Film & TV

Film Story Arc

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 11:26 min

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

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Aaron Sorkin
Teaches Screenwriting
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting in 35 exclusive video lessons.
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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.



Reviews

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

This is my second screenwriting Masterclass. It was interesting to compare and contrast Aaron Sorkin with Shonda Rhimes. I've enjoyed watching them interact with young/new writers. I appreciate the encouragement and sound advice.

Great to see a unique perspective on screenwriting from one of the best out there!

It was nice to see diffrent approach than Shonda’s

Aaron Sorkin is one of those teachers who knows where we all struggle and his good nature and expertise sees us through it all.


Comments

Sil

You don't show the gun in the first act, but what about a new character comes in act 3 with a gun?

ABDEL-MOUNIM E.

How do we manage to find the equilibrium exposition during the writing process , that prevents to fall in the trap of having the jury know more than the audience ?

Graeme R.

Such excellent advice. Thanks to Aristotle for his contributions to the art.

Nina T.

WOW! Thank you Mr. Sorkin! The first 15 pages of a Screenplay must be Kick-A** in order for a studio executive to take notice of your script! I leaned this theory many years ago when I first began to write magazine articles - their advice even then was the first 2-3 sentences MUST be what they call a Grabber! It’s what causes the reader to want to read more! Very similar to what Aaron is saying in this session, along with the importance of the last 15 minutes of a movie must not disappoint. Hit a home run? Make sure you run all the bases! Thanks again for your expertise.

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.