How You Can Tell The West Wing Was Written by Writers’ Writers – Part Two


If you missed part one, see last week’s post.


Toby Ziegler: “Ms Fortis?”
Tabatha Fortis: “Yeah.”
Toby Ziegler: “I’m Toby Ziegler.”
Tabatha Fortis: “I’ve been thinking a lot about it since you called.”
Toby Ziegler: “Yeah?”
Tabatha Fortis: “There’s nothing that rhymes with Ziegler.”
Toby Ziegler: “That’s why no one writes poetry about me.”
Tabatha Fortis: “You could write in blank verse. Dylan could do it.”
Toby Ziegler: “Yeah but he hasn’t yet.”
“The US Poet Laureate”, Episode 16, Season 3

CJ Cregg: “Let me explain something to you. This is sort of my field. The people on these sites, they’re the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The muumuu-wearing Parliament smoker, that’s Nurse Ratchet. When Nurse Ratchet is unhappy, the patients are unhappy. You, you’re McMurphy. You swoop in there with your card games and your fishing trips—”
Josh Lyman: “I didn’t swoop in, I came in exactly the same way everybody else did.”
CJ Cregg: “Well, now I’m telling you to open the ward room window and climb on out before they give you a pre-frontal lobotomy and I have to smother you with a pillow.”
Josh Lyman: “You’re Chief Bromden?”
CJ Cregg: “I’m Chief Bromden, yes, at this particular moment.”
“The US Poet Laureate”, Episode 16, Season 3

Tabatha Fortis: “You think I think that an artist’s job is to speak the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky. And I don’t get to decide what truth is.”
“The US Poet Laureate”, Episode 16, Season 3

Nikolai Ivanovich: “On his arrival and during outdoor photograph opportunity, President Bartlet must wear overcoat.”
Sam Seaborn: “A coat?”
Nikolai Ivanovich: “He must wear coat. He must wear gloves. Scarves and ear muffs permissible but optional.”
Sam Seaborn: “Hang on ’cause… Yes, ’cause President Chigorin wants to wear a coat and doesn’t want to look like a wimp.”
Nikolai Ivanovich: “Sam, it is freezing too cold in Reykjavik. It is freezing too cold in Helsinki. It is freezing too cold in Gstaad. Why must every American president bound out of an automobile like as at a yacht club while in comparison our leader looks like… I don’t even know what word is.
Sam Seaborn: “Frumpy?”
Nikolai Ivanovich: “I don’t know what ‘frump’ is but onomatopoetically sounds right.”
Sam Seaborn: “It’s hard not to like a guy who doesn’t know ‘frumpy’ but knows ‘onomatopoeia’.”
“Enemies Foreign and Domestic”, Episode 18, Season 3

CJ Cregg: “‘Regulatory duopoly, democracy by favouristic fiat, a bureaucratic junta’…”
Bruno Gianelli: “Yes.”
CJ Cregg: “…‘that is clearly prohibited under federal law.’”
Toby Ziegler: “There’s no way ‘favouristic’ is a word.”
Sam Seaborn: “We all agree with you, Toby, we just don’t think it’s grounds for appeal.”
“College Kids”, Episode 3, Season 4

Toby Ziegler: “When you mention that we want five debates, say what they are. One on the economy, one on foreign policy, with another on global threats and national security, one on the environment and one on strengthening family life, which would include healthcare, education and retirement. I also think there should be one on parts of speech and sentence structure and one on fractions.”
CJ Cregg: “Is there any chance I’m going to get an opportunity to speak in this conversation or are you just writing out loud?”
“The Red Mass”, Episode 4, Season 4

