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Arts & Entertainment

Story Ideas

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 15:24 min

How do you know if your idea is good enough to turn into a script? Aaron walks you through the steps every writer should take to test an idea—and decide whether it will work best in TV or film.

Aaron Sorkin
Teaches Screenwriting
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting.


There are two parts to having an idea. You first have to know what an idea is, and then you have to have it. An idea isn't I want to write about surfing, OK? I'm surfing. I'm going to write a movie about surfing. You don't have an idea yet. You know where to park the trucks, by the beach. You can write "Exterior Beach." There's a lot of waves, but you don't have an idea. You don't have an idea until you can use the words but, except, and then, things like that. It was a normal day like any other day when all of a sudden I went to the beach to go surfing, and the surfing was great, "but then." You don't have the idea until that happens. [MUSIC PLAYING] I don't know if an idea is good enough to turn into a screenplay. For me, it's not a matter of good enough. It's sort of the same way a batter decides what pitch he's going to swing at, right? The batter's looking for his pitch. His pitch is low and outside, high and inside, it's a hanging curveball. He's looking for his pitch. Now, the batter has about like 8/10 of a second to decide if that's his pitch because the ball is coming at him pretty quickly. I have longer than that. So, what I want to know is, first of all, is there drama in there someplace? Is there conflict? Sometimes you'll see a shiny object, and you'll think this is, boy, I really want to write about this, and it will turn out that there's no conflict. For instance, Harry Houdini is a pretty interesting guy, right? And a lot of people have tried to write about him, but kind of unsuccessfully, because it turns out that this very interesting guy really didn't have much conflict in his life at all. You would think that somebody who locks himself in a box, and goes 200 feet under water, and that kind of thing would have conflict, but he didn't. Basically, he did a trick, and got out, and then he did the next trick, and he got out, and he was happily married. He died under strange circumstances when he was in his early 50s, I think, but that's not a great pitch to swing at. With The Social Network, I saw a 10-page book proposal, and buried in that book proposal were these two lawsuits that was going on. And when I saw that, it's not like I could picture the whole movie in front of me or anything, but I just knew that that was a pitch that I could swing at. I've never signed onto anything where I was able to see it, and it was just going to kind of come out in the typing. Everything has been a long climb. But what you're looking for is intention and obstacle. You're looking for conflict, and you're hoping that-- and generally, the conflicts that I write about are ideas. It's usually not robbing a casino that has the greatest security system in the world. It's usually a conflict of ideas, and what you want is for the competing ideas to be equally strong. By the way, going with the baseball batting metaphor...

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've looked up to Sorkin as a writer more than most writers since I knew of him and saw his work. I've wanted to take this class since I saw it existed. Was one of my favorite classes I got most out of. Excellent! Very inspirational as much as it was instructional. Thank you!

As expected, Sorkin's nuggets of advice are brilliant and so helpful, but what surprised me is how he's also so encouraging about just trying to write and being unafraid to fail. Highly recommend this class!

I'm so stoked and grateful! THIS is exactly what I needed to help push me past the stupid writing rut I've been in. I'm already re-inspired! Eli

The guy is good. He bleeds with you, not above you or at a distance. And he teaches like he cares, and I know he does, cares about you and the work ahead of you. He shines the light on the paths before you, but he makes it clear the which path you pick is up to you. He hands you the tool box and says stay with it and eventually something will happen.


A fellow student

This lesson was an eye-opener, as far as TV, or feature, story ideas go. Sometimes one thinks that an idea is better as a short story with a tendency to give up on the idea. So far, the lesson(s) are good because they reveal what is not normally revealed to you in college courses or books.

Stuart G.

Stu Gerathy, Grafton, New South Wales, Australia I run a Creative Agency and work in TV advertising. We design ideas for brands, starting with a script then production so it's good to hear how larger projects such as film and TV start.

A fellow student

I appreciate your candor about the Newsroom. I only recently watched the series and I can see what you mean about a pebble in your shoe (I've had a few of those myself). I would say, though, that timing is an interesting factor. In watching it years after its initial broadcast, I loved watching the characters move through their emotions quickly rather than getting stuck in them. Now, with this pandemic and the resulting economic and political fallout, the initial speech on the Northwestern stage has made the rounds on Tic Toc and my 18 year old daughter and her friends love it. You may have felt uncomfortable in your chair writing it, but you never know how you might feel now in seeing its reception among audiences too young to appreciate it at the time. I wrote a piece on eportfolios six years ago that is just now getting lots of views. No one was ready to hear it then. It's so interesting to watch!

Jenna K.

How do yall think the "finding the conflict" section goes with more slice of life pieces (eg. Duck Butter or The Florida Project)? The intension isn't clear for a majority of the movie until about 3/4 of the way through a conflict presents itself and escalates finally. I wonder what it is that keeps me engaged and invested in these pieces that aren't rooted initially with a problem per se?


This course is incredible opportunity to study with Aaron Sorkin. I loved the assignment, but it provoked confusion about our last lesson: Intention and Obstacle. I chose Franz Kafka's "The country Doctor." It is a riveting, page-turning story, so I assumed that the I/O and conflict must be there and I'm sure it is. But I find myself unable to articulate exactly what it is, especially as it seems to change and deepen over the pages of the story. Briefly: the country doctor has to get to a sick patient in the night. It is snowing and his horse is dead. Perfect. Intention: heal the patient, Obstacle: Can't get to him. But then horses and a groom appear solving that obstacle. Another is immediately created because now he is afraid the groom will hurt his female worker. And it goes on from there. This leaves me wondering as we structure our screenplays in macro way, should there be ONE intention and obstacle that carries the protagonist through the whole work, or can there be a series of them throughout and even have layers from the concrete to the existential?

Erika M.

When dramatizing a story you love, does it matter if those stories are different from the ones you will be writing? For example, Mr. Sorkin mentions he likes space travel. I love Sci-fi thrillers, but my writing, based on real-life experiences, is drama/comedy (a genre I do not particularly care for) it just comes out. How will dramatizing a sci-fi thriller help me in creating a drama, or do I have to do it and see?

Aditya K.

I personally enjoyed it because it gave me a basic idea that your intuition or your idea is a good enough idea and there are many thongs i worry about such as' "where do I start my story?" or "I have only a small idea or a scene and I find it difficult to and a back story or an aftermath." This class by the great Aaron Sorkin just pure beauty.

A fellow student

Does anyone know what he means when he says that the competing ideas need to be equally strong?

Madeline E.

I've been really wanting to dive into writing for a while and for one reason or another I've been reluctant to, I guess its the whole "where do I start?" thing and not having a clear idea of how to start writing. But I really feel that this lesson has cleared a lot of my worries and questions up and I'm just going to go for it!

Andrea P.

I thought that I needed to have everything figured out before starting a script. Now I know I can test my ideas and see where they go.