Random notes from the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass

I recently plunked down $90 for the online Aaron Sorkin Masterclass. It was well worth it. I figured ninety bucks is about ten trips to Starbucks – and there you’re forced to listen to screenwriters give advice whether you want it or not. Might as well listen to Aaron Sorkin, right? I took notes as I watched the class. Below are the paraphrased ideas and suggestions that jumped out at me. Hope these random words of wisdom inspire you.

"Without intention and obstacle you have no drama. In fact, a story without intention & obstacle is not drama -- it's journalism."

"Characters are defined by how they overcome intention and obstacle. Write characters, not people. Identify with anti-heroes; don't judge them."

“The audience is a participant – don’t cheat them; they will notice. Scenes that don’t land are like a pebble in their shoe.”

“Avoid confusion – ‘Did you understand it?’ is a fair question to ask; and your goal of a scene.”

“There’s a balance between ‘not confusing them’ and the sin of ‘telling the audience what they already know.’”

“Don’t skip over crucial cliffhangers – they need resolve.”

“In the West Wing, press briefings were used as a way to convey exposition and bring the view up to speed.” (Find a device like that in your own scripts, etc.)

“The West Wing was at its best when all the characters are talking to one another as opposed to showing external events such as a bombing in Iran.  Shows are about the cast interacting…”

“Reversals are very important. List the reversals in your script and analyze them…”

(I GOOGLED THIS INFO ON “REVERSAL IN A SCRIPT”):  “You’ve seen it about a thousand times: the ‘reversal of expectations scene.’ A character enters a scene expecting a certain, very clear outcome. However, another character surprises him. This surprise influences the first character to reverse his intention and do something else - usually the opposite of what he planned to do.

Yes, reversal scenes are in just about every movie... and for good reason, too. The reversal scene allows for a character to change his motivation or goal. For this reason, these scenes usually happen in real time (lasting about three to four minutes), allowing the audience to experience the full change or realization with the character.

But reversal scenes are not only about character growth. They can also be about thickening the plot with twists and turns that keep the audience guessing, often revealing even deeper, darker secrets. For this reason, many of the greatest reversal scenes happen during the third act, often referred to as the “Third-Act Twist.” (End of GOOGLE NOTES)

“If something doesn’t work, figure out why! – The only rules are the rules of drama…”

“FILMSTORY ARC – Act 1: Chase your character up a tree; Act 2: Throw rocks at them; Act 3: You get them down – or not.  Now, if you get then down, the TOOL needed to achieve that better have been shown in Act 1.”

“STAKES: We need to feel it!”

“EXPOSITION: This is tricky – You need one character who knows just as little as or less than what the audience knows.  An example of this is found in a courtroom drama through the JURY.”

“Make sure you can clearly identify the inciting incident; the action that sets the story in motion.”

“Page Numbers are like road signs: Don’t travel too far without introducing the main character, etc.”

“The first 15 pages are the most important part of the script – it needs to grab the reader and make them invested in going further, etc.”

“The last 15 minutes of a movie are key – as a viewer will forgive the weaker scenes before it if they leave the theater satisfied that their investment in time has paid off.”

WRITING HABITS – “BULK UP TO WRITE! -- A year of not writing while you’re doing heavy research is possible. Most days you don’t’ write, but when you finally do: WOW!”

“Know your first scene: Think Mark’s date in The Social Network; The diner scene in Pulp Fiction, etc. Scenes that will launch you into your story.”


“Action lines – make sure they read in real-time.”

“Probable impossibility / improbable possibilities:   Accordingly, the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities. The tragic plot must not be composed of irrational parts.”

"Writing opening scenes – Theme / Tone /Dialogue … that GRABS YOU!"

SCENE TIP:  “Start in the middle of a conversation.”

“CHARACTER INTRO SCENES: Show what they want…  Think ‘The Social Network’ – Mark wants to belong to the final clubs; to be part of the ‘elite.’”

DISSECTING A SCENE – “STEVE JOBS” -- “Three things in a pile: Conflict / Intention & Obstacle / Stakes”

Draw from you own perspective is the new version of “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.”

“The least teachable aspect of screenwriting is writing captivating dialogue.”

“Dialogue is like music – the cadence; the call back; the pace; the answer and reply…”

“Don’t imitate how real people talk – who cares.  Real people are idiots at times.  Characters should feel like real (unique) people who are captivating.”

“Be physical when writing dialogue.”

“Don’t tell the audience what they already know – or tell them the same thing two times.”

“The West Wing… Dialogue was often like music: the cadence – characters repeating other characters dialogue back at them.”  (EXAMPLE – Scene between Martin Sheen and James Brolin at the Opera.)

“Rewriting is easier because it’s a problem to solve.”

REWRITING: “Chip away anything that is not the main conflict.” (RELATED NOTE: Read Tony Kushner’s original script for LINCOLN.)

“Kill your Darlings (children)!” – “No detours from the main conflict/story.”

RULE: “It the story works without the scene; lose it!”


The notes above are just scratching the surface of what you'll learn. Check out the online course here!