From Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass

The West Wing Writers' Room: Part 3

Aaron and the students continue to work together to break episode 501 of The West Wing.

Topics include: Virtual writers' room


Aaron and the students continue to work together to break episode 501 of The West Wing.

Topics include: Virtual writers' room

Aaron Sorkin

Teaches Screenwriting

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OK, so I want to hear from you guys. I just want to hear your off the top of your head, unformed, bad ideas. OK? This is the time now for bad ideas. And feel free to reach outside the box. There is no reason-- we've done this several times on the show. And I like it when we do. There's no reason why this episode has to begin 2 minutes after the last episode. It can. That was my first thought. It can begin five years ago. It can be a flashback episode. If we hadn't done it already, and we've done it twice, you could cut back and forth between the campaign when everything's great to now when everything is terrible. But we did that with the top of season 2 with [INAUDIBLE]. Let me hear from you guys. What do you think so far? I have two intertwined story lines. So one of them is related to Zoe's boyfriend waking up and CJ and the West Wing crew finding out that his drug dealer is basically linked to this white supremacist group of, like, Christian fundamentalists. And they're trying to resurrect this group called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. And so they're basically-- That's a real group. That's a real group that basically went defunct in the '80s. So these are basically young Christian fundamentalists who supposedly have kidnapped Zoe. But they don't know yet that she's been kidnapped. They just know that this might be a link that I think Nancy McNally had alluded to at the end of season 4. So that's the information that they have right now is that they have this drug dealer. There's a supremacist group that he's linked to. And maybe they have Zoe. And then the other story is linked to John Goodman's character as the acting president. And the Qumari terrorists, or Bahji operatives. Have basically sent a video to the White House claiming responsibility for Zoe's kidnapping. And the footage basically shows a captured girl, who kind of resembles Zoe. But they can't confirm for sure that it actually is her. But going off of this video basically that is not leaked to the press yet, Leo and Glenn Allen Walken and the situation room, basically, are forced to decide whether or not to storm the place, because the CIA is located-- they pinpointed where this place is, where they shot the footage and where Zoe might be located. So the question is whether or not to stage this rescue mission, which may very well incite a war between Qumar, which is a US ally at the moment in order to save the president's daughter. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there. But I'm confused about one thing. They've got footage of someone who's going to turn out to not be Zoe. Right? Yes. But based on where this footage was shot, they were able to somehow recognize this place, which I buy. If anybody has seen the movie The Good Shepherd-- Yes. In that movie, there is-- and this is talking about te...

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.

It's helped me focus in on some of the most important aspects of telling a story including intention & obstacle, as well as tactics. While watching the class, I actually rewrote a tv pilot I'm working on based on what I was learning -- and I vastly improved that script thanks to this class.

The class has tidied up a lot of my thinking around script writing. I like the specificity of the WW workshops from idea formulation to commencement of writing. Most importantly I like how certain it has made me that screenplay writing is within my grasp already, I just need to close my hand around it. Great job and thank you Mr Sorkin.

I actually started writing during these classes, pure inspiration.

I've only written one complete screenplay and that was ten years ago. I'm a forty-something professional with two non-writing careers that have made these ten years fly by. What a shame! Aaron's class made me want to dust off the old "how to" books and get to writing again. Thank you for the inspiration!


A fellow student

I found it very valuable. A writers group gets you motivated to step out of the box and challenge yourself.

Judith M.

You might have wanted the hospital to confirm it was in fact ecstasy and not an opioid slipped to the boyfriend, because then they could have used Narcan.

Judith M.

Both Ronald Reagan (once) and George W. Bush (twice), transferred power under the 25th Section 3, with a written declaration, they both took power back again by submitting a second declaration 'to the contrary'. Just as you showed in the episode with him holding both. A cliffhanger for the end of the series leaving doubt in our minds as to whether he would take his place back again. Geolocation profiling is often used by Criminal profilers in different organizations so would be easy for the FBI to field. You could certainly have a profiler arrive at the Whitehouse to integrate with the Secret Service, giving cut scenes with them opposite the investigation. Insisting on video footage being posted to a set site would also allow a further level of tracking to help narrow it down. The kidnappers showed knowledge of low tech by using the polaroids which of course avoid the digital camera picture stamps or phone GPS locators. They made a mistake by using handwriting. Run a digital search on driving license and Passport signatures, then cross check with known ATF rapturists (if you wished to keep them or the covenanters in.) Obvious conflict - the planes. Use a plane that is breaking all the rules of the stand in President to get Zoey out of the country. Does one president end up killing the daughter of the other, or do the team put together the subtle clues just in time.


