Film & TV

Incorporating Research

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 9:15 min

You have pages of research—now what? Avoid clunky exposition and learn how to seamlessly weave research into your story.

Aaron Sorkin
Teaches Screenwriting
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting in 35 exclusive video lessons.
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How do you incorporate the research into the writing? You know, it depends on what you've discovered in the research. Like as I've mentioned as an example, the president's motorcade, which became a West Wing episode. That was a gift from the gods. That was too much-- that was too good to be true. The one piece of research that really got me going with the American president was I hired a researcher, and the researcher got me a whole bunch of what I call the president's daily diary. The president's daily diary is not, dear diary, today she looked at me in geometry. It is a minute by minute accounting of what the president did that day. From 7:00 AM to 7:03, he got his intelligence briefing. From 7:03 to 7:06, he took a picture with so-and-so. 7:08, he went back to the residence, he returned to the West Wing. It's that kind of thing. And it was for presidents going all the way back to Herbert Hoover. And I was just suddenly struck by the fact that it was a human person in the White House. Because next to a meeting with the Treasury Secretary or with a king, he would go back to the East Wing for a 20 minute nap. And then there would be something else. And so I just got really interested in the president as a person. Like when he runs out of toothpaste, what happens? If somebody tells you something where there is an inherent problem, for instance, again, with the West Wing, we did an episode very early on about the census. You wouldn't think that there'd be anything dramatic about the census. It's somebody with a clipboard knocking on your door and asking you 10 questions. But it turns out that there is. And so once you've located that problem, then you start writing about it. Screen says it's an unimplemented trap, but the error code is wrong. It's a system error. So what's the upshot? It's not going to say hello. It absolutely is going to say hello. It's nobody's fault. It's a system. You built the voice demo. The voice demo is flaky. I've been telling you-- Keep your voice down. -that for-- this thing is overbuilt. It worked last night. It worked the night before that. It worked three hours ago. It's not working now, so just skip over the voice demo. Fuck you. Everything else is working. Skip over the voice demo. We need it to say hello. The screen says it's an unimplemented trap, but the dialog box is wrong. It's a system error. I still don't know what that means, and I wrote the movie. I wrote many drafts of the movie, so I wrote that line many times. I've obviously seen the movie many, many times, working on it in the editing room, seeing it in theaters. I still don't know what that line means. What I know is that it's correct. It's what happened. That's what research gave me. There are a couple of things I'm looking for, depending on the situation...

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.


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Hi everyone! Message from the MC Community team -- make sure you join Aaron Sorkin's Class Community! There you can discuss writing techniques and other class material, network with other students, trade tips and reviews, and stay up to date on class contests & activities. Link here: Also, FYI! We recently launched a contest to win 2 tix to Sorkin's latest screenplay adaptation on Broadway, To Kill A Mockingbird. Learn more and enter here: Contest closes this Sunday, Nov 24 at 10pm PT. Can't wait to see your submissions!

T. S.

Great tips on when to use real conclusive research versus not and tidbits on real life people.

Kristel T.

Valuable was the lesson, do no damage to either the subject or the truth. Interesting was Mr. Fincher's insistence on sticking with Beck's,


Our perception of the truth depends on the glasses we use to interpret the truth at the a specific point in time ,when the facts surrounding it are presented to us

Graeme R.

Great example! These are the things we want to understand: screwdriver or beer?

A fellow student

"It's the difference between a painting and a photograph and we're doing paintings." -Simple but brilliant.

Antony P.

Very interesting, and brilliant lesson! As someone who is more of a director than a screenwriter, I can see Fincher's side here. The preference for alcohol can tell you a lot about a person, and the fact that Mark chose a beer over the vodka maybe speaks to his desire to be "one of the cool kids" and experience college as a "bro". Just seems more Mark than the vodka to me.

A fellow student

the thing about the truth is very interesting, is a problem that you have all the time when yo are writing, sometimes is hard to decide, or to know what is the really important things on the scenes, on the drama.

Sherry L.

I'd have kept the screwdriver too (but the director is the director, and that's why s/he is the director) so it would have been beer. I'm doing a screenplay that's "inspired by" a real person's life. I'm changing the story... in an effort to make the protagonist more relatable, without distorting what he did. Intent and obstacles remain the same. I appreciate the discussion of truth/"truth".

A fellow student

I find that even as a fictional writer, staying true to a character's essence is still important. For instance, a grizzled war veteran is probably not going to be the type that skips to work, in the same way that a doe-eyed lover isn't going to speak negatively about her circumstances.