“My name is Toby Ziegler, and I work at The White House”

At the moment, I’m editing something for a friend. She hasn’t written a lot of fiction, and I haven’t edited any fiction at all apart from my own, so it’s good practice for both of us. My most consistent comment at the moment is that I think she needs more dialogue between her characters. I love dialogue. I love the way it quickly establishes character, infuses subtext and speeds plot along.

One of my favourite TV shows of all time is The West Wing, created by and for the first few seasons at least, written mostly by Aaron Sorkin. I resisted watching it for years. It’s about politics, for one thing – American politics, at that. Moreover, everyone kept telling me it was the best thing since sliced bread and I absolutely HAD to watch it, which automatically made me dislike it on principle. (I do this a lot, with everything. It’s a flaw. I think I know the psychological reason for it, but I won’t bore you with that now.) Anyway, suffice it to say that when I did actually start watching it, I fell in love with it immediately. Because of course, it’s not really about politics at all. It’s about the characters – and the dialogue. Always the dialogue.

Dialogue is one of the greatest joys of an Aaron Sorkin show or film. It is fast, witty and can go on and on. In the The West Wing, he regularly put his actors through long walk-and-talks, in which they would walk miles but go nowhere and have great conversations while doing so. At one point, Sorkin himself made an in-script a joke of it. Josh and Sam leave their offices and embark on a walk, talking all the while about some deep point of government policy. They reach the end of the corridor at the same time that they reach the end of the point they were each making and stop, looking at each other and at the two directions they could now take.

Sam: Where are you going?

Josh: Where are you going?

Sam: I was following you.

Josh: I was following you. [beat] All right, don’t tell anyone this happened, okay?

And the scene ends.

Dissenters often criticise Sorkin’s dialogue with the words, “It’s so unrealistic. No one ever really speaks like that.” Of course it’s unrealistic. It’s entertainment. No one really and truly – and be honest now, please -watches a TV show to see realism, do they? I mean, not even people who watch Reality shows, right?

Anyway, I maintain that watching The West Wing is a perfect lesson in how to write dialogue. In fact, one of my all-time favourite episodes, 20 Hours in America, neatly unspools around a single repeated line of dialogue that at first seems completely inconsequential. In the episode, the White House staff is on the re-election campaign trail. In the hectic course of events, the Presidential motorcade departs without three key members of the team. They’re stuck in the middle of nowhere in Idaho, or Indiana, or Iowa, or one of those other states with a name that makes you feel that it might be the size of forever, and might as well be for the three city folk trying to make their way across it.

Toby, a character who can occasionally be pompous and is always irascible, loses a bet. The forfeit is that every time he introduces himself, he must say, “My name is Toby Ziegler, and I work at The White House.” At first it seems to be calculated merely as a joke. The line makes him seem arrogant. It gets him into trouble with locals who didn’t vote for this POTUS the first time around and don’t plan on re-electing him. It makes the audience laugh. This goes on and on throughout the episode, as Toby becomes more and more frustrated with their journey, the fact that a key piece of policy is eluding them all, and the idiot that losing the bet is making out of him. Then, in the final act, when they’ve finally reached an airport and are killing time waiting for a flight back to Washington and the action of episode is ostensibly at an end, Toby has a chance meeting with a man in a bar. They talk, without introducing themselves, about what might make this man’s life just a little easier as he tries to put his only daughter through college without much spare cash. And Toby slowly realises that he might be able to do something solid to help this man – and many others like him – because he is who he is and he works where he works. The man has no idea why this stranger is interested in his troubles. Then, when they finally get around to shaking hands and introducing themselves, Toby realises that all he has to say to explain himself is:

“My name is Toby Ziegler, and I work at The White House.”

I love the neatness of how that one line has meant so many different things throughout the episode. It’s just one line of dialogue, which at first looks as if it has no point but to be a thorn in someone’s side. Yet it’s a demonstration of how powerful dialogue can be.

Dammit. Now I want to watch The West Wing again.



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