Monday, August 15, 2016

Sorkin Speaks

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin  (Steve Jobs, "The West Wing," The Social Network, "The Newsroom," Moneyball, A Few Good Men, The American President) is currently teaching a Master Class in screenwriting, which includes a virtual writer's room (above) for an episode of "The West Wing."  Below are some highlights from his lectures.

You should start by reading Aristotle's Poetics----it's a "64-page pamphlet."  Be "evangelical" about it.

For Sorkin, the two most important elements are a "strong intention" and a "formidable obstacle."  "Without that, you're screwed blue."

But note that it's not required that your protagonist overcome the obstacle.

If, in your writing, you're attracted to a place, then aim for a TV series.  If you're interested in character, go for a feature.

"You can start without an idea."  Sorkin exhorts writers to just "start writing...literally typing."   But the story doesn't start until you introduce Intention.

"The worst crime you can commit is telling the audience something they already know."

"Audiences know the rules without knowing they know the rules."

Exposition:  "You need at least one character who knows as little as the audience does."

The first 15 pages are the most important to get your script made.

Sorkin typically takes 18-24 months to write a script, which includes "bulking up" (research, etc.), being depressed, and banging his head against the wall, because "most days you don't write, and it's demoralizing."  The actual writing takes him about 2 months.  "The fun part is the writing.  It's the thinking of what you're going to write that's agonizing."

 "A blank piece of paper is a soul-crushing experience."


Fact:  The Queen died.
Story:  The Queen died and then the King died of a broken heart.
Drama:  The Queen died.  Turns out she was the brains behind the outfit and now the King has to go it alone in the face of the subjects because everyone knows he's dumb.

Drama requires conflict.

"I don't care at all about reality.  I care about the appearance of reality."  When people say, "That's not the way people really talk," Sorkin counters, "Who cares?"  "They're characters, not people."

"A probable possibility is preferable to a possible improbability."  (Sorkin invoking Aristotle.)

"I like starting in the middle of a conversation."


1.  Nuts & Bolts (specific, not subjective).  For example:  What's the procedure for invoking the 25th Amendment with a President?
2.  Research in which you're really trying to find the movie.

Script Notes:  you want to find an editor who's smart, who understands scripts, and who understands the way you write. 

Sorkin's go to people for notes are Thomas Schlamme in television, and for features, Scott Rudin and David Fincher.  Sorkin will hole up for days with Rudin.

If you're told a scene is kind of "wet," it means you went too far emotionally--your characters are performing the emotion.

"Surgical rewrites" refers to rewriting to solve a problem.

The importance of failure:  the real value of, say, the Yale School of Drama (or wherever) is that it gives you the chance to write your worst without consequences.


Finally, Sorkin's Commandments:

1.  Take chances.
2.  Write in your own voice.
3.  Don't try to make everyone happy--don't make McDonalds hamburgers.
4.  Watch a lot, read a lot, write a lot, and find those you can trust to read your pages.
5.  Power through days of being unable to write.
6.  "We're writing things that aren't meant to be read but are meant to be performed."

Oh, and Sorkin really loves the series "Silicon Valley." He's amazed at how the writers have 
been able to sustain its premise of being about building one company.

P.S.  Sorkin is about to make his directorial debut on a script he wrote, Molly's Game, starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba.

To comment on this post, click the comments link below.

No comments:

Post a Comment