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Arts & Entertainment

The West Wing Writers' Room: Part 5

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 22:26 min

Take Aaron's advice: When you have great characters, use them. Learn how to keep your protagonists active.

Aaron Sorkin
Teaches Screenwriting
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting.
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Your idea about walking, seeing an opportunity, leveraging this, try to do something, I think it's a good idea if it's a Walken's staffer, OK? And not make John Goodman a mustache, twirling guy. I think that John Goodman, he can be John Wayne he can be tough, he can be shoot him out of the sky after one morning, that kind of thing. And he can certainly be ideologically the opposite of our president, but I think that he should be a fundamentally decent guy who does not try to take advantage of such a horrible situation. And I'm saying that for two reasons. One, because he's a more interesting character that way. Two, must we on a rare occasion when we're introducing a Republican into the mix, make them Donald Trump? Art imitates life, Aaron. Just writing what we know here. Yeah. So if we want to do that story, I think it's Walken's Josh-- Right. Who is doing that. Now if we've got all these characters that we want to use, old and new. We're bringing Sam back, we have Josh Malina playing Will Bailey. We're going to have a Walken staffer, possibly. The discussion that you're having and you're having about just what the law is here and how does Bartlet become president again, we need some lawyers in the room. I mean on the show, right? Whether it's Oliver Platt or a new-- this was a show where every time we needed a White House counsel, it was a different White House counsel. And they got to do an introductory scene. We need all those people. The person I think we want to see most is Emily Procter, right? Ainsley Hayes? OK, so we are going to very nicely ask CSI Miami-- and I'm putting us all in a time capsule and putting us back there-- we're going to very nicely asked CSI Miami, which is on a different network, can we borrow Emily Procter. Does she square off against Matthew Perry? Hey-- Both Republicans going to war with each other. We need Matt too, don't we? Yeah, I know. All right, it's going to be great. But just imagine the promise for this episode. It's going to be a good episode but-- bill. That's right. But if we are going to have this many people sitting at the dinner table, we need plenty of food for everybody. That's not a hard metaphor to understand, right? Seven course meal. I don't know there's just something about you that's pissing me off. I can't-- like I'm OK with the frosted pop-tart, but I don't know what it is. I agreed with you. A little bit, not enough. And I really feel like you should've been kissing my ass. I'll stand on the chair next time. OK. So, we have right now two big juicy story problems to deal with. Obviously, the priority is-- and one of those big juicy story problems kind of has two branches, OK? So let's talk about the abduction of Zoey, a big story thing. We've got to find and rescue Zoey, OK? Get her back safely. A...

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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Palmer E.

As a writer looking to increase the drama I would have at least considered having Bartlett not ask to be removed. Maybe have Leo are even Mrs. Bartlett float the idea. A father's daughter being harmed would bring a level of emotion in my opinion that would almost be primal. A person would not be the President if they deep inside believed someone else would handle a situation better. The thought crossed my mind.

George B.

This is exactly the kind of collaborative discussion I've wanted to have about my screenplay. I've spent years being frustrated about this.

Nina T.

It was helpful to see in action the collaboration of Sorkin and the writers, and how they collectively insert their ideas to create a flow in their attempt to finalize West Wing’s Season 5 episode. It also helped me to understand the importance of writing dramatic tension based on one of Sorkin’s recommendations.

A fellow student

G. M. Thomas, WA. The protagonists cannot be passive. Bartlett has abdicated because of his strong feelings as a parent and what he might do. There are now two active voices: Bartlett and Walkin (Goodman). 9/11 is now part of the action mix.

Judith M.

1) The fax. First facial biometrics run to confirm high probability of that being Zoey. Secondary check for pixelation giving away if it is a photo of a known image of Zoey (picture of a picture). Whilst that is going on, the handwriting will be being compared to data stored on government websites that do not need a warrant to access - driving license, passport signatures, tax declarations, and visa applications. Graphology hits should give a short list that can then be compared to the ATF files on known extremists or cultists. All being managed from the Secret Service office, with at least one FBI profiler and agent involved. Most work offset and timed to keep a thriller like feel to the episode, swopping between the acting President and the Bartletts plot lines. 2) The friend with the overdose that we are waiting to wake up is found by the man with twins to have actually been given an opioid overdose. (He overhears a conversation between one of the children nurses and a fellow nurse from ER about a strange injection point that looks like a bite. They administer narcan, and are led to the Rapturists by his testimony, which proves to be a red herring at midpoint, after a raid turns up no Zoey. 3) The biometrics provide the real lead after the handwriting samples are enlarged to include diplomatic immunity and Qumari diplomats, one of whom is swiftly identified as being in the USA under a false identity, and is in fact the leader of the terror cell holding Zoey. ATF records of fingerprints correlated with those received from Samsung that are used to lock his portable device (terms and conditions of Samsung with smart media) after convincing Samsung to help. Giving a GPS track on a phone that whilst turned off may still be pinged.


Really good to keep in mind the ensemble characters are all protagonists. They cannot be passive and need to be active. Abbey can't be medicated and constantly scared. She has to do something. It was a good suggestion that maybe she criticizes the FBI and/or Secret Service. Also, having someone visit Molly's parents and dealing with her death would be a great scene. I'd like to see Emily and Matthew fight out the 25th Amendment using the colonoscopy as the precedent.

A fellow student

I really love the idea - as many mentioned before - that protagonists have to be active. I find it in many movies as a sign of weak writing when the protagonists is only becoming active because its environment forces them. Classic example: movies of Roland Emerich. Characters usually just show a reaction of something out of their control (aliens, storms, monster etc.) but there is not a motive to start acting because they decided to on their own.


Do you think it necessary to assume that there are viewers tuning in that did not see the last season ending, or are tuning in for the first time? Maybe use the teaser and first 5 minutes or so, of the first episode of Season 5 to summarize the end of Season 4, as a refresher. The audience gets a more condensed version of the kidnapping, the President and staff invoking the 25th amendment and the Speaker being sworn in, then begin Season 5 from there? In the writer's room, list the story arcs and sub-plots, developing the stories in each and deciding what you want to tell, how far to go with it, duration, characters involved, overlapping, etc.? Does a story arc last for part of an episode or for several? Each one needs 'its time.'


I love that you can feel the enthusiasm in the room when someone gets a good idea and everyone grabs onto it. Just like a real writer's room. There is a lot to learn here.