Toby Ziegler: “So you want a job on the speechwriting staff.”
Will Bailey: “I’m sorry?”
Toby Ziegler: “You want a job on the speechwriting staff.”
Will Bailey: “No.”
Toby Ziegler: “I’m sorry?”
Will Bailey: “I don’t want a job on the speechwriting staff.”
Toby Ziegler: “You’re Will Bailey?”
Will Bailey: “Yes.”
Toby Ziegler: “Sam told me you wanted a job on the speechwriting staff.”
Will Bailey: “Well, Sam told me you wanted help with the inauguration.”
Toby Ziegler: “He did?”
Will Bailey: “Yeah.”
Toby Ziegler: “Sam’s doing a little matchmaking. I’m fine doing this by myself.”
Will Bailey: “That’s it?”
Toby Ziegler: “Yeah.”
Will Bailey: “Okay. Your garbage can is on fire.”
Toby Ziegler: “Yeah. It’s not personal. A speech like this, obviously it’s… it takes a certain amount of experience and ah… a certain something.”
Will Bailey: “Just out of curiosity, how do you know I don’t have the something?”
Toby Ziegler: “’Cause you don’t have the experience.”
Will Bailey: “Okay. Well, it was nice meeting you.”
Toby Ziegler: “You, too.”
Will Bailey: “For the record, I was President of Cambridge Union on a Marshall scholarship and I’ve written for three congressional races and a governor.”
Toby Ziegler: “I read the Stanford Club speech. I thought it was good. Not as good as other people thought it was.”
Will Bailey: “Yeah?”
Toby Ziegler: “Call and response isn’t going to work in front of a joint session. You’re alliteration happy – ‘guardians of gridlock, protectors of privilege’ – I needed an avalanche of Advil. And when you use pop culture references, your speech has a shelf life of twelve minutes. You don’t mind constructive criticism, do you?”
Will Bailey: “No, sir.”
Toby Ziegler: “Anyway, thanks for coming in. I told Sam I can do this by myself.”
Will Bailey: “Well, maybe he thought that your speeches were obscurantist policy tracts lost in a cul de sac of their own internal self-righteousness and groaning from the weight of statistics. I’m just speculating, I can’t say for sure.”
“Arctic Radar”, Episode 10, Season 4

Charlie Young: “‘Baldwin, long a fixture in DC and Manhattan society, whether for her work on charity boards or her position on the arm of some of Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood’s most eligible men, as well as hosting some of the Beltway’s favourite—’ What the hell kind of sentence is this?”
“Life on Mars”, Episode 21, Season 4

President Josiah Bartlet: “This draft of the Rose Garden thing, it needs more altitude.”
Will Bailey: “Altitude?”
President Josiah Bartlet: “Loftier. If I don’t sound enthused, how do we expect the country to get excited about this guy?”
Will Bailey: “Yes, sir.”
President Josiah Bartlet: “You’re not very excited about him.”
Will Bailey: “Oh, no. I mean sure. I mean I’m not not excited about him.”
President Josiah Bartlet: “What you sounded like just then is how this reads. Let’s take the equivocation out of it.”
Will Bailey: “Yes, sir.”
President Josiah Bartlet: “Okay.”
Will Bailey: “Thank you, Mr President.”

Toby Ziegler: “VP intro needs to go on the prompter by two. How you doing?”
Will Bailey: “I have altitude sickness.”
Toby Ziegler: “I’m sorry?”
Will Bailey: “The President wants more altitude. I’m having conscience issues.”
Toby Ziegler: “I’m sure you’ve had to say things you haven’t meant before. You’ve read friends’ poetry, you’ve had girlfriends.”
Will Bailey: “I could use help.”
Toby Ziegler: “Just hold your nose and hype him.”
Will Bailey: “The President hated this. My self-confidence is down around my ankles.”
Toby Ziegler: “Well, hitch it up and start typing. Come on. Clackety clack.”
Will Bailey: “You’re really not going to help me?”
Toby Ziegler: “I have things to do.”
“Han”, Episode 4, Season 5

Toby Ziegler: “How long has it been?”
Will Bailey: “Half an hour.”
Toby Ziegler: “This is like something out of Beckett.”
Will Bailey: “You mean Sartre.”
Toby Ziegler: “If I meant Sartre, I would have said Sartre.”
Will Bailey: “‘Hell is other people’?”
Toby Ziegler: “Okay, Sartre.”
“No Exit”, Episode 20, Season 5

