As I watch more and more movies, I think we expect less out of our movies. As Marvel has established the perfect formula for blockbusters, movie goers appear happy to keep spending their money to see similar stories again and again. For example, think of how close Dr. Strange is with Iron Man. Close to the same movie except magic takes the place of technology.
In this age of increased cinematic homogeny, I take comfort in a handful of voices when I go to the movies. Movies are perhaps the most popular form of art around, and Aaron Sorkin has always been a voice that I have enjoyed. Yes, I admit that some of his characters talk rather fast and some of his female characters could use some more development. These are often his most popular criticisms, and they are not entirely wrong, but for a second, I want to consider what he does really, really well, which is being unafraid to go smart.
When I say go smart, I don’t mean to say that he has smart characters. Plenty of people have smart characters. Tony Stark is a smart character, but he’s also a very simple character. He doesn’t actively use his intelligence to question much. Instead, Aaron Sorkin has characters that are smart, lack any kind of powerful suit, and they still can make a show interesting. In TheSocial Network, he makes a two-hour deposition feel engaging. That’s talent.
But let’s get more into what it means to go smart. As Sorkin himself said, “It seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less from each other, and I think that should change.” When we have an action movie that challenges nothing, amuses us for a few hours, and leaves us with little to contemplate as the final credits roll, that’s expecting less. They go there to chill and watch things fight regardless of the complexity of story.
So you want to go smart in your own writing? How can that be done? First, I think there is an important step in separating intelligent characters from intelligent writing. Anyone can have characters look smart or claim to be great scientists, but intelligent characters are not the same as smart writing. Otherwise, Denise Richards would sound insightful when she plays a nuclear physicist or when Nicholas Cage decides that he can play a chemist. These characters are in themselves, intelligent, but they are not actually having anything intelligent to say.
Alternatively, moments of intelligence can show up almost anywhere in a story. In Harukai Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, a man dressed as Colonel Sanders who also serves as a pimp, has a bright moment when he quotes Ueda Akinari’s “Takes of Moonlight and Rain,” as he says, “Shape I may take, converse I may, but neither god nor Buddha am I, rather an insensate being whose heart thus differs from that of man.” While the quote is surprising and out of context, it also helps shape and complicate the otherwise comical image of a pimp Colonel Sanders. That’s using intelligence in a surprising and engaging way, a way that complicates rather than explains the plot.
There is even more to be found in going intelligent when intelligent people disagree. Sorkin himself noted that, ” Any time you get two people in a room who disagree about anything, the time of day, there is a scene to be written. That’s what I look for.” In a day when action movies dominate most of the box office, is it so terrible to have smart people disagree about smart things? While I think there is something approachable about simple and direct characters that most readers feel connected to, I think there’s plenty of benefits to going smart. Smart characters who are actually smart, have a danger of being unapproachable, as many smart people are, but readers are thinking and feeling something when they see that character, which certainly has value.
Sometimes I think writers avoid complicated issues because we think of them as unapproachable. From poverty to microloans to the restructuring of credit, there are issues that feel so technical that many writers I know hesitate at trying to tackle them, but I think Sorkin is right when he says, “there is tremendous drama to be gotten from the great, what you would say, heavy issues.”
Going smart in writing isn’t easy, though. It requires looking things up. It means that you might have to think a little bit harder about why something is important and spend more time trying to think of how or why something capitates, but it is an option that lingers outside your door as something that could spark your writing.
Take, for example, a section of the opening monologue fromThe Newsroom. The main character gets asked a question, and his answer is memorable:
“Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?
It’s not the greatest country in the world. That’s my answer… [turns to a panelist] Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck, but he gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fucking smart, how come they lose so goddamn always? [turns to another panelist] And with a straight face, you’re gonna tell students that America is so star-spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom! So, 207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom. [turns to the student who asked the question] And yeah, you… sorority girl. Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there’s some things you should know. One of them is: there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are, without a doubt, a member of the worst period generation period ever period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! Yosemite?!
The language here is strong. It is memorable. It’s at times objectionable and angry, but so are good characters. More than anything, though, it succeeds in doing what Sorkin always wanted you to do: pay a little more attention. To conclude in his own words: ” If the dialogue makes you sit forward a little, and listen a little bit more, that’s a good thing. It makes the audience active in the experience.” Did you find yourself paying a little more attention? Maybe that was because a character had something smart to say.