MasterClass – Aaron Sorkin Screenwriting Spark Notes

From: (emphasis added)

HOW TO BE A WRITER Write. Be writing be writing be writing be writing. Everything after this helps, but won’t if you aren’t writing.

WHAT IS DRAMA? “If you don’t have intention and obstacle, it’s ‘Journalism’ ”

Drama requires Intention (or Goal/Desire/Want) and an Obstacle to that Intention. Without a strong Intention – and a formidable Obstacle, you don’t have drama. “Somebody wants something, there’s something standing in their way of getting it” The TACTICS a character uses in order to achieve their Intention, despite their obstacle/s… is what will define to us (the audience) who that person is.

Be sure to PRESS on the intention and obstacle. Make sure both are strong. Do this when you’re outlining/drafting whatever. ALSO do it IN the story.

Your protagonist doesn’t HAVE to overcome the obstacle. All that matters, is that they TRY. Again, it’s via the tactics they’ll be using to TRY, which will show us who they are. All we care about, is learning WHO this person is.

How do you make clear what a character’s intention is? Simple: make the character say what it is that they need/want.

Conflict isn’t just knuckle-boxing. Conflict can be a war of IDEAS. And you want the competing ideas to be equally strong.

The old adage goes: “Queen Dies and King Dies.” These are a series of events. “Queen Dies, so then King dies of broken heart”. This is a STORY. “Queen Dies, and after SERIOUS CONFLICT, the King dies of a broken heart.” is DRAMA. This 3rd telling is what you want. Not event. Not even just story. You want DRAMA.

HOW TO BEGIN: START with intention and obstacle. The details and bits and pieces will come up as you go…

Be sure you identify with both the HERO/s and ALSO the antihero/s (example, Nicholson’s character in a few good men). However you invent the villain’s argument, when you’re done… REALLY believe it. Otherwise it’ll play like a caricature.

AUDIENCE: The audience is an element in the storytelling – they WANT to participate. If you can get the audience to BELIEVE they are several steps ahead of you, and then you STILL TRICK THEM, they are actually very delighted, rather than pissed.

“If you give the audience all the clues that Sherlock Holmes has… and they can’t figure it out, but HE can… that is a DELIGHT to them.”

Don’t lose the audience: we know if our BONES if something is being told to us when it wouldn’t be (a lawyer giving his client info as they walk into the courtroom, day-of the trail is ridiculous). You CAN do something which would never happen, as long as the audience doesn’t KNOW it would never happen).

It’s a fine line you have to walk. You cannot confuse the audience. But you also cannot patronize the audience. Telling the audience something which they already know… feels AWFUL.

Audiences don’t know the specifics of why they like or don’t like things. But THEY KNOW WHAT THEY LIKE OR DISLIKE. It’s the same as a Chef knowing what is or isn’t working in their food precisely, and a hungry person knowing that they hate or love your food. You both know how you feel about it. Only the writer REALLY has a chance of knowing WHY.

STAKES: you want stakes to be high. Sometimes it’ll be obvious why they’re high. Other times, you have to convey WHY to your character the stakes are so high (e.g. Steve Jobs… why are his personal goals/dreams such high stakes? Why does it fee like life/death to Steve Jobs… that a square have rounded edges? Convey THAT… to help us feel the stakes)

EXPOSITION: You need to find a character or more than one… who knows as little as the audience does, to give a reason to explain things to us. If you ever start a sentence with “As you know…” you’re in trouble.

BIG DRAMATIC MOMENTS: Make sure when the audience is asking questions about huge dramatic moments, you choose properly whether to withhold or answer now. You can’t just totally ignore that the audience is asking the questions.

WHEN TRYING TO PULL OFF SOMETHING SLIGHTLY IMPLAUSIBLE: “A probable impossibility is preferable, to a possible improbability.” The get out of jail free card: is ADMIT it’s improbable (E.T. walking down a path to collect M&M’s is technically impossible… but we believe it – a person flipping on the radio to hear special news about exactly the problem they’re dealing with right now is possible, but super unlikely).

IN THE READ: Calling unimportant characters “necklace” and “mustache” works well for the read. BUT WHEN SENDING TO ACTORS: give those people REAL names, for dignity.

ACTION: Make your action paragraphs WHENEVER POSSIBLE read as quick as they’ll be seen visually. Don’t get mired down in overwriting the action. Find ways to be QUICK.

WRITING SCENES: All stories have motion. At the end of a scene, you MUST be one step further than the scene before.

CHARACTER INTRODUCTION SCENES: Show us what the character wants. If a character doesn’t want ANYTHING, they’re probably cluttering up your script and should get cut. Even supporting characters want SOMETHING.

A courtroom drama is a GREAT way to play out a scene – the jury stands in for the audience, the whole point of the trial is to make the intention and the obstacle super clear. And the stakes are obvious… guilty/not guilty.

