Aaron Sorkin should never write a book.
Or at least he shouldn’t try to use one of the agents I was looking at this week.
This particular agent did not want to see “material influenced by TV (too much Dialogue)” or books of TV or film “scenes”. I find this to be an interesting complaint as good TV is probably one of the reasons I became a writer, at least as much as good writing.
I bring up Aaron Sorkin because his dialogue in shows like The West Wing and Sports Night actually caused me to speak differently for sometimes hours after the show. The seasons that were not written by Sorkin are markedly different than those that are. It was TV shows like the later seasons of Babylon 5 that inspired me to tell long form Sci Fi narratives just as much as works like The Foundation Trilogy and Dune.
So what is this agent really complaining about?
It can’t be “too much dialogue” really because effective dialog is one of the best ways for characters to speak for themselves. It allows a character to demonstrate their traits, biases and opinions without a narrator having to tell us. Sure we know that in fiction dialogue should omit things like greetings, conversations where there is no conflict or moving along of the plot, and simple information dumps. But TV knows this too.
My wife and I are watching NCIS regularly now. The show does do “knowledge dumps”, usually after a commercial, summing up what just happened before the break, and analyzing what the characters know at this moment. Anyone who knows this show, however, knows that these scenes are just as much about the various characters demonstrating their own unique traits as it is telling the audience what is going on.
So TV knows how to write good dialogue, what about “scenes”?
This complaint seems even more esoteric, as what are books but collections of moments? What’s different about a TV or Film “scene” that has no place in a literary book? I use the term “literary” because this agent emphasizes it. By his definition a book is “a published work of literature” emphasis on the last word.
How do we measure whether a book is “literary” or not? I understand the difference between genre and commercial fiction and “literary fiction”, but even in literature is it not necessary to “set the scene”, to have conflict? To me a “literary book” is a lot like an Oscar Winning movie, and genre fiction (mysteries, sci fi, romance, etc) is more like an Emmy winning TV show or movie. So this agent is looking for Oscar Winners. That’s fine. I’m trying to sell a mystery and then a Sci Fi novel, so this guy is obviously not a good fit.
But the attitude that TV influenced novelists produce bad fiction doesn’t ring true for me. There is a lot on TV that is bad, that is poorly written, that emphasizes stereotypes and that lowers rather than raises the intelligence of its audience.
But there are shows that know how to speak.
What other shows do you think have writing that rises to the level of what is “literary”? If you’re a writer, have you ever been inspired by something you have seen on TV? Is Leroy Jethro Gibbs awesome or what?