Aaron Sorkin on Screenwriting

By Brock Swinson • June 10, 2021

Aaron Sorkin has one of the most distinctive voices in the business. From A Few Good Men to The Social Network and The West Wing, he is best known for his intelligent and witty dialogue. His latest venture is an online screenwriting Masterclass, where he shares the secrets of his trade.

We spoke with Aaron about intentions and obstacles in scriptwriting, the importance of the first 15 pages of a screenplay, and of course writing dialogue.

What made you want to create this course for MasterClass?

Here’s what I wanted to do: I was starting to worry about competition from new, young writers, coming up. So I thought if I could get in there and screw them up, that might keep them off my back for a while.

Seriously though, from time to time, I’ve done Master Classes at NYU, Columbia and at my alma mater, Syracuse University. I’ve also done Master Classes at high schools and independent, so it turns out; it’s something that I really enjoy.

So when the MasterClass guys—David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen—got in touch with me, I was intrigued. I wasn’t sure how it would work, but they sent me some of the other Master Classes.

I was really impressed with the job that they had done. So we began talking about how the job might work and I pitched the idea: In addition to me talking to a camera for a while, it could be great to be interactive. I wanted to get some young writers in there so we could sit around the table. I thought that might be something. I thought that might work.

These guys are fantastic. Forgive the reference, but this is not Trump University. These guys really want to be good. They bring in great production people. It’s first class. We did over four or five days and I really enjoyed it. I hope that people who sign up will learn a couple of things that they didn’t know before and come away with a sense of confidence that maybe they didn’t have before just because they saw that other writers are just as nervous about the same things that they may be nervous about.

I got the chance to preview some of the courses. You briefly mentioned your relationship with William Goldman and there are several instances where you discuss his classic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The MasterClass offers a glimpse at what it’s like to experience an apprenticeship education. Can you comment on the importance of having a mentor?

I can definitely comment on the importance of having Bill Goldman. He had been my hero long before I met him. When I was in college, I read Adventures in the Screen Trade, which is it’s own “Master Class.” I think I talk about it in the series. I had also read another book of his called The Season.

I love his writing style. I love his novels and his screenplays. After I had written the play, A Few Good Men—but somewhere before the rehearsal—the script had been passed around and several people were reading it. He called me and said he wanted to take me under his wing and turn me from a playwright into a playwright/screenwriter. Obviously I wasn’t going to turn that down. He has been, and still is, an incredibly important figure in my life.

In one of the instructional videos, you mention the importance of the first 15 pages of a screenplay. Can you elaborate on this idea?

That’s also a Bill Goldman thing. He says that, “The last 15 minutes of any movie are the most important, and the first 15 pages of any screenplay are most important.” Here’s what he’s talking about. Obviously you’re hoping that the whole 120 minutes of the movie are going to be great, but if you can’t do that and the last 15 minutes are great, then you’ll send the audience out whistling.

Screenwriting is a different kind of writing, because we don’t write things that are meant to be read; we write things that are meant to be performed. There is a big difference. The only time that the reading of the script matters—as opposed to the performance—is when you’re trying to get the thing made.

It matters when a studio head is reading it, when the director is reading it, when an actor is reading it, when you’re trying to put the elements in place to get it done. In their world, if you have a great first 15 pages, followed by a not as great 120 pages, then they’re still going to be interested in the script.

They might say, “Come into the office so we can give you some notes on the script,” but you will have hooked them and, if nothing else, they’ll read page 16. This compares to a number of scripts where they aren’t even going to get past page 10.

Several movies and television shows are mentioned throughout the course, but the main vehicles seem to be The Social Network and The West Wing. What makes these character versions of Mark Zuckerberg and Toby Ziegler so appealing as a teaching method?

My own ego, probably… I will have to say that I’m surprised I did it as much as I did, because I’m not particularly comfortable referencing my own work, especially as a teaching example, unless it’s to say, “Here’s an example of a mistake.” It may just be that those are what occurred to me the fastest and since I was on camera, I didn’t want to make the audience wait for the second choice that popped into my head.

This next question is also based on Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. Can you comment on the difference between writing character versus reality in terms of action and dialogue?

I’m really glad you asked me that question. The characteristics of characters and the characteristics of people have almost nothing to do with each other. People don’t speak in dialogue and their lives don’t play themselves out in a series of scenes that form a narrative arc.

