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Film & TV

Aaron Sorkin on Sports Night, Settings, Stories, and Screenwriting

Written by MasterClass

Nov 15, 2018 • 4 min read

Writing a screenplay can seem like a daunting act. Often, an idea sparks and forms the basis of a story. But is that story destined to be a television series or a feature film? A comedy, a drama, or both? Here, award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the creator of A Few Good Men, The West Wing, and Sports Night, divulges his process for untangling the web of characters and plots and figuring out the proper medium in which to channel each story.

Written by MasterClass

Nov 15, 2018 • 4 min read

Who Is Aaron Sorkin?

Aaron was born in 1961 and raised in New York City. As a youth, he discovered an early love for the theatre and dialogue. Aaron devoted his life to stagecraft and studied acting at Syracuse University where he graduated with a degree in the subject.

While searching for work as an actor, Aaron’s fascination with dialogue boiled over, and he began to explore dramatic writing. After many misses, he wrote the stageplay A Few Good Men, which became an instant hit on Broadway. He later adapted the story into a feature length screenplay. Upon the film’s release, Aaron’s Hollywood career exploded. He eventually turned to TV and created Sports Night.

While the show was a critical hit—featuring a star-studded cast, including Felicity Huffman as Dana Whitaker, Josh Charles as Dan Rydell, Peter Krause as Casey McCall, Joshua Malina as Jeremy Goodwin, and William H. Macy as Sam Donovan—ABC cancelled it after only two seasons.

But despite its short run, Sports Night went on to have an outsized influence on television. And with its huge failures and wins, it’s also a great case study for aspiring screenwriters who are learning how to frame their work.

What Is the Difference Between Television Shows and Feature Films?

When Aaron was first working on the concept that would become Sports Night, he was envisioning a full-length feature film. But, Aaron says:

“All the stories I was thinking of were short stories. They weren’t long. And I said that to my agent, who said ‘Well, it sounds like you’re describing a television series.’”

According to Aaron, there are two distinguishing factors between television shows and feature films:

1. Setting

For television series, the setting informs the story, and provides a constant well of inspiration for plotlines and characters. In feature films, the setting is important, but not quite as much as the story itself. For example, in Aaron’s Sports Night, the setting of an after-hours sports news show (inspired by ESPN’s Sportscenter) allows for natural comedies as well as tensions to arise between editors, network executives, and athletes. Look to some of Aaron’s other television shows—such as The Newsroom and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—which follow a similar format.

2. Character Arcs

Consider the characters in the first few feature films that pop into mind: the main character is often on a journey, driven by an intense need or desire to accomplish a goal. When the character reaches his or her goal, the story is over. Aaron says: “If the characters, metaphorically speaking, die at the end of the story—if there’s no more story after that—then it’s a feature.” Now think of your favorite television series: the strength of the characters, who are tethered to their settings, allows the story to go on, and on, and on, and on...

How to Blur the Lines Between Comedy and Drama in TV?

Once Aaron knew Sports Night would be a television series, he had to determine whether it was a comedy or drama. This was in the late ‘90s, when networks were adamant on placing types of shows in buckets. Aaron’s dry wit and subtle humor infused the writing, however, which nudged the show towards sitcom territory (at least in executives’ minds).

Sitcoms, at the time, featured a laugh track, a throwback to the time when all television was filmed in front of a live audience. The laugh track on Sports Night has been talked about, rehashed, and even blamed for the show’s short run. Aaron never wanted it in the first place. His writing could speak for itself, and his plotlines and character development surpassed a single genre—in fact, part of Aaron’s aim with Sports Night was to play with the whole concept of stereotypical sitcoms, bringing drama into a form that previously featured only comedy. The New Yorker’s Tad Friend wrote that “because the American sitcom is so tradition-bound, what Sorkin is proposing is truly revolutionary.”

How to Apply Aaron’s Advice to Your Own Screenplay

When you’re writing your own screenplay, don’t be afraid to fuse humor with tragedy, drama with levity. Aaron paved the road for future hits like the mock docu-series The Office and his own The West Wing, which focused on politics in America. Be bold and experiment with bending genres. Develop your characters and work on getting to truly know them. Firmly plant them in your setting and see what stories unfold. Even though Sports Night had a short run and was cancelled so many years ago, its legacy lives on today as each new wave of Sorkin fans and aspiring screenwriters come to discover it and appreciate its role in the canon of revolutionary American television.

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