Last night, I was watching The Social Network, but I wasn’t watching it purely for enjoyment. I was analyzing the dialogue. What I found was pretty fascinating.
The screenplay, written by Aaron Sorkin, seems to be an accurate portrayal of super-smart Harvard students with drive and ambition. The magic behind the dialogue lies in its complexity cloaked in simplicity.
Check out this exchange between the character Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend, Erica:
MARK: You know there are more people with genius IQs living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?
ERICA That can’t possibly be true.
MARK: It is.
ERICA: What would account for that?
MARK : Well, first, an awful lot of people live in China. But here’s my question: How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SATs?
ERICA: I didn’t know they take SATs in China.
MARK: They don’t. I wasn’t talking about China anymore, I was talking about me.
ERICA: You got 1600?
MARK: Yes. I could sing in an a Capella group, but I can’t sing.
ERICA: Does that mean you actually got nothing wrong?
MARK I can row crew or invent a 25 dollar PC.
In the creative writing class I teach, we are currently working on dialogue, which is deceptively simple. Though this exchange appears to be two people chatting in a bar, it is embedded in a marvelously efficient way with all sorts of rich details. This is the art of dialogue: being able to drop clues like breadcrumbs but to make it appear to be unintentional.
What do we learn about Mark from this small bit of dialogue? He’s smart. He cares about IQs and SAT scores. He wants to impress the girl by letting slip that he got a perfect score. He manages to compare the idea of an overwhelmingly large population (in China) with the smaller but still daunting pool of brilliant people at his university. If you’re paying close attention, you might also pick up the clue that the A Cappella group he refers to is the prestigious all-male singing groups typical of places like Harvard and Yale. WE also learn that rowing crew might also be a way to get prestige at his school (also an ivy-league thing) and finally, that he works in computers ( “I could invent a $25 PC” ) That’s a lot of info packed into about ten lines of dialogue.
I tell my students that dialogue should do one of three things: reveal character traits, reveal relationships, or move the plot forward. If I could’ve included the entire scene, you’d see that all three of those outcomes are achieved in Sorkin’s writing, but he does it seamlessly, without revealing his masterful hand. He’s the man behind the curtain, so to speak, but no one is aware of his presence because he’s done such a great job.
Dialogue isn’t really how people talk; it’s how people talk if a writer is the puppeteer behind the words. The biggest mistake my students make is that they write things and say, “But that’s what really happened! That’s what they really said!” But dialogue in writing is not really about what people really say or how they really say it.
It’s about making the revelation of characters and relationship seem real. It’s about constructing in layers the details that make characters feel real. And it’s about crafting those details into lines that both illuminate and entertain.
A tall order, not for the faint of heart. But as I tell my students, dialogue can be a writer’s best friend, and learning how to write it can miraculously transform a story into a piece of art.