Edith Wilson was President Woodrow Wilson's second wife. She did run things after he suffered a stroke. I don't think Bartlett's wife could get away with this now, but it's definitely worth a mention from Toby or Josh. President Reagan was reinstated after taking the 25th by signing a letter given to him by his Chief of Staff, so it may be as simple as that.

Maros M.

I like the interaction with the students/participants... felt natural and easy going yet still handling tasks and debating.. Also good take away points of - getting out of the well, how, do not cheat audience of that... Thank you.

Anastacia S.

Some rambling thoughts: Open with President Walken at his desk in the Oval Office, jarring the audience and his/Bartlet’s staff with the unexpected vision of not Barlet at the desk. Walken needs to be given an opportunity to make good on his threat to be a hard ass and jeopardize Zoey’s life and safe return in the interest of national security, also thereby presenting the staff with a reason to later betray Walken in loyalty to Bartlet, as Aaron suggested. Since the show took such a dark turn when Agent Molly was found in the alley with a bullet between her eyes (and why wasn’t an agent posted at a back door to a nightclub?), the kidnappers can’t be just some guys from Jersey who want ransom money and are keeping Zoey in the back of a chop shop. There has to be a connection with Qumar. Even though Jean Paul wanted Zoey to take the Ecstasy, he can only turn out to be a pawn in the kidnapping, as he has no motive. (As an aside, at the end of this dark episode, even the theme music seemed out of place and too lighthearted.) Whatever the political demands of the kidnappers, they can be communicated to President Walken in the presence of Josh and Toby, so that Walken makes the decision that jeopardizes and practically eliminates the possibility of Zoey’s safe return. E.g., Walken receives a call from the monarch of Qumar, who reveals his country’s involvement in the kidnapping and requests the money that had been part of the demands sought before the Mastico was turned around, in exchange for Zoey’s return; Walken flatly denies the monarch’s request and rejects negotiating with Qumar as a terrorist nation (which ironically also has an alliance with the hypocritical U.S.). The monarch then threatens to behead Zoey. who is “only a woman, out getting drunk at a nightclub, which she shouldn’t have been doing.” Josh and Toby leave Walken’s office and discuss who is going to tell Bartlet about this dire turn of events. As a new father, Toby is elected to tell Bartlet. This news could bring on an extreme M.S. episode, with Bartlet deemed unable return to office, and Zoey could die. If Bartlet does return, Zoey will need to come back. as Aaron suggested; otherwise Bartlet’s character on the show would suffer an unrecoverable setback. However, since Sam Seaborn was a sine qua non on TWW, and after his departure there was a hole in the fabric of the show and an incomplete troupe, if Bartlet doesn’t return to office, Zoey would become the second ghost on the show. If Bartlet does return to office, Zoey would be tracked down within a few miles of the White House, using the methods Aaron suggested (sounds, etc. in the background when Zoey is put on the phone to prove she is still alive) and a dramatic “extraction” would take place, with the attendant emotional reunion with her parents, and then, with Charlie. Happily ever after.

Katrin H.

Like the suggestion to look for events that we did not yet see happen, but that can happen. And the preview on Donald Trump and comparison to Nixon are pretty near to today's reality...!

Christopher V.

It took 27 Lessons until some Trump Bashing! If I want to hear that I'll turn on CNN for free....

Emilio F.

The best things that I learned in this session are that don´t go to easy situations, make your characters suffer. And show things we haven`t seen before. Really helpful session.

George C.

Again, best two things I've learned: 1- "Avoid the 'Once out of the well' notion. Never take the cheap way out. 2- "The West Wing is at its best when all of our characters are talking to each other and dealing with each other". Know the strong points of your story / film / TV show and exploit them. On another note, this goes back to when Trump was about to be announced as the republican nominee. Wow it feels like such a long time ago.