I recently participated in Aaron Sorkin’s online screenwriting master class, which I highly recommend for any story writer — it is more about story than about the particularities of screenwriting.
Here are a few of my notes from the class, put here so I’ll be able to find them myself–and for the benefit of anyone who cares to read. Please keep in mind this is my take-away, and may or not bear any relation to what Sorkin actually said.
He starts — or at least my notes start — with a lovely anecdote about where details sometimes come from. He says for West Wing, a character’s true personalities often would come out when they were disappointed in the president, when their ideals met reality and reality won. He tells a story about Richard Schiff (Toby) wearing a wedding ring at rehearsal, and Sorkin saying he really hasn’t imagined Toby married, and Schiff saying “me neither.” Then why is Schiff wearing a wedding ring? Schiff: “So you can figure out why Toby wears a wedding ring.” Ultimately, this lead to the story line that Toby is divorced but still loves his ex and doesn’t want to take the ring off.
So a few Sorkin tips:
1. If you can engage the audience — let them fill in some of the space — that’s very satisfying for them. Remember they’re smart. If you can engage them and then give them a reversal that is a surprise even to those have been paying close attention, even better.
2. It’s ok to so something that would never happen if the audience doesn’t know it wouldn’t, but for the most part they will know. Don’t make the audience groan. It’s hard to get them back.
3. You have to walk the fine line between confusion and telling the audience something they already know.
4. The rulebook for writing … is Aristotle’s Poetics.
5. Three act structure: Act one you chase your protagonist up a tree. Act to you throw rocks at him. Act three you get them down from the tree — or not. His way down has to be set up in act one.
6. To make exposition work, you need it to be told to someone who knows as little as the audience.
7. A screenplay for a movie is typically 120-125 pages (more if heavy dialog). By p. 20 you need an inciting incident. The first 15 pages very important. The last 15 have to be great.
8. On writing: Most days he doesn’t. Of the 18-24 months it takes him to write a movie, all but a few are “bulking up” — research and “depression.”
9. He uses Final Draft.
10. Sometimes when he is stuck, he listens to music and drives. Sometimes he finds a song he wants to use as the score for a scene, and then works on it from there, trying to write the scene.
11. An probable impossibility is better than a possible improbability — ET following a line of peanut butter cups (impossible that there is ET, but if there were he would follow the pbcs) vs. turning on the radio at just the moment you need to hear the news you need to hear. If you MUST do the ladder, acknowledge it and use it to your advantage (e.g. humor — admit it and fly in the face of it).
12. Always try to get the real thing (e.g. how to disarm a bomb, medical info, etc.). It will usually be interesting, and if not you can just not use it. Specificity in dialog is especially important — get the real details so it will seem real.
13. Name all the characters before you send out script (not Waiter #2, but Jonathan) — for the dignity of the actor. (So the actor can say, “I got the part of Jonathan” rather than “I got the part of Waiter #2.”)
14. If you can tell a serious story funny, you’re winning.
15. On what’s funny: Odd numbers are funnier than even numbers. Words with a K in them are funny. Sorkin doesn’t use physical appearance as the source of comedy. The best joke is one you don’t see coming, that is set up early and pays off late, not just all in one moment.
16. “three things in a pile” (not sure I can explain this one – sorry!)
17. Write the minimum description necessary.
18. DIALOGUE is not how real people talk. Consider Rhythm. Like a symphony or opera, with arias, etc.
19. Perform dialogue to test it and look for speak-ability/rhythm and whether jokes land (fix or cut).
20. Add in idiosyncrasies (hiccoughs, false starts, stopping, um/ah), a line too far (don’t tell audience something they already know).
21. People talking all at once — dual or even triple dialogue (which has to be timed just right during rehearsals) — can be interesting.
22. Sometimes you WANT it awkward/stilted. Example: We were, you know, hung up in traffic. vs. We were, you know, we were hung up in traffic.
23. Alliteration, etc. — use it. It’s not just for English teachers anymore.