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Every scene, as you know, must have tension. Someone wants something they don’t have. Tension. It might be that a character wants to chase his departing sweetheart through an airport, to declare his endless love. That’s what he wants, that’s what he needs to do. Until he’s done it, there’s tension. It might be something more everyday: a woman is late for work, a kid wants to reach the cookie jar, or whatever. But there has to be dramatic tension. Otherwise, you don’t have a scene, you just have people talking and doing stuff.
This week I’m thinking about how to layer a scene with multiple layers of tension.
The dialogue in the first four seasons of The West Wing is incredible. Aaron Sorkin wrote an absurd amount of the scripts during those years, and I’m not exaggerating when I say absurd. He pretty much wrote all of them. And, because his characters talk so fast, his scripts were almost twice as long as the industry standard for a forty-two and a half minute piece of televised fiction.
But, while the output is staggering in and of itself, it’s downright astounding when you consider the quality of the work actually being produced. As a writer myself, I am floored by the feats Sorkin performed during those years. (As a fan of TV, I’m just grateful.)
So I’m going to try my best to unpick some of the techniques applied by Sorkin so that we can benefit; and, for now, I’ve chosen a scene from the seventeenth episode of the first season, entitled The White House Pro-Am.
The American President, Jed Bartlet, who is a white man, arranges a meeting with his daughter Zoey, who is also white. She’s planning to go to a club opening with her African American boyfriend Charlie, but because the Secret Service has been receiving death threats from white supremacists, who ‘don't like that the daughter of the President is dating a young black man’, President Bartlet has to tell his daughter that, while she can go, Charlie can’t.
So, that there is President Bartlet’s primary motivation. He wants to break the news to his daughter. But Sorkin doesn’t jump straight in with that. He has Bartlet ask Zoey, a college student, about her studies, asking her what her schedule for the day is. This is Sorkin grounding the scene in something not related to the current storyline, which fleshes out the character of Zoey—in that she’s at college—but, also, of Bartlet—in that he takes an interest in her life.
Anyway, she tells him that she has ‘Intro to Cinema and 19th Century Studies’, and this opens up a really effective, lighthearted running tension between the two characters. President Bartlet wants to know why she isn’t studying “math”, as the Americans call it. She jokes that she’s not studying math because she already graduated high school, and her father tells her she should be studying it at university too.
He teases her about her studying Intro to Cinema, and finally gets to the point, bringing up the death threats, and explaining about the club opening.
So, the whole math thing serves as a kind of humorous back and forth before the meat of the scene. We immediately call back to it, though:
Bartlet says: ‘I met with Butterfield and some Secret Service Agents this morning.’
Zoey replies: ‘What did I do?’
And Bartlet says: ‘You didn't do anything. They think you should be taking more math.’
The quick call back keeps the dialogue light and energetic, and now the scene drops the math thing and focuses on the Charlie thing. Zoey understands, and tells her father that she’ll break the bad news to her boyfriend over lunch, and then Bartlet’s assistant comes in and we move on.
But Sorkin isn’t done.
One of the other storylines in this episode is the death of the Federal Reserve Chairman, Bernie Dahl, which Bartlet finds out about a few scenes prior to this one. So, as Zoey is leaving the room, she stops and consoles her father. He explains that he didn’t know Dahl very well, and Zoey asks who is going to replace him.
Bartlet says: ‘I don’t know. You want the job?’
Zoe says: ‘Yeah.’
Bartlet says: ‘Can’t have it. Know why?’
Zoe says: ‘Why?’
And Bartlet says: ‘Not enough math. Bye.’
I genuinely love this scene. I think it’s outstanding. In just over two minutes, Sorkin delivers this weighty, hard story, of the interracial romance and the white supremacists, which is going to bubble along right up until the end of the season. But he also nods to the events going on within the span of this episode, with the mention of the deceased Federal Reserve Chairman—but what really elevates it to an A+ scene for me is the running math tension.
So, say you’re writing a scene and you have your Character A driving the scene and Character B responding. Ask yourself what the relationship between the characters is. What is going on with them, in their daily lives?
You have your primary tension: the “club opening”, for example. If you can introduce a secondary tension that grows out of the pre-existing relationship between the characters, as Sorkin did with the math tension, you can really lift your scene from good to brilliant.
See, so much character work is coded into the math tension. You see Bartlet disappointed that his daughter isn’t following the wisdom that guided him as a young man, but you also see that he’s playful with it, and she doesn’t leave feeling like he’s really disappointed by her. You see what I feel is a strong, if not quite perfect, father daughter relationship.
And in addition to all that, it’s funny. But look again at the punchline, when Bartlet tells Zoey she can’t have Dahl’s job because she’s not studying math. It would be easy to construct the joke using fresh events. But Sorkin does it by folding in the events of the episode. This is fantastic work. When you’re writing, try to do this as much as you can: try to fold in details that you’ve already specified in the text, where you can.
Have a think, right now. Your work-in-progress—what events have occurred, which you can fold in to future scenes? Doing this really settles your reader, and lets him or her feel like you know what you’re doing, and it glues otherwise disparate events together in a truly satisfying way.
Go and watch the scene if you are able to. It’s fifteen minutes in to episode 1:17. And think about your characters, and how you can layer their interactions with character-developing, secondary tensions.
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Peace and love, fellow writer. Go and write.