July 28, 2016

Why NYC is Better than LA and 9 Pieces of Screenwriting Advice from Aaron Sorkin's AMA

Aaron Sorkin doesn't write for stupid people and neither should you.

A few days ago, we premiered an exclusive clip from Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass in which we were treated to a few pieces of screenwriting advice as well as some of his trademark brand of witticism. To promote the launch of his class, he took to Reddit to conduct an AMA chock full of advice for aspiring screenwriters. Here are ten pieces of wisdom we can take to the bank.

1. Obstacle and intention are everything.

When asked what the one biggest mistake he sees from rookie screenwriters is, Sorkin made it clear that it's not just rookies who seem to ignore the most fundamental rule of screenwriting. "One of the biggest mistakes rookie screenwriters make is not having a strong intention or obstacle...Intention and obstacle is everything."

"Your character was born the moment the curtain goes up, the moment the movie begins, the moment the television show begins, and your character dies as soon as it's over."

He goes on to explain, "Intention and obstacle is what makes it drama. Somebody wants the money, they want the girl, they want to get to Philadelphia; it doesn't matter, they just need a strong intention, and then there needs to be a formidable obstacle. The tactic that your protagonist (or protagonists) use to overcome that obstacle is going to be your story. That's what you're gonna hang everything on. Without intention and obstacle, you're coming dangerously close to finger painting."

2. The only "rules of writing" that matter can be found in Aristotle's Poetics.

While keeping mind that obstacle and intention are paramount to the prolific screenwriter, one redditor made a point to find out if there was one "rule of screenwriting" that Sorkin found especially stupid.

"I assume that the people who watch movies and television shows are at least as smart as the people who make movies and television shows."

"There are real rules, and there are fake rules," Sorkin makes clear. "In 1970, a CBS executive famously said that there are four things you'll never see on television: a Jewish person, a divorced person, a person from New York City, or a person with a mustache. Obviously, that CBS executive had no idea what he was talking about, and those are the fake rules."

So where can we find the real rules? Like any true academic, Sorkin reveals the best place to start would be Aristotle's Poetics.

3. Dialogue can be employed rhythmically to get your audience engaged.

In Sorkin's opinion, the best audience to write for is an audience that is as smart or smarter than you are. "I assume that the people who watch movies and television shows are at least as smart as the people who make movies and television shows. If the dialogue makes you sit forward a little, and listen a little bit more, that's a good thing. It makes the audience active in the experience."

We also learned that his favorite "dialogue-driven film" is the Tony Kushner-penned Lincoln.

Daniel Day Lewis in 'Lincoln'

4. Don't worry too much about backstory.

Rather than fleshing out all the details of a character before he introduces them into a world, Sorkin lets the discoveries come to him. "I don't like to commit myself to anything in a character's backstory until I have to," he remarks. If you're looking for further reading on the subject of backstory, try David Mamet, he suggests. 

But, most of all, don't stress too hard, "You can get lost in the weeds if you sit down and try to create an entire biography for your character...Your character was born the moment the curtain goes up, the moment the movie begins, the moment the television show begins, and your character dies as soon as it's over. Your character only becomes seven years old when they say, "Well when I was seven years old, I fell in a well, and ever since then I've had terrible claustrophobia."

5. There's no such thing as an average amount of drafts.

This should probably be obvious, but your script is done when it's done, and there's no point in rushing through to make it imperfect just to have a "reasonable amount of drafts." Instead, Sorkin has developed a process.

Andrew Garfield in 'The Social Network'
"I keep writing and I keep writing; what I try to do at the beginning is just get to the end. Once I've gotten to the end, I know a lot more about the piece, and I'm able to go back to the beginning and touch stuff that never turned into anything, and highlight things that are going to become important later on. And I go back, and I keep doing that, and I keep doing that, and I'll retype the whole script, over and over again, just to make things sharper and sharper."

Television, however, demands a quick script. He explained, "Because there are hard air dates, there is no flexibility at all, so in television, we shoot my first draft."

