Say What, Sorkin?

Curator's Note

Over the last twenty years, serialized television programs have grown in number and sophistication. Some of these “narratively complex” series (Mittell, 2006), which include The Sopranos, The West Wing, The Wire, Lost, and Breaking Bad, have rarely used what Steven Johnson calls “flashing arrows” to “help the audience keep track of what’s going on” across episodes and seasons (Johnson, 2005, p. 73). However, West Wing creator/writer Aaron Sorkin stealthily embraces and subverts this traditional narrative device through his unconventional yet familiar technique.

“Two Cathedrals,” the season two finale and one of the finest hours of prime-time television, typifies this contrast. President Josiah Bartlet attends the funeral for his longtime secretary, publicly announces he has multiple sclerosis, and deliberates over seeking re-election. Because his characters’ conversations can be so rapid, dense, and layered, and because his storylines often traverse several episodes, Sorkin dialogically tries to mitigate viewers’ confusion.

The accompanying video shows the numerous moments from “Two Cathedrals” when characters repeat themselves to their fellow interlocutors because they were not understood the first time. Through a unique application of “flashing arrows,” Sorkin has his characters acknowledge their incomprehension – by uttering, “I’m sorry?” “Hmmm?” “Excuse me?” “What?” – so the audience can hear again an important piece of dialogue.

While we can assume that no one from these scenes is hard-of-hearing, the reasons the characters repeat themselves are purposeful: one, they maintain momentum that suits the fast-paced workplace environment cultivated aurally and visually by Sorkin’s dialogue and by director Thomas Schlamme’s famous “walk-and-talks”; two, the repeated lines serve as natural transitions between scenes; three, Sorkin obviates the need for expository dialogue that often dumbs down television series (e.g., when a character might say, “Explain it to me like I’m a four-year-old …” or “Are you trying to tell me that …”); four, he draws attention more pointedly to what the characters are saying; five, the dialogue foreshadows critical moments ahead.

The West Wing is justly recognized as one of the most well-crafted series in television history. However, this industry-praised (four consecutive Outstanding Drama Series Emmys) and critically acclaimed show that evinced narrative complexity also modified an old-fashioned trope that is often applied to minimize it.

Johnson, S. (2005). Everything bad is good for you. New York: Riverhead Books.

Mittell, J. (Fall 2006). Narrative complexity in contemporary American television. The velvet light trap, 58, 29-40.



Thanks for kicking off the week with a post on Sorkin's dialog, arguably the most noted aspect of his projects (along with the walk-and-talks). Until reading your post, and watching your video, I never thought of the dialog as helping me keep up with itself, I've been so wrapped up in the workplace mentality of "I'm doing 4 things and thinking about another 7, so you need to repeat that for me." (And because I've never had problems keeping up with the dialog -- but now I wonder if it was just years of television viewing helping me or the script!)

I wonder if you'd be willing to offer ideas as to why you think Sorkin engages in these flashing arrows. Does it come from his theatre background? Did you think he saw it as a way to work around any network notes that told him that characters needed to slow down when talking?

Likewise, as your initial list of shows recognized as being narratively complex shows, cable (premium and basic) seems to dominate that category. With his upcoming HBO show More As This Story Develops, do you think the flashing arrows will continue to thrive, or fall by the wayside so as to seem less, for lack of a better word, broadcast-y?

First off, what a great insight! Thanks for your post.

Recently, I've been watching Sports Night, and, with the help of you piece, noticed that flashing arrows are present there too. In both shows, it seems that the technique is as prominent as "technobabble" or setting-specific argot. Where use of the latter is often a source of derision for a TV show (e.g. Star Trek), its combination with the former can be used with great effect. Viewers can get overwhelmed as they are immersed in abbreviations (i.e., OEOB, VTR, etc.). But flashing arrows give viewers enough to latch onto and stay engaged. Then continued patronage is rewarded as flashing arrows and context clues inform them about more nuanced and refined plot dressings (i.e., OEOB= Old Executive Office Building, VTR=Video Tape Recorder).

Noel, thanks for putting together this week!

I definitely think there's a relationship between Sorkin's repetition on his TV shows and the channels on which they appear(ed). Although it's part of his style, it might undermine the quality of his forthcoming HBO series if he were to include these flashing arrows. Furthermore, considering Sorkin's versatility from having written in television, film, and theater, I imagine those contexts also influence whether or not to have his characters repeat themselves. E.g., I expected it throughout much of The Social Network but didn't really hear it.

Richard, I like how you've acknowledged the "technobabble" from Sports Night, and how its work in tandem with the dialogue repetition further complicates this technique. For those well-versed in Studio 60, how did that show (if at all) combine repetition with jargon?


Thanks Todd for starting the week with such a thought-provoking piece. Isolating those flashing arrow moments I am reminded of how much of a network show The West Wing really was. But Sorkin also is doing something quite clever with those moments in terms of evoking subjective states of mind--trauma, memory. For example, in Noel, when Josh is diagnosed with post-traumatic disorder, or Manchester (pt. 1&2) where there was lots of distracted listening. In Two Cathedrals, though, there are two narratives at work, with the flashing arrows helping to bridge them, as Bartlet retrieves memories that will help him decide whether to seek reelection. Delving deep into his personal history reaffirms his political purpose in the present—and sets in motion a new storytelling cycle (which, of course you right point out), and this is certainly the case with the last clip, as Bartlet fails to hear the question. 



First of all, thanks for a post so interesting.

Obviously, it is undeniable that Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is emphatic and often relies on repetition. Without going any further, parodies of Sorkin’s writing style tend to emphasize that aspect (eg Family Guy 8x20 "Something, Something, Something, Dark Side"

However, do not you think that this repetition is due to a sense of musicality? Do not you think the repetition in Sorkin’s dialogue is, above all, a question of rhythm and rhyme?

I believe that repetition can be found in all Sorkin’s work. An example of The Social Network: MARK: It's ready. / EDUARDO: It's ready? / MARK: Yeah. / EDUARDO: Right now? / MARK: It's ready, that was it.

What do you think about it?


You raise an excellent point, Rossend. There definitely is a musicality to Sorkin's writing, which -- to Noel's point -- could be explained by his theatre background. That rhythm is what separates his writing from others' that we see on television and in film.

But what I find unique about Sorkin's repetition is how he often disguises it in these moments of staged incomprehension; it pulls attention away from the repetition.

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