By, Jacob Krueger
Remember the first scene of The Social Network? Aaron Sorkin’s spitfire banter ricocheting at high velocity between Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend Erica.
The scene is so brilliantly written, you probably barely noticed that you didn’t understand half of what these characters were saying to each other!
With characters talking faster than the ear can hear or the mind can process, there’s no way an audience can keep up with Sorkin’s dialogue. Heck, even Erica keeps losing the thread of Mark’s obsessively tortuous conversation, and she’s a smart cookie.
Like Erika, you probably found yourself breathlessly “dating a stairmaster” as you tried to keep up with even half of Mark’s relentless onslaught of words.
But here’s what you probably remember:
- Mark is mind numbingly obsessed with getting into a final club.
- Erica desperately wants to talk about ANYTHING else.
- These characters are both REALLY smart, but even Erika can’t keep up with Mark’s overactive mind.
- Mark pushes things too far and Erica breaks up with him.
- Erica furiously puts Mark in his place with this zinger: “You’re going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. And I want you to know…that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole”
As writers, we all love words. And nobody loves words more than Aaron Sorkin. But for all the subtle nuances of his language, Sorkin knows a secret that most young writers forget.
The Audience Isn’t Listening To Your Dialogue
It’s nice to think of your enraptured audience, hanging on your every word, lingering on your thematic motifs, and preparing treatises on the finer points of your arguments.
But the truth of the matter is that movie dialogue, just like real life conversation, usually happens way too quickly for that.
Audiences hear dialogue… but they pay attention to action. And that doesn’t just mean car chases and exploding buildings.
It means the things characters are doing with their dialogue: the powerful needs and dramatic conflicts between them that force them to say what they say in the way that only they could say it.
Get these underlying desires right, and you can get away with just about anything in your dialogue.
Why The Social Network Works
Let’s face it, if you heard a someone was planning to start a movie with an eight page conversation full of information about Harvard University final clubs, SAT scores and IQ percentages in China, you probably expected the most boring script in history.
Yet, despite the fact that the rather unlikeable main character spends the whole scene talking about stuff that most people (including his girlfriend) don’t have a shred of interest in, Sorkin’s scene is unmistakably compelling.
It’s Mark’s desperate desire to be appreciated and accepted for his superior intellect that fuels every word he utters. And ironically, it’s that same need that drives Erica away over the course of the scene. That is the drama that we are watching over these eight pages. Not the dialogue itself, but the pressure that dialogue creates between two characters who can’t get what they need from each other.
This allows the audience to connect to the story of the scene, and while we may lose some of the specific words within Sorkin’s complex verbal gymnastics, no one can escape the power of the scene, or the meaning that those words contain.
We learn that meaning not through the words themselves. But through the way those words are spoken, and the powerful needs that drive the characters to say them.
What The Heck is Dialogue Anyway?
Many young writers are terrified of dialogue, thinking of the character’s words as something they add to a script after they’ve figured out the story, and worrying about “getting it right” and making it sound “realistic”.
Others think of dialogue as a way of explaining things to the audience, and spend their time trying to “sneak in” exposition, without ever thinking about what their character wants, or why they are saying it in the first place.
Still, others love writing dialogue, but nevertheless find their scripts filled with “talking heads” scenes of characters sitting in a room, exchanging brilliant ideas without ever getting their stories started.
That’s why it’s so important to understand what dialogue actually is and what it does within a screenplay.
Just Another Way of Getting What You Want
If you want to write great dialogue, the first step is letting go of the conception that dialogue is something characters SAY to one another.
Instead, I want to encourage you to think of dialogue as something characters DO to one another.
Whether your characters are talking about a glass of milk (Quentin Tarantino’s first scene of Inglorious Basterds), or the very nature of dreams and reality (Christopher Nolan’s Inception), whether your dialogue is naturalistic as David Mamet’s (American Buffalo) or as heightened as David Milch’s (Deadwood), if the motivations underneath your dialogue are powerful enough, your audience will connect to them, and to the story of your scene.