Kate Harper: “Leo, you wanted to see me?”
Leo McGarry: “Yeah. Listen, with Nancy McNally out of the country, you’re gonna have to be our go-to… Geez, I was gonna say ‘guy’. The problem with English. ‘Guy’ is wrong, ‘gal’ is patronising and ‘person’ sounds arch.”
Kate Harper: “‘Go-to guy’ is fine.”
Leo McGarry: “Good, because you’re it. Which is a lot to throw at you weeks into the job. I want you to know you have my and the president’s full support.”
Kate Harper: “I appreciate your confidence.”
Leo McGarry: “We’ll need you to coordinate all the intelligence agencies. Especially CIA and FBI. You may have heard. They have trouble playing nicely together.”
Kate Harper: “Well, boys will be boys.”
Leo McGarry: “Don’t be afraid to knock heads together. We don’t want petty turf wars slowing down the intel.”
Kate Harper: “I’ll keep on them.”
Leo McGarry: “You run into resistance, you let me know.”
Kate Harper: “I hope that won’t be necessary.”
Leo McGarry: “Another thing. The president’s not crazy about the DCI. It’s chemical, just rubs him the wrong way.”
Kate Harper: “Okay.”
Leo McGarry: “This isn’t gossip. It’s guidance. If the CIA’s got something, the director’s not always the most effective vessel for communicating it.”
Kate Harper: “I’ll make sure to underline anything I think is significant.”
Leo McGarry: “We just need you to be all over this. State. Defence. You’re the White House point… person.”
Kate Harper: “I won’t let you down. Oh, and on that whole language score, I was in the military. I manned battleships, was one of the boys, occasionally was exhorted to drop my… you know, and grab my socks. I’ve made my peace with the colloquial.”
Leo McGarry: “Okay.”
Kate Harper: “Just between us girls.”
“Gaza”, Episode 21, Season 5

Sheila Brooks: “Do we have that new direct mail piece?”
Bob Mayer: “Yeah, I took out about seventeen exclamation points.”
“King Corn”, Episode 13, Season 6

How You Can Tell The West Wing Was Written by Writers’ Writers – Part One


I am firmly of the belief (and have said many, many times before) that watching The West Wing is like taking a masterclass in writing. The stories, the dialogue, the characters, the construction, it’s all about as close to perfect as writing can get.

Hiding in plain sight amongst the politics and policy and drama are numerous references to the English language – writing, editing and reading. To the casual observer, they may simply be perceived as evidence of the “liberal elitist” natures of the main characters. To the more devoted observers, such as myself, they are “in” jokes that only other writers will truly appreciate. Continue reading

Things Your Characters Should Never Say


It’s easy to be told that character dialogue in fiction should be short and sharp and punchy and witty but actually executing it without a little more guidance can be hard. I could tell you to watch everything Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon have ever written and you’d have some great examples.

But sometimes the easier path is to start with what not to do. So here are a few pieces of dialogue your characters should never say.

“Tell Me About It”
It’s almost twenty years since my first class as part of my Advanced Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing and I can still remember my Novel teacher telling us how “Tell me about it” was the most overused piece of dialogue in Hollywood and that it applied equally to books. And it was funny. I never noticed it on my own, even though I went to the movies every week and spent the rest of my non-writing and non-studying time watching more movies at home and reading as many books as I could. But as soon as he said it, I began to notice it everywhere.

So if you don’t want to end up being a cautionary tale in a first-year writing course, leave it out. Continue reading

How Long Should a Paragraph Be?


I’ve previously addressed chapters, novels and blurbs and here’s another instalment in the “How long should it be?” series: paragraphs. As with every “How long should it be?”, the answer is always, “How long is a piece of string?” But here are a few things to consider.

One Word
It’s perfectly acceptable to have a one-word paragraph. But, of course, you can’t have too many of them and especially not all in a row. The one-word paragraph is great for emphasis, drawing attention to something in isolation, or for giving the reader a moment to pause and reflect on something big that has just happened in the story, particularly if it’s unexpected. Continue reading

The A to Z of Writing


Just because everybody loves a good listicle (so I hope it qualifies), here’s the A to Z of writing.

