6 Filmmaking Tips From Aaron Sorkin

By  · Published on July 5th, 2012

Aaron Sorkin gave us a counter-programmed President, and now he’s trying to imagine what the world of the press should have looked like over the past two years. Perhaps most known for creating TV shows like The West Wing and Sports Night, he’s also an Oscar winner who’s written 6 excellent films, starting with A Few Good Men.

His resume is one thing, but even it can’t really encapsulate why he’s an important figure in filmmaking. That’s more ephemeral, the kind of thing that comes with making a distinctive name for yourself through a particular style. There’s no denying that Sorkin’s writing can be picked out of a line up, and that’s one of the major reasons he’s become such an intractable part of popular culture even while rising above its lower regions.

Here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man who can handle the truth.

Compose Your Scenes Like Symphonies

Or any music at all really. When Sorkin recently used the opening scene from The Newsroom to explain how to write an Aaron Sorkin-style scene, his language was definitively orchestral.

“A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing – when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern. In the pilot of The Newsroom, a new series for HBO, TV news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) emotionally checked out years ago, and now he’s sitting on a college panel, hearing the same shouting match between right and left he’s been hearing forever, and the arguments have become noise. A student asks what makes America the world’s greatest country, and Will dodges the question with glib answers. But the moderator keeps needling him until…snap.”

The rest of the piece uses the actual script and Sorkin’s method to explain why he crafted the scene that way. The way it plays out on screen is a great display of the dramatic terrain that builds and releases tension before leading to a huge moment (which happens to introduce the character we’re focusing on). It’s an excellent primer. No matter whether it’s music or screenwriting, you don’t want a flat landscape that does nothing to build or utilize conflict in service of the harmony.

It’s Less Important That The Audience Knows What Characters Are Talking About

This seems to be a cousin of another tip:

“Trying to guess what the (mass) audience wants and then trying to satisfy that is usually a bad recipe for getting something good.”

The starting point should never be a giant audience, but there are also times when the exact words coming out of a character do more to color our view of who that person really is, even if we can’t understand what the hell they’re saying. After all, you wouldn’t have someone in a lab coat go on at length about “pouring science liquids into a science bottle,” would you? If you have a doctor, have her speak like one. If you have a corporate banker, have him speak like one. Don’t worry if the audience picks up on all the jargon.

They can always Google “Lupus” afterward.

Be Fueled By Terror

Obey Aristotle

“The rules are all in a sixty-four-page pamphlet by Aristotle called Poetics.It was written almost three thousand years ago, but I promise you, if something is wrong with what you’re writing, you’ve probably broken one of Aristotle’s rules.

How perfect. This is a must-own for all writers (and really all storytellers). It’s a guide, but as Sorkin points out, it’s also a diagnostic manual for what’s wrong with your writing. If you can’t get something to work, check the manual.

Where There’s Conflict, There’s a Story

“Any time you get two people in a room who disagree about anything, the time of day, there is a scene to be written. That’s what I look for.”

A man and a woman arguing over who left the toilet seat down. Two boxers angling to get the same title. Two dogs fighting over a bone.

There’s no point in writing a script where everything works out easily and everyone agrees. Whether it’s two leaders on the brink of war or two people who can’t agree on what time it is, find the conflict, and you’ll find the heart of the story.

Write What You Don’t Know

Guess who didn’t use Facebook or know anything about it? The guy who wrote the Facebook movie.

What Have We Learned

Don’t be afraid to talk up at the audience, a little terror is a great thing, and the rule book for writing was written in 335 BC. What’s most important here is not to ape Sorkin’s style, but to pay attention to the roots of dynamic writing in order to build and hone your own.

Research is the devil that’s only hinted at in these tips. It can’t be easy to write dialogue for a speech writer to the President or a pro-level Executive Producer of a sports program. It also can’t be easy to take a job writing about something you’ve never used before. Why it all works, is research. Getting to know intimately that world you’re bringing to life on the page. Unfortunately, we’ve all been trained to hate it like eating vegetables or the rest of the boring parts of school, but it is crucial in creating realistic characters that you haven’t personally come in contact with in real life.

Write what you don’t know, be highly technical, but make sure you put in the homework in order to make it work.

Also, maybe stay away from the hard stuff.

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Check out previous entries in our Filmmaking Tips series:

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.