From Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass

Film Story Arc

Page numbers don't sound exciting, but they're a great tool for tracking the act-structure and pacing of your story.

Topics include: The 3-act structure • Exposition • Inciting action • Page numbers


Page numbers don't sound exciting, but they're a great tool for tracking the act-structure and pacing of your story.

Topics include: The 3-act structure • Exposition • Inciting action • Page numbers

Aaron Sorkin

Teaches Screenwriting

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We've been using the word "story" a lot. Story and drama are two slightly different things. Start with what a fact is, OK? The queen died. That's a fact. The story is the queen died, and then the king died of a broken heart, OK? But it's still not drama. There hasn't been conflict yet. What would make it drama, our queen and king story? Probably a million things. Off the top of my head, OK, the queen dies, and now the King is alone. And it turns out the queen was the brilliant one. She was the brains behind in the outfit. She was the brains behind the king, and now the King has to go it alone in the face of people who are trying to get him off the throne because everyone knows he's dumb, and the queen was smart. That kind of thing. [MUSIC PLAYING] Generally we think in three acts. A play is two, usually, and an episode of television is like six. But thinking of the three-act structure for a movie, act one, you chase your hero up a tree. Act two, you throw rocks at him. Act 3, you get him down. Or not. It's OK if they die in the tree, as long as they die trying. If they're going to get down from the tree in the third act, you have to have introduced the way down in the first act, OK? There's an old saw that you can't use a gun in the third act unless you've introduced it in the first. A gun can't appear from nowhere. You have to open a drawer and see that a gun is there, or somebody's got to mention, I'm packing, or something like that. Conversely, you don't introduce a gun in the first act unless you use it in the third. In other words, if we open a drawer and see a gun there, and then nothing ever comes of it, that was bad writing. So, whatever that escape out of the tree is going to be has to have been introduced to us in the first act. You can't all of a sudden in the third say, we forgot about our magic rope that gets us out of the tree. That magic rope needs to be introduced in the first act. [MUSIC PLAYING] You want the stakes to be high. I do think in those terms. Whether somebody wants the girl, or the money, or to build a computer that is better than they are, you want the stakes to be as high as possible so that we're sitting forward in our seats. Sometimes, the stakes are automatically as high as they can be. A Few Good Men, two guys are on trial for murder, OK? You don't really need to hype up the stakes there for everybody involved. Steve Jobs, you need to understand why it's so important to Steve that a product be perfect, that the rectangle have rounded edges, that the thing that everybody else is making fun of in terms of his perfectionism, you need to understand why that's so important to him so that we care if he fails or succeeds. [MUSIC PLAYING] Exposition is the first part of drama, and before you can do anything else, you have to tell the audience what they need to know in or...

Your script starts here.

Aaron Sorkin wrote his first movie on cocktail napkins. Those napkins turned into A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson. Now, the Academy Award-winning writer of The West Wing and The Social Network is teaching screenwriting. In this class, you’ll learn his rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell. By the end, you’ll write screenplays that capture your audience’s attention.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I love the way he taught. He made me confident that I can start on my writing journey and I may hit a few bumps but I can do it.

Many Directors write their films. I said to myself why don't I do it? But to write a good screenplay you have to learn from someone like Aaron Sorkin.

Watched it hile working on my first feature project. Great classand highly recommended.

I find Mr. Sorkin's willingness to share his personal journey authentically motivating and inspirational. Amazing class.


Ira M.

I'm a big Sorkin fan but I find this, like all of these Masterclasses, SO much more useful in the relatively rare instances where the artist ties the general statements (which are mostly the general "rules" we've all heard hundreds of times) to specifics in their work, so we really see their APPLICATION of those rules.

Kathryn C.

A reminder to rewrite, rewrite and rewrite the first 15 pages and the last 15. Enjoyed the lesson.

A fellow student

Great video. Never heard about or thought about the three act structure and specifically the first 15 pages element which is interesting. A script that contains alll this has to be really unique, very challenging task.

Sherry L.

I'm watching C hinaTown with the script on my lap. There is a great speech early on (a "theme stated" imho) that I see in the script, that isn't in the version we see on screen. GITTES I'll tell you the unwritten law, you dumb son of a bitch, you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody and get away with it. You think you got that kind of dough, you think you got that kind of class? We are watching the version on Amazon Prime.

