Aaron Sorkin and Sorkinisms: The Identity of a Screenwriter

By: Ruby Garff

What is the most important job in the making of a movie or a TV show? Who will make or break the quality of whatever media you’re watching? Is it the actors or the director?  Often when people first begin to think about the qualities of a good film or TV show, the first things brought to mind are these two roles. One of the more commonly disregarded aspects of media is screenwriting. It’s rare that you can identify a screenwriter just from watching a movie or show they’ve written since they don’t tend to create hyper-stylistic projects in the same way that directors do. Most of the time, a truly good screenwriter should go unnoticed; the dialogue should feel natural, and nothing should feel glaringly stunted or irregular. However, when a screenwriter does have a distinct style of writing, the dialogue becomes the heart of the show or movie it’s in. It’s hard to imagine certain media without the influence of the writers behind it. There is one writer in particular whose name on a film will guarantee a watch from me, and that writer is Aaron Sorkin. 

On June 25, 2012, a YouTube user with the channel name Kevin T. Porter posted a video called Sorkinisms – A Supercut. The video is 7 minutes and 22 seconds long and has amassed 1.7 million views, including attention from Aaron Sorkin himself.  The video is composed of clips and segments from various Sorkin projects, like The West Wing, The Newsroom, Sports Night, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The video puts a spotlight on the reused and similar lines of dialogue that are consistent across all of these projects. Most people who view the video seem to take it as some sort of biting critique of Aaron Sorkin–“he’s not even creative enough to come up with new dialog every time he writes! What a fraud!” In my opinion, if you take a step back and truly look at his writing as the art that it is, these Sorkinisms take on a new meaning. They aren’t representative of a lazy screenwriter. Anyone that takes in a piece of his media and comes away thinking that he’s lazy by nature didn’t watch the same thing that I did. These recurring pieces of dialogue are more like an artistic signature, however unintentional that may be. There are three Sorkinisms videos now, totaling around nineteen minutes in runtime. That is half an episode of one TV show. Sorkin has written 155 episodes of The West Wing alone. With someone who writes as much dialogue in the same continuous style as he does, some of it is bound to be similar. Some of these videos are also composed of simple phrases like “you think?” and “you bet,” and a good chunk of the second Sorkinisms video is various characters from across the Sorkinverse humble-bragging about the degrees they’ve earned from various prestigious universities. This is a symptom of Aaron Sorkin’s tendency to only write about exceedingly smart people having exceedingly smart conversations. You can start to see why the Sorkinisms video doesn’t work as a scathing critique. They are only 19 minutes of similar dialogue, with many of those minutes being filled with unimportant phrases and similarities.  Anyone who writes can relate to the feeling of crafting a sentence with perfect flow and beautiful wordplay and wanting to reuse its structure in basically everything you write. These seemingly copied and recycled lines are just a product of the kind of screenplays Sorkin writes–they are a part of what makes his screenplays so distinct.

 The description of the original Sorkinisms video says that the video is acting as a “playful excursion through Sorkin’s wonderful world of words” and that it is not, in fact, a critique. Describing Sorkin’s writing as a world of words aptly conveys how I feel about his screenwriting. I love words, and I love the way he employs words. He writes screenplays like they’re songs or prose, conversations in the wonderful world of Sorkin playing out with a consistent rhythm. This also plays into the repetition in his work I described before through Sorkinisms. He will reuse a line when he finds something that fits, something with a snappy rhythm that properly fits in his jigsaw puzzle of dialogue. Sorkin screenplays feel like a complex construction of one of the most basic art mediums in the world: words. He makes words more complex and more interesting just by working them into his style–his quick-witted, snappy, sometimes perfectly pretentious style. Anything Aaron Sorkin has written will earn a watch from me, and I think he’s the only screenwriter I can say that about. His writing defines projects and becomes a core part of the identity of anything he works on. He’s managed to build up an individuality and prestige as a writer that few ever have. 

Aaron Sorkin’s most famous projects are often also some of my favorites of all time. The West Wing, probably his most defining work, is among that small list of shows I consider to be my favorites. The Social Network is critically acclaimed and is a film I’ve seen more times than I can count. The Newsroom and Sports Nights are both phenomenal shows that not enough people have seen. I’d even say the same thing about the film, Steve Jobs, which was probably an example of an Aaron Sorkin fantasy. The entire film is smart, often sarcastic people having extended conversions, and it’s wonderful. 

The West Wing is probably my favorite Sorkin work;I once saw someone describe it as American-government fanfiction, and honestly, that’s a pretty accurate description. President Bartlet’s administration is idealized almost to a fault, almost. It’s a hopeful and fascinating look at politics with intriguing drama, and, in my opinion, more fleshed-out characters compared to some other works with Sorkin’s name on it. It’s also just genuinely funny. One of my favorite cold opens in all of television is from the West Wing Season 2 Episode 11 titled“The Leadership Breakfast.” In this cold open, two white house employees, Josh Lyman, the Deputy Chief of Staff, and Sam Seaborn, the Deputy Communications Director, attempt to light a fireplace in the Mural Room of the White House. The only problem is that the flue of this fireplace is sealed shut. This episode literally opens with two white house employees almost setting the White House on fire. This cold open is full of Aaron Sorkin’s snappy comedy goodness, whether it’s Sam parading in with a bottle of Kerosene or Josh asking his assistant to get him dried leaves from the forest. Also in these few minutes, the press secretary, CJ Cregg, is carefully assigning seats for the bipartisan leadership breakfast. Just when it seems she and her team are done, she steps back and says, “You know what we did? We forgot the president.” 

Plastered on the wall of the Aaron Sorkin smart person monologue hall of fame is Eduado Saverin’s rant to Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network. Parts of this speech are ingrained into my brain forever, it’s just so incredibly iconic and well-crafted, filled with the Sorkin rhythm I’ve discussed throughout the article. “You better lawyer-up, asshole, ‘cause I’m not coming back for 30 percent, I’m coming back for everything!” This line makes me want to jump up and down and cheer for Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Saverin. Thank you Aaron Sorkin for giving this scene to the world.

Examples of my love of Sorkin are everywhere, and nearly everything episode of television he’s written will leave me thinking about a new line of dialogue. I’ll be thinking about a comedy line that made me cackle because of how artfully the punchline was built up, or sometimes a wonderfully pedantic monologue that made me feel smart just because I was watching it. Identity is hard to build up as a screenwriter. It’s rare that viewers pay attention to a writer’s name over a director or actor. Aaron Sorkin is one of the only screenwriters who has carved his way into the minds of viewers and changed the landscape of screenwriting as a whole. His “world of words,” is always a pleasure to explore and delve into.  As a writer and a lover of words, I will always have an appreciation for the Sorkin style. It’s quick, smart, and sarcastic and it always captures my attention. If you’ve never watched a Sorkin project, “then you haven’t seen Shakespeare the way it was meant to be played.”

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