Aaron Sorkin is widely considered to be one of the best screenwriters working right now. But guess what—he struggles just like everyone else.
Aaron Sorkin is probably the most famous screenwriter in the world. I mean, aside from me, he's the only other one my parents can name. Sorkin made his mark on Broadway, in television, and films. He's an incredible writer who has his own style on the page and on the stage.
Characterized by his sharp wit, smart characters, and lengthy speeches, Sorkin became a household name with shows like The West Wing, movies like The Social Network, and countless rewrites and punch-ups in between.
He was recently interviewed by The New York Times where he described his process and the state of the industry today.
Check out the full interview with The New York Times and stick around for some of the best quotes and our reactions.
5 Quotes About Aaron Sorkin's Writing Process and Beliefs (with Our Reactions)
How to Dramatize Your Character's Struggle
The New York Times asked Sorkin how he dramatizes his characters' struggle to "try to understand people and ideas with which they disagree," and Sorkin replied, "I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’ve mastered anything, but there are a couple of things I know now that maybe I didn’t know when I was starting. To begin with, I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something, and something is standing in their way of getting it. They want the money; they want the girl; they want to get to Philadelphia. Then the obstacle to that has to be formidable, and the tactics they use to overcome that obstacle are what shows us the character."
We talk a lot here about artistic intention. When you're dealing with a master, you know their intentions will always be clear. We usually know what their characters want, so I think the joy in reading and watching their work comes from the creative uses of obstacles. For Sorkin, the way he develops characters is to put them in a tight bind and see them get their way out of it.
Is it Bad to Tell the Audience Something They Already Know?
The New York Times then discussed HBO's The Newsroom, asking Sorkin how to handle stories in which the audience knows more than the characters. Sorkin said, "We knew at the beginning of Titanic that the ship is not going to be making it to New York Harbor. The Newsroom was an experiment with setting a show in the very recent past, which I did because I didn’t want to invent news that would make it seem as if we’re not living in the same world as the audience. I think some people got the impression with The Newsroom that my agenda was to show the professionals how they should have done it. The Newsroom was nothing like that. It was a workplace show, showing people struggling to do the right thing. An episode of The Newsroom never hung on: You think they’ll get bin Laden? It was: Here’s what happened behind the scenes in this fictional place when those events happened."
In the advent of biopics and properties based on the public domain where everyone knows what happens, it can be hard to conceal your endings. What you wind up selling is the journey the characters go on and how that makes people feel. Sure, I think there's an element of nostalgia in that, the way you felt when these actual events unfolded, but the benefit of hindsight is the inherent drama of what's going on inside the story. The competitive advantage writers have is their distinct point of view. What's yours?
How Do You Know When Your Screenwriting Goals Have Been Met?
When asked how he knows when his "goals" have been reached when he's writing a screenplay, he says, "It goes like this: You start with a feeling about an interesting workplace, whether it’s a cable newsroom or the White House. Getting that feeling, that idea, from your head to the page to the screen is like trying to walk from here to there with water in your hands. By the time you get to there, there’s not going to be much water left. But every once in a while, if you collaborate with great people, not only do you get from here to there with a lot of that water left, it turns into champagne by the time you’ve done it. Now, your question began by your suggesting that what I seem to like more—and if you’re suggesting this, you’re right—is writing the difference not between good and bad but between good and great. I like writing heroes without capes, like in The West Wing, though it wasn’t just a fantasy. I like writing those stories—and Atticus Finch’s is also an example—because it makes us feel as though greatness is achievable. We’re not waiting for somebody to appear out of the sky and save the world. This is all achievable, and that is something that tends to elevate the human spirit, which is a feeling that we like when we’re sitting in a dark theater."
It's so hard for us to determine when something we work on is "done." We know that a screenplay is almost never finished. You work on it in the edit and it changes on set with the actors as well. Later, writing gets the blame for a bad movie and is overshadowed by everything else in a good one. So at the end of the day, we have goals we set for ourselves. They may be awards or other accolades but I usually set mine on the feeling the audience gets from going on a journey with me. If I'm in control and they feel the way I want them to feel, then I think it's a success.
"What would be an example of a pebble in your shoe when it comes to writing?"
Sorkin tells The New York Times, "If I’m writing a movie or a play and it’s not going well, I can call whoever it is who’s waiting for it and say, 'I know I said I was going to deliver it at the beginning of the summer. It’s probably going to be closer to the end of summer,'—and they’ll understand. Even if they don’t understand, there’s nothing they can do about it. With television, you have air dates that you have to meet. Which means you have to write even when you’re not writing well. Then you have to take that script and put it on the table for the cast and crew. Then you’ve got to point a camera at it and show it to everybody. And that’s series television.
For Sorkin, deadlines can feel like a bit of a nuisance. Truly, the biggest difference between movies and television is how fast TV moves. You're in a constant state of writing and production. Film feels like it can take forever. The "pebble in the shoe" is the irritant. We all hate deadlines because they can feel like they rush us, but as someone constantly breaking in, I want to make sure I ALWAYS hit my deadlines. Companies are usually understanding if something bad comes up, but if you promise a draft in 3 months, deliver that draft. You're not Sorkin.
How is the Film and TV Business Affecting Professional Screenwriters?
The New York Times digs into how the entertainment industry seems to be changing due to "TV's turn toward streaming and film studios' obsession with pre-existing intellectual property." When asked if it affects him personally, Sorkin says, "Here’s how the business changed: With the exception of A Few Good Men, because of Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in military uniforms, I don’t think any movie I've ever written would be made today, and I’m including The Social Network, which won all kinds of Oscars and was a financial hit. Now it’s much easier to get a $100 million movie made than a $30 million movie made, and I tend to write $30 million movies in which there is very little of visual interest and which feature a lot of people talking. So there are $3 million movies and there are Marvel movies, and we’re starting to lose everything in between. But every movie we see a clip from in some Oscar retrospective reel—except for Titanic and "I’m the king of the world"—is from the in-between movies. Once we make those the domain of streaming services, we’re losing something important, which is audiences. Nothing will ever replace the experience of strangers sitting in a dark theater, experiencing it together, laughing at the same time."
I do think we are in a bleak world when it comes to those Sorkin movies. They're all pretty much become TV shows. Now, if you want to enjoy a drama about adults, you'll watch a mini-series or something on streaming. I don't know if this is a bubble that will burst, but it's hard to see things changing. What's more likely is that thirst or this content will drive streamers to find these kinds of stories and release them straight to their platforms, and not spend on ads.
While that sounds depressing, it should not deter you from writing those kinds of stories. Just be realistic about who is making them and at what price point.
What's next? Learn how Sorkin creates compelling characters!
Aaron Sorkin may be famous for his dialogue, but this video argues that his character development goes deeper than just talk.
Keep reading for more.