The West Wing

Some thoughts on good script writing.

Movies, television shows, plays. All these things require a combination of good script writing, and good acting. Badly acted Shakespeare may still be Shakespeare, but it doesn’t move us. And the best acting in the world can’t disguise bad writing. Neither of these things is subordinate to the other, they work together. It is only a few days until Nanowrimo’s Script Frenzy* begins, so I thought I’d talk a bit about good writing in relation to scripts.

This is actually something I began thinking about entirely because of a show called “The West Wing.” You’ve probably heard of it, but just in case, let me explain. It is about a fictional President of the United States, and shows the inner workings of his administration’s staff, particularly focusing on the Communications Department, during his eight years of term. That is a very basic sort of description, but the story is a dense and complex one, and I could write an entire post on each season. The show stars, among many others, Martin Sheen as President Bartlett. All of the acting is pretty good, actually, and it fades invisibly into the script, allowing one to focus on the story and the characters, and not on the people.

I’ve been a fan of “The West Wing” for many years, but I’ve never really had a chance to watch the show in order by season, which I am currently doing in my off-time. One thing which has struck me forcibly is the way the story and the writing hangs together so incredibly well. The dialogue is snappy, the problems are intense and immediate, and quite easy for Americans to relate to. Story progression flows smoothly, and elements are hinted at and developed long before they are the primary story-arc, sometimes even several seasons before. Main characters are developed outside of their primary West Wing setting, making them the three-dimensional people they should be, rather than one-dimensional caricatures. Some minor story lines are lost from season to season, and sometimes minor characters disappear randomly, but I suspect this all has more to do with the nature of a television series and the vagaries of actors, and is not the fault of the writers.

I suppose, what I’m really getting at is that learning about good writing doesn’t just come from reading books and paying attention, but also from paying attention to good writing and analyzing it wherever you find it. It’s not just important to read the classics of your genre, but also to see Shakespeare properly presented, and watch the great movies with the powerful stories and characters. Sometimes, its hard to remember that behind those amazing actors who we see, are an invisible cadre of amazing writers as well.

*I do not participate in Script Frenzy, because I’m still learning to be a novelist, and script writing is not something that appeals to me at this juncture. However, I think it’s a great idea, and I’m glad the fine folks at Nanowrimo organize it.

Thought for the Week: “The key word about The West Wing is show. It is not a reality show. It has nothing to do with reality.” Martin Sheen

Currently Reading: The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold


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