Sherry L.

I watched Casablanca with the script in my lap. Lots of early exposition, and there is one scene... a too-friendly local warns two English tourists about the riff-raff that's pouring in (and lifts the man's wallet as a parting gesture) that helps the viewer inhale the danger of the place. (If you perceive the first part as dated... the turning world, the voice of god... I think you'll still find the tourist vignette is timeless.) The point about using exposition to tell the viewer what they need to know to understand the coming story really hit home. Someone reading one of my scripts said "why is X being so reverent to Y?"... and I finally realized that while I knew how important Y is in his world, I really had not set that up enough. Proof? My (very smart) reader did not know. Thanks, Aaron!

Steve P.

It turns out I'm a knucklehead. Let me tell you why: With the discussions on the Steve Jobs film, I realized it was the single Sorkin movie I hadn't seen. So I went to iTunes and rented it, the one that stars Ashton Kutcher. After 20 minutes, I remarked at how weak the dialogue was, thinking that Aaron's best work was in his past. Then I realized I'd been watching the wrong movie ("Jobs" - 2013). So I went back and rented "Steve Jobs" - 2015. Much better. Don't get me wrong; the 2013 film was fine, but it sure as heck was not a Sorkin film. While I'm at it, has everyone seen "Molly's Game"? It was brilliant, IMO. But I know I'm preaching to the choir, here.

Judith M.

Thank you for the timely reminder about exposition. Mac acts well in that regard in the Newsroom, then just as we would feel our own eyes slightly glaze over she rescues us all with her practical "Yes, but can you do it?" style answers. I'm not sure how relevant it is, but I'm finding the Blake Snyder beat sheet useful, and there is a version aimed at novels as well. Though I'm having fun with it at the moment deciding on how it applies to a non-linear plot, that I see in my mind as a moebius 8.

Reed R.

Another great lesson by Mr. Sorkin. The three act assignment made me rethink how I should structure the two story ideas I developed for the research assignment on a location. One needs to abide by the rules, as Aaron asserted earlier.

Reed R.

Five Films – Inciting Action Scenes 1. Good Will Hunting: At 7 minutes, Will Hunting writes mathematical theorem solution on the chalkboard. At 8 minutes, the professor discovers the theorem. At 15 minutes, the MIT professor reads on the same chalkboard the second solution to the mathematical challenge he posed to his students. 2. The Departed: At nine minutes, during the policy academy graduation scene, we surmise that Frank Costello (Jack Nicklaus) the gangster had a plan to install Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who worked with him since he was a boy, into the police force. Within 20 minutes, we realize that there will be two undercovers. Sullivan in the police force working on behalf of Costello, and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), also a new police officer, will work undercover with the mob, setting up the tension between the two men working undercover for opposing forces. 3. Apocalypse Now: Approximately 20 minutes into the film, Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) receives his orders to terminate Col. Kurtz’s jungle command with “extreme prejudice.” 4. Cool Hand Luke: Within two minutes of the film, and before the opening credits, Luke (Paul Newman) is apprehended by the police for sawing off parking meter heads, while very drunk. As the cops tell Luke they are bringing him in, he just gives them a broad smile and a snicker, almost as if he expected capture, showing his disrespect for authority. Luke’s character is already established with this opening scene. 5. The Dirty Dozen: In the first 10 minutes of the film, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) receives his orders to train 12 military convicts, most sentenced for major crimes, to parachute across enemy lines and assassinate senior German officers at a French chateau. In return for serving on this dangerous and top-secret assignment, Major General Sam Worden (Ernest Borgnine) will consider commuting the sentences of the convicted men, should they follow orders and behave themselves.

Mary J.

Pacing and page numbers: I am an Indian Jones fan (only Ark and Crusade) and several years ago I sat down with a dvd of LOST ARK and a stopwatch. That was a master class in how to develop a story. I apologize for not having those notes anymore, but it was like clockwork. Ten minutes of exposition followed by a walloping great action sequence that gives you clues about Indiana as a person and the direction the plot is going. Then add a character who is necessary to the plot, and have the relationship with Indiana be complicated (good chance to add exposition that feels like rehashing old grievances). Add the lurking villain/possible villain, followed by action. I could go on, but the point is it was perfect Aristotle's unities. Every scene had to be there to get not only to the next scene but the ultimate resolution.