6. NYC is better than LA.

Why?  "There are four different seasons, and not everybody fundamentally does the same thing I do for a living. When you’re a screenwriter, it’s the material that’s speaking for you." As an added bonus to living in the Big Apple, Sorkin recalls living in New York when he first started out. He would go to LA for meetings and was "considered exotic because he was there from New York" and "everybody wanted to meet with him because he was in town for only a few days."

"I think the conservatory training that I got as an actor is very helpful. I perform all the roles as I'm writing them."

7. Writer's block is the same for everyone, and there's no simple way to get rid of it.

Unfortunately, he's found "it can only be cured by having an idea."

8. Learning about acting could help you as a writer.

Though he's modest enough to admit that he never really was an actor in the first place, Sorkin did indeed study acting in college. When he came to New York, however, he knew that he wanted to be a writer. It was a good decision.

Michael Fassbender in 'Steve Jobs'

His education did help him become what is often referred to as an "actor's writer," and led to an unconventional writing technique. "I think the conservatory training that I got as an actor is very helpful. I perform all the roles as I'm writing them. I speak out loud, and that helps me do my best to make sure that the dialog is speakable by an actor."

9. DPs should get into writing.

One redditor mentioned that he was a DP by trade but looking to get into screenwriting. The trouble was that dialogue was dragging him down. Sorkin advised him that his experience as a DP would serve him well and should guide him through the writing process. "Already," he guaranteed, "you have a better visual sense than I do."

Sorkin suggested his own process of saying the words out loud while writing them and then translating that dialog into a visual scene once he's heard it out loud.

Sorkin's Screenwriting MasterClass, with plenty more insights like these, is available now.      

Your Comment

9 Comments

maybe it's better to live in New York for screenwriters. is that what was implied? I don't know if that would be good for other positions

July 28, 2016 at 4:20PM

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Haha. That DP question was from me. Can't express how helpful his masterclass has been.

July 28, 2016 at 4:37PM

3
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Or if you're stuck, just steal from yourself!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S78RzZr3IwI

July 28, 2016 at 5:18PM

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Steve chase
Director
127

Good job Jon! I attended the AMA, and this summarizes it perfectly.

July 28, 2016 at 7:53PM

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I find it offensive when anyone asserts that a given place is better than another place. Obviously, such a statement carries no weight. But it does reflect badly on the person who says it. Unless perhaps it was just a joke. (By way of full disclosure, I don't live in LA or NYC.)

July 28, 2016 at 10:38PM, Edited July 28, 10:38PM

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Murray Suid
screenwriter
81

I guess that was from the AMA but it is kind of weird, and not what he talks about in the class. He says that if you're wanting to do TV or Film go to LA. You want to do theater go to NY. He admits that theater is his comfort zone and where he started so maybe he just favors NY for that reason.

July 29, 2016 at 7:37AM

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I think for a storyteller of any kind, it's good to get out of your usual environment sometimes, wherever that is. He'd been in LA too long. He needed fresh perspectives. For me, I lived in LA for a long time, then I took 3 years for NY. Now, I'm back in LA. The NY time was well-spent, it was helpful to me in a lot of ways- career and personal- but I wouldn't say either is 'better'.

July 29, 2016 at 11:38AM

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avatar
Patrick Ortman
I tell stories. Sometimes for money. Sometimes, not.
733

Intention and obstacle are important. But if they are obvious they become a children's book. I thought Sorkin wanted to write for smart people. His writing is basically brilliance for teenagers. His scripts are never deep, nor thought-provoking. Just pop corn. Which is all that Lincoln was. Look at Atom Egoya films. Less obvious paths to resolving conflict.

July 28, 2016 at 10:45PM

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Daniel
154

He talks about this in the class. He outright admits that he's not smart. He doesn't write for smart people either. He admits that he's horrible at conflict outside of a person's "idea." He only writes about conflicting ideas and tries to give them equal weight to create drama.

July 29, 2016 at 7:34AM

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