“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” – Jean Luc Godard
Yeah…what he said.
…because he made “walk and talk” storytelling a part of everyday culture. Aaron Sorkin holds a unique status among contemporary film and television writers due to his trademark style, or “Sorkinisms” as they are both affectionately and derisively called. His scripts balance serious issues and themes with light comedy and witty banter shaped by workplace dynamics. Even when adapting true stories, Sorkin centers his process on his characters’ conflicting desires between professional success and personal happiness.
Perhaps more than any other writer, Sorkin defines his characters through their work and how it affects their personal lives. In another sense, Sorkin’s scripts place character intentions against external and internal obstacles. Sometimes, this appears as a dramatic device in his writing. The central conflict of every one of his shows has been two former romantic partners forced to work together again (and for those of you about to object that “The West Wing” focused on political issues, go back and watch the first few episodes to see Mandy in action). This essentially transforms the external personal obstacle of having to work with someone new into an internal conflict as well. Sorkin’s concept of drama is how his character’s professional ambitions and obligations will inevitably interfere with their personal desires and well-being. Does following the unwritten rules of the military mean turning a blind eye towards basic humanity? Can an American president go on a date? How does founding one of the world’s most successful tech companies affect the relationships of the men involved (take your pick between Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs)? Whether you view this as Sorkin’s individual dramatic style or a creative crutch, nobody else does it better. His approach to drama may not have reinvented the wheel, but it certainly makes for a smooth ride along the way.
As a film writer, Sorkin has become best known for his screenplays based on true stories: "The Social Network," "Steve Jobs," "Charlie Wilson’s War" and "Moneyball." In adapting these events into feature narratives, Sorkin balances detailed research with changes for dramatic purposes. Yes, Sorkin, like every single writer who has written a real life script, adds his own individual voice and creative alterations, but he does so to present a larger truth about the world. Perhaps why Sorkin feels so comfortable working in this dramatic mode is that even his fictional stories are also based in reality. For example, "A Few Good Men," "The American President" and “The West Wing” all rely on specific settings like Guantanamo Bay and Washington D.C. to generate a sense of authenticity. Taking it even further, “Sportsnight” was basically another name for ESPN’s "Sportscenter" show, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” fictionalized New York’s most famous live sketch comedy show in Los Angeles and “The Newsroom” based its cable news station on either CNN or MSNBC (just definitely not FoxNews). “The Newsroom” actually incorporated real news stories into its dramatic events, though this made Sorkin the target of much (basically unfair) criticism. And whatever you think of that series, it did encapsulate Sorkin’s philosophical outlook by asking how the big events in our society and culture affect the everyday lives of individual human beings.
If anything, Sorkin is a great example of the writer as craftsman. Whether envisioning his own original idea or adapting someone else’s, he incorporates his unique style into the project. The signature element of his work is the “walk and talk” storytelling device, in which two characters have a conversation while walking together. In Sorkin’s hands, this simple action becomes a way to move the story forward while also revealing information about the characters in the scene; when executed seamlessly, as in “The West Wing” or "Steve Jobs," it serves as a way to transition to a different setting and introduce new characters without breaking the action. And about the talk part…anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Sorkin’s work can probably identify his voice in the characters’ dialogue. Again, the Sorkin style can move from the realm of near universal praise to hate him territory, depending on who you ask. Some have even criticized Sorkin for his characters being too intelligent, though this speaks more to his interest in writing about smart people like Mark Zuckerberg and the professionals of the White House (though to be fair, there are a lot of intelligent folks who don’t possess his characters’ encyclopedic knowledge of the history of musical theater). Ultimately, Sorkin’s unique dramatic style reflects his view of writing as a process. In his view, a good writer should always be writing and revising. And Sorkin also practices what he preaches. If he sometimes recycles his own one-liners, that’s because he basically writes all the time. In fact, he famously wrote too much at the height of the success of “The West Wing.” Still, there are few other writers out there who possess as much love for the act of putting words on the page and eventually onto the screen.
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