Film & TV

Writing Captivating Dialogue

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 12:41 min

If you want to write Aaron Sorkin-worthy dialogue, learn from the master himself on how to make music with your words and put them to the test by performing your own scenes out loud.

Aaron Sorkin
Teaches Screenwriting
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting.
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Once we start talking about dialogue, we are talking about the least teachable part of writing. It's not completely unteachable. But there are a couple of things that you can teach. It's also the most personal part of writing. So everybody's going to do it a different way. Everybody's going to cross the finish line a different way. So all I'm going to talk about is the way I do it. I'm not suggesting that this is the way it must be done. [MUSIC PLAYING] My first experience witnessing great dialogue was, I think, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. My parents took me to see plays all the time. And often, they were-- I was too young to understand what was going on onstage. I saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf when I was nine years old. There was no way I could understand what was going on up there. But the dialogue sounded like music to me, just these fantastic actors. Singing, it sounded like Edward Albee's dialogue. David Mamet, for instance, who is a virtuoso at dialogue and a particular type of dialogue. There's no one better than David Mamet at writing a conversation between two people who don't know how to communicate with each other that if you look at Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, American Buffalo, those always feel like allegros, very sharp, kind of violent duets playing off each other. It's not just that dialogue sounds like music to me. It actually is music. At any time someone is speaking for the purpose of performance, whether they're doing it from a pulpit in a church, whether it's a candidate on the stump, or an actor on a stage, any time they're speaking for the purposes of performance, all the rules of music apply. Cadence and tone and volume, all of the rules of music apply to this. So when I'm writing, what the words sound like are as important to me is as important to me is as what the words mean. It's a lot about rhythm. The actors will know if they have dropped a syllable or added a syllable accidentally. They'll know that something was wrong the same way if you're playing music, and there's a time signature at the beginning of it, it says 4/4 time. That means there are four beats in a measure. And a chordant note gets one beat. There can't be five beats in a measure. There can't be three beats in a measure. And the actors know if they've dropped something, like I said, if they've dropped a syllable. And I know when I'm writing if that didn't quite work, what I was doing. So it-- and then if you look at the whole piece, say a two hour play, a two hour movie, a one hour episode of television, it follows along the-- it has a lot of the same properties as a long piece of music like a symphony does or an opera. It's got solos and duets. It's got allegros and adagios. It's got arias. And sometimes they're good. And sometimes they're bad. But it is music nonetheless. [MUSIC PLAYIN...

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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Billy T.

Hi everyone, Billy Tsiolis here. I have a question for some of you. For those who do know music theory as it applies to dialogue, how did you go about learning that? Please let me know, especially if you have any specific recommendations for websites or organizations to check out. Thank you.


Loved breaking down Bartlett/Ritchie scene & analysis of Bush/Gore contest having similar dynamics. I keep thinking @ Trump, & hearing his post-impeachment speech today and listening to his amazingly inarticulate, mob-like language, and that he would have come off like a cartoonish, too dumb to be elected, character in a script. If even 10% of Sorkin's brilliance rubs off on me, I'll be happy.

Śmigły .

When writing dialog, I have found myself writing it specifically to reach an end-point for a scene. I go back and read it outloud. ------ THEN, I go back and adjust the dialog to the characters' bio that I've developed. ----- Would HE say it that way? Or, would it be more rude? Or more gentle. ----- THEN, I go back over it again, reading it outloud, checking for cadence and rhythm. ----- There have been scenes I've TOTALLY rewritten because I've included the wrong characters in the entire dialog..

Glen G.

Is there a bit of contradiction between leaving space for actors to improvise and writing down every idiosyncratic tic. Other books I've read seem to advise against overdoing the dialog. I wonder if that's something the writer has to earn - of if it just needs to be done well enough that it doesn't distract.

Glen G.

"Don’t be intimidated if what you’re writing is not how people sound. Screenwriting is an art — feel free to take liberties to create a fantastic piece of dialogue." I struggle with this - between naturalistic dialog and more poetic dialog. It helps to remember an earlier comment about writing film vs. a documentary.


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!

Annette S.

I loved it. Aaron, how kind and generous you are to dig so deep when you give an explanation. Thank you.

A fellow student

Gonna definitely practice speaking the dialogue to make sure it works. Albeit, I'll have to not shout when the characters are supposed to be shouting. My landlord only needs to see me once a month, after all.

Thomas L.

Look at David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), or watch a film starring another master, Kevin thanks.

Shelly H.

Interesting lesson. I personally think that screenwriters can get better in dialogue with practice and a lot of work. For me, I think of it in levels: Terrible, Decent, Good, Great. I have been at the terrible stage, worked up to decent and am verging on good. I'm not sure if I'll ever be great with dialogue like Sorkin & Mamet, but I'll keep trying. But, dammit (note that I do say this), the challenge of writing better dialogue is super fun... The difference between myself and "virtuosos" like Sorkin & Mamet is that they were able to achieve the "great" status in less time than us mere mortals and/or, they just popped out of the womb with the talent. So, let's keep practicing and challenging ourselves.