A is for Authenticity – you don’t have to know what you’re talking about. Write what you know, write what you don’t know but just make sure you sound like you know what you’re talking about. If you write about the police force and someone actually in the police force reads your book lacking in accuracy or verisimilitude (the ring of truth), then that person won’t hesitate to tell the world. And you’ll just come off as someone who couldn’t be bothered doing a little bit of research.

B is for Brainstorming – it’s one thing to have an idea but to bring it to life with all the little details that give it depth, you’ll have to do a lot of brainstorming. If you want to write about a man who kills his father, great (maybe not for your father, who might wonder why). But it becomes two very different stories depending on whether the son had a happy upbringing or an abusive one. And only brainstorming will get you to the point where the story makes meaningful sense. Continue reading

“Right,” Said Fred – But How Did He Say It?


I was reading the writing tips of a published author recently and amongst rather a lot of them was the advice that almost all dialogue attribution should use “said”. If the dialogue is a question, then “asked” is acceptable and if someone is responding, then “answered” is also okay. But nothing else. And even better, don’t use dialogue attribution at all.

Leaving aside questions of verb tense, I can’t tell you how much I disagree with this advice. Because while it tells me that a character was speaking, it gives no indication of how the character said the words. And often the words themselves just aren’t enough for me to know. Continue reading

Developing A Genuinely Scary and Evil Villain


I’ve written previously about anti-heroes and villains and how they seem to be the characters of choice these days, at least the characters that seem to resonate most with readers searching for complexity. So, of course, growing numbers of people are attempting to cash in on that. The problem is that we are being flooded with ridiculous caricatures that are no more scary than me in the morning before I’ve brushed my hair and had some caffeine. Every James Bond villain ever may have something to answer for this.

When we examine the more successful and enduring villains, such as Dracula and Frankenstein (or his monster – depends on which of them you think was the bigger baddie), and some of the more recent but no less memorable, such as Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter, we find people and creatures who scare us but who also exhibit vulnerability, meaning that in some capacity they are scared themselves. They’re at the darker end of the light and dark scale but they’re more deep grey than black. And regardless of their villainy, there’s also something attractive about them, something tempting about them, something that draws you in, even when you know you’re probably going to end up dead if you don’t resist.

If you’re planning to give it a go, here’s a few things to consider to make sure you have readers crying in terror instead of with laughter. Continue reading

My Top Ten TV Shows – Part Two


This is part two of my list of top ten TV shows with a focus on dialogue, which (as I explained previously) I decided I could create from the one show that towers over all others when it comes to this topic – The West Wing.

You might notice that all the episodes I’ve used are from the first three seasons. However, this is not a show that ever gets anywhere near to jumping the shark. All seven seasons are equally terrific and equally jam-packed full of wonderfully witty dialogue. I could have had an entry for every episode. In fact, I could have had a top ten list of dialogue from just the show’s first episode.

For anyone who is serious about mastering the art of writing dialogue, I would highly recommend watching The West Wing – over and over and over again. Continue reading

My Top Ten TV Shows – Part One


After constructing my Top Ten Movies list with a focus on dialogue, I thought I would do the same for TV shows. I easily came up with ten well-written, witty productions – Buffy, Angel, Firefly (yes, I’m a Joss Whedon fan), Veronica Mars, Frasier, Scrubs, The OC, Dawson’s Creek, The Newsroom and The West Wing (yes, also an Aaron Sorkin fan).

You can probably identify the common theme running through all of them. At the time of their original screenings, they were known specifically for their dialogue – verbal battles, perfect slap downs, quick comebacks, dry and highly intellectual humour, all those words we wished we could come up with on the spot but never did.

However, the more I thought about it, the more strongly I felt that although I love all these shows, I could easily find a top ten list of terrific dialogue that would outshine all others in just one of these shows. And that show is The West Wing. Continue reading