September 11, 2017
TIFF 2017

3 Lessons We Learned From Aaron Sorkin's Master Class at TIFF

If Sorkin hadn't been broke, alone and stuck in an apartment with no entertainment besides a typewriter, we may never have experienced some of the greatest scenes of stage and screen.

Aaron Sorkin's track record on TV and in the movies speaks for itself, and so when he joined Kerri Craddock, TIFF's Director of Programming, for an hour-long master class about his long career, there was a full house in Toronto. Watch the whole thing here, or read three of the most interesting and useful points he shared below.

 "If the only thing holding me back is the speed at which I type, then it's going well."

1. Do away with unnecessary stuff

Before A Few Good Men was a movie, it was Sorkin's first play. The rights were acquired quickly, and he was brought on to adapt the work into a screenplay, though, as he recounted, "I'd never written a screenplay, I'd never read a screenplay." Though he loved movies, he was ignorant of screenplays and so, "I went to...a book shop and I found a screenplay formatting book...after about three days, I threw it out the window because I was thinking, this just can't be right."

Sorkin recalled that in the days before Final Draft screenwriting softwarethere was very little in the way of screenplay instruction, and so he got a copy of William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade, which helped to orient him (Goldman later become a mentor for Sorkin), and then he read the scripts that the studio sent over, knowing he was working on his first screenplay assignment. Sorkin explained, "A lot of screenplays...we don't write things that are meant to be read, we write things that are meant to be performed."

Sorkin felt the scripts he read were more like "blueprints," dry and uninvolving, but when he read Goldman's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid script, it was a different experience. "[Goldman] wanted you to have the experience while reading....So he did away with unnecessary stuff, like 'cut to', for instance." Sorkin said he only used the direction in his work when there was a "rhythmic reason," and then whenever someone was reading his work, he wanted them to "come as close to the experience that you're going to feel in the theater as possible." 

2. Start writing in dialogue

Before he was a writer, Sorkin was an actor, and he recalled staying at a friend's house in his youth before he had even started writing. At the time, not "having three dollars" to his name, he was in an apartment where the only way to amuse himself was to use a friend's old typewriter. Since that was the only thing to do at the time "for entertainment," he found himself sitting at the typewriter with a piece of paper one night, and suddenly, out of nowhere, writing in dialogue. That was the night, he said, when "I fell in love with the sound of my own voice." The audience laughed, but for Sorkin fans (and detractors alike), it's his singular voice that defines much of what the writer does. After that night, Sorkin called some friends over and asked them to read what he had written out loud. "They were very encouraging," he remembered, and so the budding writer had his first story. 

"I fell in love with the sound of my own voice."

The point Sorkin was making is that whether by hook or by crook, by design or serendipity, every writer must find his or her own voice, and that, if they are lucky enough to do so, it will feel right immediately. In Sorkin's case, he began writing plays, culminating with A Few Good Men, which was turned into the Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson hit film that spawned an immortal catchphrase and jumpstarted Sorkin's career—all because there was only a typewriter in his house, and nothing to do. When he found that he liked writing in dialogue, Sorkin pursued it doggedly, and, it must be said, quite successfully.

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network
Jesse Eisenberg in 'The Social Network'.Credit: Merrick Morton, Columbia TriStar

3. Obstacles plus tactics equals character

When blocked, Sorkin would sometimes famously indulge in substances. Luckily, Sorkin went into rehab after Carrie Fisher (whom he had never met) called him out of the blue, telling him that was he clean, he'd certainly write better, and she helped Sorkin get treatment for his substance abuse. Once he was clean, Sorkin became exceptionally prolific with a dogged work ethic, though at times even he fell victim to writer's block (and his old demons occasionally, by his own admission). But Sorkin explained, "The thing for me about writer's block is that it's just time, doing its thing... I stop. If the only thing holding me back is the speed at which I type, then it's going well. If it's coming out like ketchup out of the bottle, it's not. It means that it's not okay. It means that you haven't nailed down...the scene." It meant, to him, that he hadn't figured out the objective, that is, what the character wants.

For Sorkin, this fundamental precept is paramount, as it is a first principle of good dramatic writing in general. "Someone wants something, they want the money, they want the girl...they want to open a bottle of ketchup," he said, but as long as there is a formidable obstacle in their way, and a set of tactics that someone uses to get what they want, Sorkin would find his characters. And characters (and how they articulate who they are and what they want), as anyone who has watched one of his famous walk-and-talk sequences can tell you, are key to Sorkin's writing.

This is an instructive, entertaining talk, and anyone interested in the art of writing for the screen would do well to spend an hour with Aaron Sorkin. Be sure to check out Sorkin's complete talk, and check back for more NFS coverage of TIFF 2017.


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Aaron says all of these things in his online Master Class (which I've taken) and a great deal more which supports and expands on these points. The most interesting thing to me that really helps in terms of characterization is the formula of obstacles + tactics = character. It seems so obvious, yet it's important that it's said aloud so that the thought enters your mind when creating and refining your story. A street corner loaded with people waiting for the signal to change witness a car accident. Some people turn around immediately and go the other way, fearful of seeing something unsettling. Some people immediately call 911. Some people go up to the vehicles and/or pedestrians to see if they're alright. How a person handles a situation directly correlates to what kind of person they are so, when in doubt, I think of how I'd want a character to react to a situation/person/thing, in comparison to how someone different from them would react. This form of thinking has made writing characters for me phenomenally easier.

September 12, 2017 at 3:38PM

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Andrew Sellers
Writer/Director/Assistant Camera
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