So I’m a big fan of the Newsroom. I have to admit, though, that’s it’s not because of the politics or the characters, because both fall a tad flat. It’s because the witty, fast-paced banter is constant and all-consuming. The hour speeds past way faster than with most shows, and virtually the entire draw, at least for me, is in the dialogue. There’s a reason it’s Sorkin’s highest-praised talent.
But I’m not content to just watch it. I’m interested in just what makes his dialogue is fascinatingly punchy, so I’ve taken to watching each episode with a laptop open, noting various linguistic techniques that the show uses to stay entertaining.
Overall, Sorkin’s typical approach is to get two people talking to each other, and then make sure that both people use misdirection often and clearly. Misdirection is seldom allowed to exist for more than a single line of dialogue before the lie or syntactic ambiguity is confessed or clarified. This way, the audience can follow along easily — a necessity of commercial screenwriting — but can also feel as if the narrative is not easy to follow along with — a luxury of commercial screenwriting, and the reason Sorkin dialogue is so fun to listen to.
There’s plenty of ways to slip misdirection into the conversation. Clarify a small point, and then drop a big point that renders the small one useless. Deny one point, then reveal that you only denied one aspect of it, and not the aspect that the requester wanted to hear denied. Correcting a mistake, but only if it’s a small one: “You said ‘why’ twice.” And there’s always blatant hypocrisy, like the conversation between Will and episode six’s new bodyguard: “What other people have you guarded?” “We don’t talk about that.” “Okay.” “Kanye. It was awesome.” Or again, at the beginning of episode eight, in which Will harps on his newsroom’s “entire philosophy,” then explains that he’s off for a meeting to discuss “suspending our entire philosophy.”
Watch an episode with an eye out for the different types of obvious misdirection. On top of that foundation, a handful of tougher-to-categorize staples of the dialogue-writing trade suffice to boost the entire show into a stunningly entertaining wit-fest. Repetition and contradiction is rampant, for instance. From episode six: “We can do it if you want.” “I want.” and “Do you see a lot of action in New Jersey?” “Do you see a lot of action in the studio?” From episode eight: “But they don’t work for Leona Lancing.” “I don’t know, I think everyone works for Leona Lancing.” Also making appearances are snark, hyperbole, analogies — all the good stuff. Wordplay is a fun one: “He said ‘in pain,’ not ‘a pain.’”
Episode seven has a few examples of classic tactics, with a little understatement, people being wrong about commonplace info, and the ubiquitous snark. There’s more repetition: “Way outside the box”/“bring it back in the box,” and a nice running gag: Everyone on the airplane knows Don is having dating problems with Maggie.
Running themes are a fun part of The Newsroom: on top of running gags like airplane gossip or Neal’s Bigfoot theory, all the characters tend to gravitate towards a certain linguistic trait in each episode, despite seldomly using it elsewhere: In episode six, irrelevant assumptions or data are may times given to rhetorical questions like “how are you” and “guess what.” In episode eight, emotional plot revelations often come in tandem with jokes, a la “Oh my god, Sloan, it’s like the Land Where Time Stood Still! Brian Brenner’s the guy I cheated on Will with!” and the episode’s final line, “I didn’t know He had that kind of comedic timing.”
Those aren’t all of the secrets behind the punch of The Newsroom’s wit, the entirety of which is genuinely difficult to compose. Once it’s all broken into parts, though, the dialogue doesn’t seem quite as superhuman. Sherlock Holmes similarly fails to amaze his clients once he has taken the time to explain the many steps to his reasoning. Neither Holmes nor Sorkin should be considered hacks for using myriad tiny steps to create their masterpieces.
There’s one element to Sorkin’s dialogue that is the easiest to create by far, too: the ‘fast-paced’ part. The trick is merely talking all the time. I was watching the latest episode, and was surprised to hear the Newsroom-y theme music playing while Charlie Skinner walked through the library. Normally, we don’t get a full ten seconds for such luxuries. It’s just as well. I don’t like the theme music. Like virtually every other element on the show, it just gets in the way of Sorkin’s dialogue.