Special powers

Here’s the thing. And it is a thing. I’m in a stealing mood. I don’t know why, I think it’s maybe because I just had my first experience of hanging with litigators and winning, baby, winning.

Do you notice how I can’t say “baby”?

But I was thinking of doing something bad. It was even bad in two parts. I might go so far as to call it Evil. Well, no, that’s too harsh. Call it Evil-.

Evil- part 1: Jason Arnopp said this thing the other week about looking at key drama moments in his blog, really exploring what makes us writers want to write. He hasn’t done a huge amount of this yet, though there is this about Apparitions. I would like to steal his idea. Don’t copy me. If you do this too, it becomes an internet meme and where’s the Evil- in that?

But, wait, Evil- part 2: I was actually thinking of popping something up onto YouTube so that I could point you at it and claim, all innocent-like, that it was a wonderful coincidence that some Evil+ person should rip it off and put it up there at that precise same moment.

Only, someone has. Not this very minute, but not an awfully long time ago. Somewhen back in August this year.

So. They’ve done the ripping off, I’ve acknowledged that I’m stealing from your man Jason Arnopp, let’s play our game.

If you know me at all, you know the joy of drama for me is in people talking. I might have them in helicopters, I’m not immune to some of yer action, but ultimately it’s where two people shouting at each other can take us. And you’ll not be surprised that my favourite writers are ones who are hot on dialogue and rhythms of speech, language, such as Carrie Fisher. Wait, I need to stop that sentence for a sec: I’ll resume the list of favourite linguistic writers after this public service announcement. I just checked Carrie Fisher’s website and it’s alright, but it hasn’t been updated since the dawn of time. However, she has a new book out any second now so it’ll probably get some welly into the site. And if it doesn’t, you can just buy her book. If I love writers who play with language, I adore good titles even more. Her book’s an autobiography called Wishful Drinking.

I was going to rattle off a lot of names but I can see you’re in a hurry. Let me cut to one: Aaron Sorkin. You know this fella for his dialogue. Maybe for a lot of other things, but dialogue and in fact dialogue at speed, right? While walking? If you’re thinking of The West Wing, ratch it up a notch and you’ve got Sports Night. The same lightspeed dialogue exchanges but even faster because the show was only half an hour.

If we met in a bar, and had run out of conversation so much and so fast that you were reduced to asking me what car/vegetable/animal I would be, I would steer you to this topic instead. My favourite Sports Night scene. Please remember that this is a fast, fast show, that its verve and wit and ferociously powerful way of grabbing you is famously down to the dialogue. Now have a look at the opening to season 2, episode 1, Special Powers by Aaron Sorkin. Whoever put this on YouTube put the first ten minutes up but I just want you to watch the top 90 seconds.

Have a look right here.

What did you think? Admit it, you know I meant up to “It’s been 90 days” but you carried right on watching.

There is something special about the opening moments of a new season. You need to be confident but not cocky, you need to know you’re good and be as good as you think you are. And you need to seduce people in. The very first episode of Sports Night did it with a smash-bang start, throwing you right into the action, but this second run took 45 seconds before there was any dialogue at all. Without commercials, the show runs 22 minutes and Aaron Sorkin chose to take 90 seconds before there was any meaningful dialogue. And this in a show where every script typically ran 20 pages longer than standard because of the volume of dialogue.

I think that’s quite brave, I think it’s quite wonderful. And I’d forgotten that while he subverted expectations of what Sports Night would be like, Sports Night itself was subverting what sitcoms were meant to be like. This is less obvious now because so many shows work the same way but in its day (1999/2000) this was a multi-camera sitcom yet done like no other had been. Sports Night looks like a film, not another variant on the I Love Lucy standard three-wall set and four-camera shoot.

For instance, watch that first shot again of Casey McCall (Peter Krause) throwing paper into a bin: you know, you just know it took a hell of a long time to get that looking so perfect. But now name any other sitcom of the period that would spend the effort.

I’d like to know if you hadn’t seen the show before and yet this drew you in: when I saw that clip I’d already seen 20+ episodes so the relationship it was describing was very familiar to me. I think it works regardless, but you can never unwatch something to find out.

The clip also has that music, She Will Have Her Way by Neill Finn. I watched the episode on the new DVD set and then rewound it, pointed my iPhone at the screen and tapped on Shazam to find out what the music was and buy it over iTunes. Normally I don’t rate Aaron Sorkin’s music choices; they’re often superb but equally often just a bit smaltzy for me. But here, I’d never heard the track before and I’ve heard it an awful lot since.

