Film & TV

Rules of Story

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 8:05 min

The rules of great drama aren't new. Here, Aaron explains how most of them were laid out more than 2,000 years ago by Aristotle in his Poetics, and how to use those lessons to become a diagnostician for your own story ideas.

Aaron Sorkin
Teaches Screenwriting
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting.
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The best way you're going to learn about screenwriting, about writing for television, about writing plays, is by watching movies, watching television, watching plays. And mostly, reading screenplays, reading teleplays, reading plays. Pick your favorite movies. Pick your favorite five movies. Find the screenplays for those movies. Sit and watch the movie with the screenplay on your lap. See exactly how what's there on the screen, what it looked like when it was on the page. People who love cars, they take apart cars. They started by opening the hood of a car, getting underneath a car, and just taking everything apart and laying it on the floor. Do that. People who are super into computers, they all have one thing in common. When they were 9 years old, they built a computer or took one apart. They took their parents' computer apart and laid it on the floor. There are some people who have never taken a music lesson, can't read music, and they sit down in front of a piano, and they just get it, and they can play. I'm sure that there are people who can sit down and understand what a story is without ever having been told what a story is. I wasn't, but I learned the rules of story first by I went to college and got a BFA in theater. You know, it was an academic approach to drama, which is learning Aristotle, learning the parts of drama, theater history, reading a lot of plays, and talking about, OK, there was the exposition. Here's the inciting action. Here's the action, reversal, climax, and denouement. [MUSIC PLAYING] There is a tendency to think that art is finally the place where there are no rules, where you have complete freedom. And I'm going to sit down at the keyboard, and it's just going to flow out of me onto the paper, and it's going to be pure art. No. What you're describing is finger painting there. Rules are what makes art beautiful. Rules are what makes sports beautiful. Most popular sport in world, soccer. If you were allowed to pick up the ball, run into the stands, run down to the other end of the field, shoot the goalkeeper in the head, and toss the ball in the net, it wouldn't be a very interesting game. It's the rules that make it beautiful. Think about the rules to baseball. Abner Doubleday was a freaking genius. You know, that's a great game. Football is a great game. It's the rules that make sports beautiful, and it's the rules that make art, not finger painting. Think about music and all the rules that music has. Anyone who studied music for a year or two when they were in elementary school, anyone who picked up a flute or a trumpet, knows that at the beginning of every piece of music, there's a time signature and a key signature. If you're in 4/4 time, it means there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note gets one beat. There can't be five beats in a measure. There can't b...

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.

Aaron has shaken me from my core, igniting my spirit. Breaking twelve years of writers block, on my first feature. I am now able to see clearly. He is the funniest, most compelling man I have ever witnessed. I can't thank him enough.

Am so happy I've watched this, i'm now going to go back and re write a script I've just finished, with a much better understanding of writing and the imporatance of - Intention obstacle and conflict. Thank you Aaron and thank you masterclass.

I am loving this course so much that I am listening 2 or 3 times to the opening segments!

Mr. Sorkin exudes intelligence and.dare i say warmth? It makes this journey a little less intimidating. i also like his "grip it and rip it" style.


William M.

Not sure about you, but I think soccer would be *really* interesting television if you were allowed to kick it through the stands and shoot the goalie in the head

Kiran B.

Is anyone here who have watched Stoker , Malena or Scarface. So that we can discuss.

Glen G.

“For my pleasure I had as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” - Robert Frost


Drama Rules are always there, on any story. I´m not only talking about structure but as the logic as a storyteller once you understand the audience watching or seeing (although you can get lost sometimes). And of course, the own rules any format has. Loved Aristotle's sheet in the appendix. Wonderful master class.


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!

A fellow student

I enjoyed the discussion. However it had a larger impact when I watched it a second time after reading the Nine Rules in the appendix of the workbook.

Julian D.

Aaron is talking here about the three-act structure, of course, which was first promulgated by Aristotle as he says. You either believe in it for screenplays or you don't. Most writers do. Those who don't, say the three-act structure is a traditionally a construct for theatre plays (to provide interval breaks) and has nothing to do with movies (though having a structure to work within can be useful for new writers). But it's deeply flawed. For one thing, the second act being twice as long as the other two is conveniently split into two with a midpoint so effectively there are four acts. Some gurus like John Yorke (in the UK) go further and promote the five-act structure (followed by Shakespeare). One of the fiercest opponents to act structure is John Truby who says the story should grow "organically" (though his 22-steps generally follow the hero's journey paradigm).

Coach T.

I followed Aaron Sorkin's suggestion to read the script while watching the movie. I did this with the movie "The Favourite". Most of the dialogue was used in the movie as written in the script. Some lines were shortened. The scenes were sometimes done in a different sequence than in the script. Probably the biggest difference in the script and the movie is that many of the scenes in the movie were done at the same time in the movie as they moved from one to another simultaneously. It was an interesting activity for sure.

Eileen N.

I teach script analyses and I love this lesson. I will use the fingerpainting a analogy. I am told people cant creatively write if they have to follow rules, or a formula. This lesson says very well what I try to explain with the analogies of sports and music.

A fellow student

Love the info, missing the PDFs. I keep getting this message: This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it. The document tree is shown below. <Error> <Code>AccessDenied</Code> <Message>Request has expired</Message> <X-Amz-Expires>3600</X-Amz-Expires> <Expires>2019-04-23T02:30:13Z</Expires> <ServerTime>2019-04-23T03:17:00Z</ServerTime> <RequestId>A4BA7C333E489C1B</RequestId> <HostId> d1zif4f4dB4ZGLPw4DRODRMwKgrJLPnNW8RxRW9D7X2ofTTZd4EwGMo2E4yzMHSZ23g7dwLoI/o= </HostId> </Error>