Seven months ago, I signed up for the Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting MasterClass. I raced through the first several lessons, then that life thing happened. Aaron went the way of James Patterson, relegated to the bay window beside my desk, my current manuscript printed and tossed upon him with the hope he might read it while he waited for me to return.
He’s off the ledge now, and I’ve resumed the classes. In case anyone wonders, there has been no nose picking by Aaron thus far.
Lesson 01 – Introduction
My first impression of the class is a positive one. I find Aaron engaging and charming. He apologizes early on for not being an eloquent speaker, but I feel this “swerving all over the road” when he talks makes him personable and easy to listen to.
He begins by saying, “Writing, like any other art form … there are chunks of it that can be taught, and there are chunks of it that can’t be taught. So, we’re here for the parts that can be taught.”
Me: Ok. I’m here to learn!
Lesson 02 –Intention and Obstacle
Before anything, start with intention and obstacle. This is the most important thing in drama. “Without them, you’re screwed blue.”
Somebody wants something (intention). Something stands in their way (obstacle). The obstacle must be formidable, and the obstacle can’t be too easy to get out of.
Me: Aaron gives good examples of how quickly you should consider introducing the intention, depending upon whether you are writing a play, a movie, or a television show. I found this interesting and felt it was helpful to my own writing.
Lesson 03 – Story Ideas
There are two parts to having an idea:
1. Know what an idea is
2. You have to have it
You don’t have an idea until you can use the words BUT, EXCEPT, or AND THEN
It was a normal day like any other day, and then all of a sudden ….
Me: Aaron shares how he came up with some of his ideas and why some were great and others not so much. He even uses baseball metaphors. I liked all the stories he shared, but I especially liked this one:
His first television series was Sports Night (I loved that show!). He became addicted to watching Sports Center on ESPN. He’d watch it late at night while he was writing the movie, The American President (one of my favorite romantic comedies!). He’d stay up late at night writing the movie and turn on Sports Center to keep him company.
He thought that Sports Center place would be a fun place to work. Make friends there. Meet your girlfriend there. The thoughts in his head about Sports Center were all short stories. His agent told him that sounded like a television series, and that’s how Sports Night came to be.
Lesson 4 – Developing Characters, Part 1
You start with Intention and Obstacle AND Tactics.
When Aaron starts writing, he doesn’t have characters in his head. He starts with the intention and obstacle and the tactics used to overcome the obstacle in order to define what the character is going to be.
He shares examples from The Social Network and The West Wing to show all three – intention, obstacle, and tactic.
Lesson 5- Developing Characters, Part 2
I’ll share two gems from this lesson:
- Don’t write long biographies beginning when your character was five years old. Don’t say, “Here’s what this character would have eaten when they were five years old.” Because the character was never five years old. They were born at the age they are when the lights come up. The character only gets to be five years old if he says, “When I was five years old, I saw my father kill himself.” Then, and only then, the character was five years old.
Not from the class.
- I wouldn’t take out a yellow legal pad and a pen and start writing down character traits. None of that will come in handy. You do it because you think you’re supposed to do it. You feel like the more you write down on this legal pad, the more human the character is going to be. What’s going to happen is you’re going to have a scene where a guy or girl needs their parents to loan them money for something, and you’ve got this legal pad beside you, and you’re trying to figure out how to work creamy peanut butter into the scene, because you think that will make your character more human. FORGET IT! Forget that stuff!
Me: I love the legal pad advice. I’ve read numerous times that we should write biographies of our characters, complete with character traits, and I simply can’t do it (don’t want to is more like it).
This lesson also includes:
– Write Characters, Not people (I think I have this down pat. I love writing characters! Mama!)
– Writing Characters Unlike Yourself
– Identify with Your Anti-Heroes
– The Actor will Complete the Character
Lesson Six – Research
There are two types of Research when writing:
- The nuts and bolts Research. Find out how many nuts and bolts were used to make The Golden Gate Bridge. This is “hard” research.
- The other type is when you don’t know what you’re looking for yet, and it’s research where you’re trying to find the movie.
Talk to people. You never know where a cool story is going to come from. They’ll refer you to other people.
Sub-topics in this lesson:
– How to Interview
– Meaningless Research (interesting examples here)
Lesson Seven – Incorporating Research
Q. How do you incorporate research into writing?
A. It depends on what you find out.
Locate a problem in your research and start writing about it.
When it comes to dialogue, Aaron has written technical lines without knowing what they meant, but because of the research, he knew the words were correct. You get the story and some dialogue from research. You get to use what you want – and not use what you don’t want.
Aaron says the more important truth is that there is an inner moral compass if you are writing non-fiction. There is lying all through your writing. People don’t speak in dialogue. Lives don’t play out in a series of scenes that form a narrative.
If you are telling a true story, especially if the people are still alive, take the Hippocratic Oath – first do no harm. Do not do (write) something that changes the fundamental truth.
Aaron shares a great story here about something as simple as a beer in The Social Network.
Lesson Eight – The Audience
You want as much as you can for the audience to be a part of what’s going on. Treat them like they are smart, because they are.
Don’t lose the audience. He gives an example of a television movie with a scene that rang false. If you make an audience groan, it’s hard to get the audience back.
He shares a moment that doesn’t work in the movie A Few Good Men (my husband loves that movie!) and says if you put confusion in the mix, even a tiny little bit of confusion, the audience will be apprehensive.
Me: When I took the James Patterson MasterClass on Writing, I found him to be passionate and motivating, which in itself was worth the price of the class. I gleaned many good tidbits, but I had already picked up the majority of the information from writers’ forums.
Aaron Sorkin’s class is different. The material is presented as if you are writing for the screen, and by sharing so many stories from movies, plays, and television shows he has written, I find there is more material for me to consider in my own writing.
You won’t believe me when I say (and I don’t blame you!) I’ll be back with Part II soon, but I will!
Have you taken Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass? If you have, what did you think? If not, stay tuned. I’ll be gifting a class after I’ve finished the thirty-five lessons and shared some of my notes and thoughts.