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Aaron Sorkin’s 8 Tips for Aspiring Screenwriters
Sorkin’s vast and varied career in screenwriting has led to many insights on the writing process. Most of these are about fundamental truths of storytelling.
If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, it’s important to first consider the most elemental parts of telling a compelling story. Do this before you delve into screenwriting books, or enrol in professional television writing and screenwriting courses. Here are some screenwriting tips from Sorkin that illuminate his own process as a writer.
- Start with intention and obstacle. The intention and obstacle of the story is like the drive shaft of a car. Who wants what, and what is stopping them from getting it? Developing the intention and obstacle in your story creates the friction and tension needed to create a strong screenplay. Have you seen a movie where you thought: “That’s not that hard of a problem!” Avoid that by pressing on your intention and obstacle. Make the stakes high, urgent, and convincing to keep your story compelling and believable. Introduce intention and obstacle early. If you’re writing a movie, you have a few minutes. If it’s a TV show, you need to do it immediately. If it’s a play, you have a bit of time.
- Give your characters traits that directly relate to the overall story. A character is born from the intention and obstacle—they want something, and something stands in their way of getting it. How they overcome those obstacles, or what tactics they use, define who the character is. Stick to the facts of a character that matter to the conflict—this saves you the trouble of writing long, unnecessary character bios. Focus on their intention and obstacle, rather than details that are irrelevant to the story. Does this mean you can’t give your characters an interesting backstory? Of course not. But keep in mind that sometimes a screenwriter knows something about their characters that doesn’t show up in the story arc that audiences see on the screen. A standard movie script almost always gets cut down to its most important plot points, and you may have key details (such as backstory) about your leading character or supporting characters that aren’t represented in the final cut. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use those character details to guide your writing process through a first draft, second draft, third draft, and beyond.
- Embrace structure—it can actually make you more creative. Dismiss the idea that art is not a place for rules. Art, much like music and sports, is made much more enjoyable by certain rules. Learn those rules by watching films, reading screenplays. Deconstruct their parts, and putting them back together. Become a diagnostician. Watch TV shows, plays, and movies with the screenplay in your lap. When something doesn’t work, figure out why it doesn’t work. Did it break one of Aristotle’s rules?
- Create a three act story arc for your screenplay. Here’s a way to think of a three act story arc. First act: you chase your hero up a tree. Second act: you throw rocks at them. Third act: you get them down (or not). Be sure to avoid any magical surprises in Act 3 by setting up and introducing everything in Act 1 through exposition. Exposition is the first part of drama, but it’s not easy. One way to get through exposition in your screenplay is to have at least one character early on who is a stand-in for the audience; Rashida Jones’s character in The Social Network, or Chrisann in Steve Jobs for example, because they ask questions of the main character that the audience might have.
- Read your dialogue out loud. Try to be physical with your dialogue. Say it out loud to hear how it lands. Remember: you are in the business of writing things that are meant to be performed, not read. Don’t be intimidated if what you’re writing is not how people sound. Screenwriting is an art — feel free to take liberties to create a fantastic piece of dialogue.
- Use rewrites to address specific problems. Liken rewriting to the idea of a sculpture—your first draft is the hunk of marble. To get to the statue of David, begin to chip away anything that isn’t related to the main conflict. It will certainly be hard to “kill your darlings,” but be comforted by the fact that even someone like Sorkin has to take out what he considers are some of his favorite lines and moments.
- Be selective about whose writing notes you solicit. When receiving notes, be careful who you listen to. You can rely on some people to spot a problem, but unless you’re talking to someone who’s smart, understands scripts, and understands the way you write, take their notes with a grain of salt. For those who may have opinions about your script but aren’t necessarily informed script editors, don’t just disregard their comments. Use their opinions as a sign of a problem that still needs to be fixed. Ultimately, you need to collect the right script editors—ones that you can trust, who know your writing style, and who know and understand scripts. And once you find them, never let them go. Ask for specific notes, and begin a checklist to work your way through them. Take comfort that one of the best screenwriters today (and your instructor) has to deal with notes, and no one’s first draft is ever perfect.
- When pitching your writing, be prepared to go beyond what’s in the script. If you want your script to actually come to life as a produced movie or TV show, you will need to pitch your screenplay to a production company, studio, or TV network. Pitching is different from writing, and there has been many a professional screenwriter who dreads the pitching process. The fact is that many writers don’t want their creations distilled to a single logline, but in the film industry this is simply standard practice. The good news is that if you’re able to succinctly articulate your vision for your television show, short film, or feature-length movie, you can truly impress a picky entertainment executive. Be able to describe several episodes down the line and the arc of the season. Is each episode dealing with a new crisis of the day like “The West Wing?” Or is each episode building on a longer term goal, like “Silicon Valley?” Also think about things like: where will it be shot? Is there a “home-base” set that production only needs to build once? Be prepared to answer questions from executives like, “Will there be a love interest for your characters?”
What Makes A Great Screenplay?
While screenwriting advice from someone like Aaron Sorkin might inspire you to dive into your first screenplay, there’s more to scriptwriting than just some great advice. Screenplay writing is hard work, and only the only path toward success is one of dedication and overcoming obstacles that every writer encounters.
Whether you’re seeking to write a summer blockbuster or an indie comedy that’s bound for a film festival, the best movie scripts contain the following important aspects:
- A real problem for the characters to overcome
- A set up that lets the audience into your world and piques people’s curiosity without confusing them
- A main character who is interesting and dynamic enough to be worthy of two hours of your audience’s life
- A compelling resolution at the end of the movie. This doesn’t have to mean a happy ending or even the kind of traditional ending that caps many people’s favorite movies. But the audience should agree with your choice to end the story at the moment that you do.
- When you’re brainstorming TV and movie ideas, do keep in mind that rules help guide your creative process, but no one—from Los Angeles executives to audiences on their living room sofas—is looking for you to make a cookie cutter copy of an existing movie. Bring your own unique voice to your writing. Think about what you can offer as a storyteller that no one else can, and embrace that uniqueness. By channeling your own self-expression via some basic rules of story structure, you can find your way in the challenging world of film and television writing.
Want to Write Better Screenplays?
Whether you’re a budding filmmaker or have dreams of changing the world with your screenplays, navigating the world of script writing can be daunting. No one knows this better than Aaron Sorkin, who wrote his first movie on cocktail napkins. Those napkins turned into A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson. In Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass on the art of screenwriting, the Academy Award-winning writer of “The West Wing” shares his rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell.
Want to be a better filmmaker? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master filmmakers, including Aaron Sorkin, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Jodie Foster, and Werner Herzog.