As a teenager, I started to get more serious about writing and wanted to delve deeper into the craft. One of the first things I did was pay closer to attention to the works that spoke to me and researched the writers that created them. Aaron Sorkin was one of those writers.
He’s the Emmy- and Oscar-winning creator behind classics such as A Few Good Men, the West Wing, and the Social Network (to name a few). I was mesmerized by his impeccable construction of dialogue (the man has an obvious passion and ear for language), magnetic characters, and enthralling storytelling. His work is recognizable the way music from a great musician is recognizable. I’ve always wished I could learn from him, even just get a peek into his process.
Here is my review on his writing class on MasterClass, along with some of my favorite tips from the class.
My Review of Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting on MasterClass
I didn’t know what to expect when I opened the first lesson but like Shonda Rhimes (whose class on writing for television I took right before it), I was not disappointed. He offered a lot of useful insight into his process. He sprinkled it with wisdom that soothed a lot of my anxieties around the craft. (When someone as experienced as Aaron Sorkin experiences all of the same insecurities and struggles that the rest of plebian writers face, it’s incredibly comforting.
It’s also a permission slip to keep going because despite of those challenges you are, in fact, a writer and can still manage to produce great work in spite of them.)
He was refreshingly genuine and relatable. Even though he’s one of the most brilliant storytellers in history, he was endearingly self-deprecating throughout the class. His honesty about his anxieties and self-doubt around his own work made his lessons that much more relatable.
Overall, I loved this class. He went over a lot of the basics but I still managed to pick up some gems in those lessons, too. I’ve found that every writer has a fresh perspective to offer on basic topics. More often than not, you’ll be able to find something in their unique outlook that strikes a chord with you.
I took note of the things that had the greatest impact on me and put them together in this post to share with you. I highly recommend taking the full course, even if you aren’t a screenwriter. There are great lessons in there for all types of storytelling.
Storytelling Tips from Aaron Sorkin
1. The first one is about how sometimes, no matter how great your idea for a story is and how much effort and work you put into bringing it to life, it may fall short of your vision for it. He also admits something about his work that I think every writer relates to but inevitably beats themselves up over.
“You can see that really good pitch, you can swing hard at it and miss. There are plenty of times that I’ve seen a pitch and if not totally missed, then kind of fouled it back in the stands. As a matter of fact, I have never written anything, not a movie, a play, or a single episode of television, that I don’t badly wish that I could have back and write again.”
Basically: if you’re waiting for perfection, you’ll be waiting forever.
2. One of Aaron’s rules for storytelling is that you need a clear intention and obstacle the audience can engage with. Without those two things, your story will fall flat, no matter how many other great bells and whistles you throw into it.
“Once you have the intention and obstacle, it’s like a taut clothesline that you can hang everything else on.”
3. Some writers feel the need to write long, in-depth biographies on each of their characters and explore a wide array of facts about them, like what they like to eat for lunch and who their first kiss was, in order to write a realistic, complex character. Here are his thoughts on that method of character-building:
“I don’t think that any of that is going to come in handy. I don’t think that there is a use for any of that. I think you’re doing it because you feel like you’re supposed to do it. I think you’re doing it because you feel like the more human character traits you write down on this legal pad, the more human the character is going to be. What’s going to happen is, you’re going to have a scene where a guy or a girl needs to convince their parents to loan them money for something, and you’ve got this yellow legal pad next to you and you’re trying to figure out how to work in creamy peanut butter into the scene because these are the things that are going to make your character more human. Forget that, ok? Forget that stuff.”
4. On the subject of characters, he also offered this opinion on trying to make them seem like ‘real people’:
“Believe it or not, the properties of characters and the properties of people have very little to do with each other. I know it seems like the goal should be to have a character be as human as possible. And that’s not the goal, or at least not my goal. That’s something for critics to talk about. That’s something for audiences to talk about.”
5. What he believes is the most important thing to avoid as a writer:
“The worst crime you can commit is telling the audience something they already know.”
6. On the importance of respecting the rules established for the craft:
“There is a tendency to think that art is finally the place where there are no rules, where you have complete freedom. And I’m going to sit down at the keyboard and it’s just going to flow out of me onto the paper and it’s going to be pure art. No, what you are describing is finger painting. Rules are what makes art beautiful.”
7. And finally, he offers this reminder of how every project will become its own life form:
“You’re hardly ever going to end up with the thing you thought you were going to write at the beginning. It’s all going to be a little bit, or maybe a lot, different.”