Don’t tell us who a character is. WHO they are is portrayed by what they WANT, and the TACTICS they will use to get what they want.

3 THINGS IN A PILE: In Steve Jobs scene, there are 3 levels of personalty happening: Andy’s sheepish denial of Steve being a dick, Steve IS being a dick, and Kriss-Ann getting a jab saying Steve’s a dick. Aaron calls this “3 things in a pile”.

DIALOGUE: Do NOT imitate real people!! Example, ‘dammit’ – it never gets used to begin or end a sentence. God-Dammit yes. Just Dammit? Absolutely God-Damn doesn’t.

Don’t tell the audience something they already know. (if someone has said I LOVE YOU, then there’s no need to say it again)

DRAFTS: Chip away anything that isn’t the main conflict (e.g. Kushner’s/Spielberg’s LINCOLN… it was 400 pages, before it became JUST about the 13th amendment)

Kill your darlings – if it works WITHOUT your special thing, CUT your special thing (only people like the Coen brothers get to keep their special things… e.g. the scene in Fargo with Mike Yanagita… tonally it fits, but otherwise it’s completely unnecessary. If you aren’t the Coen brothers, you must CUT those sorts of scenes).

WHEN GETTING NOTES: Address the problem they point out, not their “solution”. Someone can offer what they believe is going on… but you should look directly at the ACTUAL problem as closely as possible (someone says “I don’t think the structure of the 2nd act works!” and you say to yourself, ‘well, I want the 2nd act to be enjoyable… so THAT’s the problem, 2nd act is somehow not enjoyable… it might be structural, but it MIGHT be something else’)

When getting notes from friends, Aaron’s hoping no one says “I don’t buy the obstacle” or “I don’t buy the intention” – “why does she NEED to do this?” THAT note is super important if you get it. If you get it, FIX THAT ISSUE.

CONSIDER: retyping it completely – once from the existing screenplay. Once from MEMORY. Aaron does this.


Rule of thumb: if it’s the PLACE you’re attracted to… your idea can be a TV show.

BALLS IN THE AIR: (loose ends) Stuff that hasn’t been dealt with yet… think of story in bits and pieces (president’s wife is missing, that’s a ball in the air… news story is about to come out, ball in the air…). You can label the balls, probably with index cards, to get a better handle on them when writing and revising.

THE SHAPE OF TV EPISODES: Figure out the shape within the beginning / end of each act (there are 4-5 in drama), e.g. “resolve the Zoe thread by end of act 2”

Don’t lose site of the COOL stuff u can do when making it up. (e.g. West Wing modeling Trump becoming president and stuff deteriorating). Show us stuff we haven’t seen before. SHOW US STUFF WE HAVEN’T SEEN BEFORE.

Create rifts, to create the drama.

We can LOOK for the very extraordinary dramatic things (suspending trading on the stock exchange… huge drama)

Whenever possible, characters should be ACTIVE. What are they DOING??

WHEN WRITING ACTUAL DIALOGUE: Specificity. Matters hugely. Know what people would say. You have luxury of time to RESEARCH and ensure they sound great/pro/intelligent. They can sound SMARTER than you ARE.

TV SHOWS HOOKING AN AUDIENCE: Plays are tough to leave. Movies are easier. TV is easiest. That’s why you’ll be asked by a network to prevent them from FLIPPING the channel.


PICK your FAVORITE 5 MOVIES – go get the screenplay – SEE how what’s there on-screen looked like on the page.

Know who to tune out. Don’t write to change someone’s mind. If a critic (external or internal) cites some issue, don’t address it. It’s impossible to please everyone.

Know who to tune in. Have 3 close friends you can share work with to get GOOD feedback.

Failure: the real value of screenwriting school is it gives you a chance to write the worst stuff you’ll ever write, with no consequence.

1) take chances, that’s how you’ll find out what your sweet spot it.

2) write in your own voice… NOT the way you personally talk, but rather the way YOU want to write… not worrying you don’t sound like Aaron or Diablo or anyone else.

3) write WHAT you want to write. Don’t be asking what others wanna see. What do YOU want to see?

4) When you’re writing, you’re exposed. It’s not just when you write autobiographically. It’s anything. Because it’s YOUR mind and heart.

5) There are a hundred ways to prepare beef. Flank. Filet Mignon. Wellington. But if you try to make the one which will offend the least number of people, it’ll be a McDonald’s hamburger. If you want to be a chef, you don’t aim to produce THAT.

6) Surround yourself with honest people. They can be encouraging AND honest.

7) Shed people who are jealous, envious.

8) Power through days of not being able to write anything. I wish I could guarantee movement in life – that friday evening you’ll be better off than on Monday morning. But I can’t. So power through.

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