Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Storyteller’s Rulebook #195: Avoid the Sorkin Stammer

One last thought about An Education. I loved how un-Sorkinish it was.

There are a lot of reasons that I tend to dislike Aaron Sorkin’s writing, but here’s the biggest one: The Sorkin Stammer. Sorkin gives us scene after scene of this: Our hero, a smartass expert at some field or another, sits there and smirks listening to the criticisms of a bloviating blowhard, then unleashes a withering, fact-filled retort, which leaves the critic stammering helplessly as the expert calmly saunters away. What can the blowhard say, after all? When you’re right, you’re right!

Except that’s now how life works. Nine times out of ten, your opponent will simply interrupt you before you can lay down any facts, but on those rare occasions that people actually bother to listen to your whole clever list of rebuttals, it’s only because they’re ready to blindside you with something you failed to consider.

Carey Mulligan’s precocious teenage protagonist in An Education wants to live in a Sorkin universe, where her superior wit and smarts will allow her to reduce her critics to jelly, but she keeps forgetting that, even though she may have the higher IQ, she also has a limited perspective, and they can see things that she can’t see…because that’s always the case.

Let’s look at several times she tries to have the last word, and fails.  First with David’s friends:

Then she tries it on her dad:
Her simple-minded father can’t think of any retort right away, but he leaves and comes back, apologizing, but also saying, “He wasn’t who he said he was.  He wasn’t who you said he was either.”
And then she really meets her match:

Ouch.  Even when her scene partner has no devastating comeback, they at least have the wherewithal to say some version or “Hey, it sucks that you’re trying to belittle me.”
And that’s how you have to treat your heroes. Don’t give them straw men to punch right though. Give them heavyweights that knock them flat.


Anonymous said...

My vision of Hell is a place where everybody talks like if they were in Aaron Sorkin script. Can you imagine a world where every fucking single person was like that drunken sailor in a bar babbling stupid anecdotes again and again? That's The Newsroom in a nutshell.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Sorkin dialogue is like a Steven Seagal fight: the hero comes in and beats the hell out of everyone without getting scratched. If you're going to be flashy with the dialogue, better to have it be like a Jackie Chan fight, where there's a whole lot of give and take with the flourishes and conflict.

The Sorkin style works great if you're creating fantasy. Not the Orcs-n-Elves kind, but the power kind. There's a market for that. Especially if you cloak it with the trappings of realism, as Sorkin does.

j.s. said...

Nobody talks the way they do in Tarantino films or Preston Sturges films or all of David Mamet's work either. (Did anyone speak the way Hamlet spoke in Shakespeare's day? Did anyone except Beckett's characters ever talk like the people in his plays?) Sorkin might be an example of how not to stylize dialogue and why. But the solution can't be that everyone in every show should talk just like the corner boys in THE WIRE.

Matt Bird said...

I dunno, I would argue that the dealers in "The Wire" were also stylized in their way. After all, they were always entertaining to listen to. When I think of truly unstylized dialogue, I think of mumblecore or Cassavetes. Compared to those guys, "The Wire" seems like the Marx Brothers.

The goal is not to avoid stylization, but to stylize in a way that amplifies identification and drama, instead of shutting it down.

I would say that Sorkin's biggest problem has always been the fetishization of expertise. He loves his experts, and that's fine, but he loves them so much that he rearranges reality to make life easy for them, and that's not.

It's okay for a writer to love his characters, and the rearrange reality for them, but you have to make life harder, not easier, or else you're going to end up with (as Harvey says) a power fantasy, which may allow a certain segment of like-minded people to pump their fists, but will be totally dramatically inert for the rest of us.

j.s. said...

I think that's the key point for me in your critique of Sorkin's dialogue -- that it's not necessarily bad because it isn't conventionally naturalistic so much as it's bad because the storytelling consequences are so uninteresting.

Chaplain of Gotham said...

Loved An Education and I am glad to being helped to understand why it was so great...except I still feel it was a march toward the obvious. The story telegraphs to us right away that her suitor is a creep and, guess what? He's a creep. It felt like a self serving autobiography to me, as she seemed to make herself the "hero" of a story where she was very frequently an accomplice to some crappy stuff. That said, I've never seen the obvious so richly told and acted. I own the DVD and I'll watch it over and over.

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