Dialog molds characters into three-dimensions. What characters say, as well as what they don’t, reveals who they are. Dialog has the power to make a story and its characters memorable, whether in books, theater, film, or television. I shamelessly study any medium that’s raised the dialog bar. My current
obsession interest is The West Wing.
The Magic of the Cutting Quip
I’m a little (?) late to the game on The West Wing (1999-2006). However, it is still in high demand on Netflix, which is a testament to its raise-the-bar quality.
The snappy dialog, and the aplomb with which it is delivered, hooked me in the first episode. Centered around the day-to-day happenings surrounding the President of the United States and his staff, The West Wing tackles serious topics without sinking into the morose. The sheer genius of the dialog and its delivery balanced intense drama with just-right humor, while revealing nuanced layers character traits.
Such as when Sam Seaborn, Deputy White House Communications Director in the administration of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, deflects an attack of an irate woman for his stance on school funding:
Woman: Don’t play dumb with me.
Sam: I am dumb. Most of the time I’m playing smart.
Then there were the typos in the State of the Union Address. As a writer, I may find typos funnier than most. But still. It’s The White House. Monumental decisions that affect millions of people go down there every day. So misspelled words in the State of the Union Address? Kind of (?) funny, if not a little embarrassing.
The following exchange happened during a read-through of the President’s State of the Union speech:
President: I’m proud to report our country’s stranger than it was a year ago?
Sam: Stronger. That’s a typo.
President: It could go either way.
Then later in the same episode:
First Lady: Why is hall#wed spelled with a pound sign in the middle of it?
President: I stopped asking those questions.
Dialog “Do’s” from The West Wing
- Reveal personality quirks.
Josh Lyman, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, and Donna Moss, his assistant, were arguing about her not checking his lunch order to make sure his hamburger was burned-to-a-crisp. Josh elaborates, “I like my hamburger so hard that if you drop it on the floor it breaks.”
- Show character strengths.
Josh threatens to fire Donna when she pushes back on a request that’s obviously not important. To which she replies, “You’ve already fired me three times. I’m impervious.” Then she walks away, declaring “Impervious.”
- Expose character dynamics.
C.J. Cregg, White House Press Secretary, intentionally annoys Josh in a press briefing by saying, “…the theoretical psychics at Cal Tech Nuclear Lab… You know what? I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be physicists.”
- Engender empathy in a character.
An international incident is in play, the President suffered a medical emergency, the State of the Union Address is that evening, and everyone keeps asking him if he’s taking his medication. To ease his staff’s worry, President Bartlet responds with humor, “Is it possible I’m taking something called euthanasia?” Sam replies, “Echinacea.” The President smiles, “That sounds more like it.”
- Lighten an intense scene.
Every episode of The West Wing uses witty banter to lighten intense scenes. Joss Whedon—creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—said it best: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”