!!


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.