Aaron Sorkin has got dialogue, yes, but he’s got pace and rhythm too. I find it very hard to slow down, it’s as if I want to throw things at you until you like one. But I’m consciously taking a breath, looking for the visual way to showcase dialogue, the way to lead you in to a story in as fresh and new a way as I can, looking to steal an approach and an idea I admire greatly.

Listen, whoever did the YouTube thing, you know they put the whole episode up, doncha? Watch it if ye may, but then buy the DVD set, okay? Some 40-odd episodes and it’s a gem.

Hang on, I started this hours ago and kept nipping off to check out Carrie Fisher websites for you. (The others I was going to include were Paul Auster, Dar Williams, Suzanne Vega, by the way.)

I think someone’s stolen my evening. How did they do that?


5 thoughts on “Special powers

  1. I’ve never seen Sports Night, so I got to watch it for the first time. Dead smart. I realised there was no dialogue for some time but I was just as involved in the scenes as if there had been. The nightclub scene with the glass screens was very neat indeed.

    The build-up to the live broadcast just spun things up like a flywheel and the pay-off was ace. Very very clever indeed. Wonder how many takes it took to get the two of them talking in utterly perfect unison?

  2. Now that’s another thing I’d wondered about until I wrote that blog: whether the two of them speaking would seem as great to someone seeing the show for the first time as it did when you were very used to their opening spiels.

    But watching the clip back I see now that it really cleverly prepared you for it: it told you what they normally do, it told you what they were planning to say, but it did so without seeming like exposition. And so cleverly that I didn’t notice they were telling me things I already knew, setting up things I knew. Setting me up for that great pay-off.

    I love, simply cherish and love the live broadcasts: I’ve worked in radio and felt some of that – even today I was in a kind of radio studio and it had the same buzz. I think it’s remarkable how they capture that special type of excitement: this is not actually a big, new event, it’s a show they’ve done every night for ages so there can’t be an artificial panic or hype, but Aaron Sorkin gets you feeling that mounting thrill that a live broadcast does. And he gets you feeling the same way about time, too: how you relax when someone calls out “two minutes back”, as if two minutes is a long time.

    So pleased you watched: I hope you get to see more.


  3. I will watch more. I need to watch more; I’ve realised that I just don’t watch enough, be it film or TV. It’s not that I avoid watching things because I think I’m going to unwittingly plagiarise stuff; it’s simply a case of too much to do in too little time.

    It’d be interesting to transcribe the script of those moments where the studio buzz builds up. I wondering whether the sentences get shorter or the gaps between the pieces of dialogue get smaller.

    It’s no one single thing, though; it’s about where everyone is in the studio through those two minutes, their body language, what they are saying, what’s going on in the background.
    Even though I just know the Chinese swimmer wasn’t going to make the lead story I still found myself wondering whether she was going to change her mind at the last minute.

    So yeah, it was as great for someone seeing the show for the first time.

    My daughter (6) saw Star Wars – the first one, the one that blew my 9-year-old socks clean off – for the first time at the weekend. She’s a Disney Princess fan. I asked her afterwards whether spaceship films or fairy films were better. She likes spaceship films now. Especially ones with Wookiees. I do wonder whether I should have made her save her Star Wars cherry until she was old enough to really appreciate it, though 🙂

  4. I don’t have the script to that episode but I’ve read many others in the series. And the answer is… neither. Lines are short and long throughout, definitely in a rhythm but there’s no obvious difference between the studio, control room and outer office scenes.

    And the gap between speeches? None. Ever!

    The scenes are typically slugged INT. CONTROL ROOM/STUDIO, i.e. both at the same time. There’s no description on the page of where people are in the two rooms and nothing at all about whether, for example, Casey is in the same room as Dana or whether they’re talking over headsets.

    It makes the scripts hard to read, I think, until you’ve seen the shows enough. Normally I’d think that was a bad thing, which just shows how much I know.

    But I do insist I know one thing: girls are older than boys. Your six-year-old is the perfect age, she can enjoy the real Star Wars and not be too wounded by the dreadful second trilogy.

    Oh, to be that young.


  5. Well, I’m 40 in a few days but weirdly I’m perfectly happy with that and have no desire to be any other age. Mind you, I’d pay good money to be able to watch SW IV, V and VI with the same fresh, open mind that I had all those years ago.

    Interesting what you say about the scripts. They’re clearly just one ingredient in the recipe. I started my (as yet unsuccessful) writing career with novels and short stories before moving into scriptwriting, so I tend to expect the words on the page to express everything. Not the case with scripts. They’re more like scaffolding describing the shape of the visuals, I suppose.

    I’m not sure what I want more badly: my name on the cover of a novel or a script of mine acted out on the screen.

    Hm. Both, actually.

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