A character—let’s assume it’s your protagonist—is defined by what they want or by their intentions. I talk about intention and obstacle a lot in the MasterClass. They are defined by what they want. You don’t show the audience who a character is—you show the audience what a character wants.

Then there is a formidable obstacle. You have a character who wants the girl, wants the money, or needs to get to Philadelphia—it doesn’t matter. But they do have to want it or need it, really badly. There must be a formidable obstacle—something very difficult to overcome. The tactics that the characters use to overcome the obstacle is what defines that character for the audience. It’s what your story is about and it’s what your audience is going to be watching.

When an audience looks at something and they say, “Well, people don’t talk like that” or “People don’t really do that,” that’s the absolute truth. People don’t talk like that—that’s what movies, television and theater are for. They represent heightened versions of ourselves. It has very little to do with people.

Jackie Mason — who I don’t recommend as a great mentor within screenwriting, while he may be a great mentor when it comes to being funny — says it this way: “Most people, in their lives, eat a lot of soup. We all eat a lot of soup, but you hardly ever see somebody eating a bowl of soup in a movie.” It doesn’t read well.

You mentioned the importance of failure in one of the promos for the course. Can you elaborate on that idea?

I talk a lot about the importance of failure—perhaps just in trying to make myself feel better. I’m envious of my friends who went to Yale drama or have a Masters degree in playwriting. I’m really envious of them. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts, so I’ll ask my Yale Drama friend, “Please tell me, what in your Master program did you learn, because I’m sure there is something that you have learned as I have these big gaps in my understanding.”

They’ll say, “The MFA is roughly the same as the BFA, but the most important part is that the Masters Program allows for you to write the worst things that you are ever going to write. It allows you to write with no consequences. Right now, if I write something that is a failure, there are a lot of consequences. First of all, I just lost someone a lot of money and a lot of people are out of work.

For myself, there would be public humiliation, so there are a lot of consequences. Back in school, I wish I had taken more chances. Back then, I would only do things I knew I was good at. I would do things to impress my friends or to impress girls, so I wouldn’t do anything where I might fall on my face. I think I would be better now if I had taken chances before. So I encourage young writer to do that. I encourage writers to do that and buck up their friends who will take the chance to fail.

There are several common screenwriting instructions that you disagree with, such as writing long biographies for your characters. So what is the first thing you do when shaping a character?

Let’s back up a little bit. Let’s say that you’re about to write a movie. You sit down with a yellow, legal pad and you write out a long biography about a character, starting with when they were born, what they did in high school or what they did in college. What happens then? What do you do with that information?

Here’s what I suspect will happen: It will either have been a waste of time or you will find yourself trying to squeeze all of those things in there. You’ll have your characters say things like, “See this scratch on my knee? It’s when I fell off my bike when I was five.” You’ll have all of this biographical information that has nothing to do with intention and obstacle.

I’ll say it again: people and characters have very little to do with each other. Characters are born and die within the span of the two-hour movie. Take Steve Jobs for instance. Steve Jobs was never six-years-old in this movie. He was a baby, but he was only a baby when we start talking about his adoption.

Your characters are born at the age they are when the curtain goes up; when the projector starts rolling. David Manis writes some great essays on this. He is driven nuts when actors come up to him in rehearsal and ask, “What kind of breakfast cereal do you think my character ate when they were five years old?” He slaps them around, makes them cry, and then sends them back to the stage, reminding them that their character was never five-years-old.

Wrapping up, is there anything else you would like to comment on the class? 

I know that I had a great time doing the class, even though that doesn’t mean anything to anyone. But, just like painting, there’s a part of writing that can be taught and there’s a part of writing that can’t be taught. There is no one who can teach me how to paint, or draw. I can draw a stick figure, but that’s about it.

So the greatest art teacher in the world is not going to be able to teach me how to paint and it’s the same with writing. There is a certain talent that you have to have for any of this teaching to be useful, at all. 

I think that they’ll come away with a sense of confidence that you get, because, as a writer, you spend most of your time alone, which is opposed to a musician, where you spend a lot of time interacting with other musicians. Spending that time with other writers, that have the same problems as you, will make you want to write.

Brock Swinson