Aaron Sorkin is one of the most celebrated and accomplished writers working in Hollywood at the moment. He writes for film, TV, and theatre. He is the creator of “West Wing” and “The Newsroom” and the scriptwriter behind “The Social Network” and “Steve Jobs”. In 2017 he directed Jessica Chastain in “Molly’s Game”, which I personally loved.
Since I really like his writing style and him as a writer, I’ve decided to put together some of his top tips for other writers and screenwriters.
AARON SORKIN’S GENERAL TIPS ABOUT SCRIPTWRITING
1. In order to create a solid screenplay, focus on developing strong intention and obstacle in your story. That will help you create friction and tension you need to hold the audiences’ attention. Once you have a strong, formidable intention and obstacle, you’re ready to write at least the first scene.
2. Define the intention and obstacle of the first scene you are going to write. Use index cards to map out the next few scenes. Focus on progress, while setting milestones for yourself to complete at the end of each working day (it will help you progress from one scene to another).
3. If you are writing for a feature film, you have a few minutes to introduce your intention and obstacle. If you are writing for a TV show, you can’t waste any time and need to introduce intention and obstacle right away.
4. To keep your story compelling and believable, make sure the stakes in the character’s life are high, urgent, and believable.
5. Make sure you have a story before you sit down and start writing. You don’t have a story unless an obstacle has been introduced and now there’s conflict.
6. If your character metaphorically “dies” at the end, consider writing a feature film.
7. If location is what attracts you to the story or drives the story, consider turning this idea into a TV show. The workplace setting will allow for enough stories and characters to carry on and develop through many seasons.
8. The characters are defined by the way they overcome the obstacles that are thrown in their way.
9. A character is born from the intention and obstacle. A character wants something (intention) but something stands on the way of them getting (obstacle) what they want.
10. Don’t write unnecessary character bios, just focus on their intention, obstacle and the conflict that this creates.
11. By believing in the anti-heroes’ point-of-view, it will be easier for you to identify with those characters and make them authentic villains.
12. To create believable scripts, always use a probable impossibility.
13. As a creator you are able to see the whole story, but you have to remember that your audience won’t, so try not to confuse them and lose them in that confusion. You need to make sure that the intention and obstacles between the main characters are properly shown in the scene. Otherwise, you may unnecessarily confuse your audience.
14. Try to surprise your audience in unexpected ways. Going for the obvious in the scene, sometimes is not the best solution.
15. Give the minor characters real names.
16. Have confidence in your story and your writing. This is the key to writing with conviction.
17. Most importantly, write what you like, and write like yourself.
AARON SORKIN ON WRITING FILM STORY ARC
1. Keep the stakes of your drama high by strengthening and pressing on your intentions and obstacles.
2. Exposition is the first part of the drama. One way to get through exposition is to have one character early on a stand-in for the audience, so that character can ask questions the audience may have of the main character.
3. After setting up the exposition, introduce the story’s main conflict with the inciting action/incident. Aaron says that you should introduce the inciting action on page 20 or 25. If you haven’t introduced the inciting action between page 20–25, you are in big trouble.
4. Use page numbers as road signs to know if you’ve hit a certain milestone in your script.
5. While setting up your story arc, you must make the first 15 pages the most memorable. This is how many pages the reader will read before forming an opinion about your script.
6. According to Aaron this is what needs to happen in each act:
- Act 1: You chase your hero up a tree.
- Act 2: You throw rocks at them.
- Act 3: You get them down (or not).
AARON SORKIN ON WRITING SCENES
1. Ask yourself these questions:
– What does the scene accomplish?
– What a character wants and does to overcome obstacles? Define who the character is.
2. The scene will always work if the conflict is clear.
3. Each scene needs to accomplish something and move the plot forward.
4. Not every scene needs to have a dramatic ending, but you should feel satisfied with how the scene ends.
5. If you struggle with writing the scene, go back to the previous one and try to answer a question posed in that scene.
6. You should grab your audience as soon as possible. Dropping your audience in the middle of a conversation will force them to pay attention and play catch up.
7. You may find laying out the entire movie right in the first scene truly satisfying.
8. While introducing the character for the first time, show your audience what the character wants. In reality, if they don’t want anything, it is just cluttering up your screenplay.
9. A great scene clearly shows each character’s intention and obstacles; the exposition is laid out without impeding the story, and the stakes are high and clear.
AARON SORKIN ON WRITING CAPTIVATING DIALOGUE
1. Dialogue is the most personal part of writing.
2. Try saying your dialogue aloud to hear how it lands.
3. You are in the business of writing things that are meant to be performed, not read.
AARON SORKIN ON REWRITES
1. Before you attempt any re-writes, get to the end of your first draft.
2. Re-writes should be focused on fixing the script, not on tackling problems such as developing the story, which you should do in your first draft.
3. In your re-write/s you should start chipping away anything that isn’t related to the main conflict.
4. It is hard to “kill your darlings”, but sometimes you need to chop away your favourite lines and moments.
5. When receiving notes, be careful who you listen to. You can rely on some people to spot a problem, but unless you’re talking to someone who’s smart, understands scripts, and understands the way you write, take their notes with a grain of salt.
6. For those who may have opinions about your script, but aren’t necessarily informed script editors, don’t just disregard their comments. Use their opinions as a sign of a problem that still needs to be fixed.
AARON SORKIN ON RESEARCH
1. The nuts-and-bolts research is specific and leads to hard facts about a place, a subject, or a person.
2. Then there is the research done when you are breaking the plot of a movie.
3. Avoid meaningless research and look for nuggets that can lead to an engaging plot point.
4. When talking to experts, use open-ended questions like: “Tell me something I don’t know about…”
AARON SORKIN ON AUDIENCE
1. The audience doesn’t want to be a casual observer of the movie.
2. The audience wants to participate.
3. The audience wants to be given the same clues as everyone in your film and to be putting things together in their head.
4. If you’re able to surprise them with a reversal they didn’t see coming, you’ve given them a very satisfying experience.
5. Treat your audience as intelligent and don’t lose them by writing something that may seem unbelievable.
6. You can also lose an audience, if you confuse them, even the smallest confusion can ruin the experience.
AARON SORKIN ON PITCHING
1. Are the intention and obstacle for your story and main characters believable, and compelling enough?
2. Is your story clearly understandable and not confusing your audience/readers?
3. Other things to keep in mind while pitching:
- The pilot should be clear in your head.
- If you are pitching a TV show, be able to describe several episodes down the line and the arc of the season. Is each episode dealing with a new crisis of the day like “The West Wing?” Or is each episode building on a longer-term goal, like “Silicon Valley?”
- Where will it be shot? What is the location?
- Be prepared to answer questions from executives like, “Will there be a love interest for your characters?” (especially when you are pitching TV show)