I’ve just finished listening to Aaron Sorkin talk live and give valuable screenwriting writing advice to me and hundreds of other committed budding screenwriters. The Q&A was just one of the many high-quality goodies students of the Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting MasterClass have access to.
You may have already read my reviews of the entire Aaron Sorkin MasterClass here, here, here, here and here. If not, check them out. For now, I’m going to tell you what I learned from the live Q&A today. The Q&A was a very nice addition to the actual course and, as well as containing tons of great advice, really pumped me and the other students up and made us feel more connected to Aaron.
Here are some of the things we learned in Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass Q&A:
What Aaron does when he is “stuck” or suffering from writer’s block:
Aaron says that he’s “mostly stuck”. Most of his writing time is “staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor in anguish”.
You just have to wait it out. Aaron likes to drive his car while listening to classic rock like Springsteen and Cat Stevens.
Eventually, once you’ve waited long enough, you’ll find just when you are relaxing, like when you’re falling asleep, you’ll eventually get a good idea. A transition, a scene, or joke.
Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t write for long stretches of time. It’s comforting to know that even the greatest writers in the world suffer from being blocked. If you’re struggling, you’re in good company.
This reminds me of an old adage from Thomas Mann: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
What materials Aaron recommends for those studying the craft of screenwriting:
Aaron looked at William Goldman’s scripts long before he even met him and considered him his screenwriting teacher.
Aaron particularly recommends budding screenwriters to read, watch, and study Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Aaron also recommends you read Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade.
How Aaron deals with not having control over his writing’s visual representation:
Although Aaron just recently finished filming in Toronto for his own directorial debut, Molly’s Game, he is used to being a screenwriter who works with directors and knows the struggles of seeing visual representations of his work skewed.
Aaron says that there are going to be moments even with the greatest directors where they don’t realise that what they’re doing visually is a problem.
The key is to have a terrific relationship with the director and talk through those moments. Even if it’s as late as on the set, you need to talk through everything.
Aaron advises that during the pre-production process, you go through the script page-by-page with the director so they can become an expert on the script. The director needs to fully understand what each moment means to the movie and what you saw in your head.
Aaron’s thoughts on short scripts vs. long scripts:
Writing short scripts is a great way to hone your screenwriting craft. Aaron recommends you try to adapt your favourite short stories into a short screenplay so you can get a feel for the process. The story has already been broken. You don’t have to worry about plot. All you have to worry about is getting that story down in screenwriting form.
Aaron’s thoughts on avoiding writing characters that sound the same while maintaining musical dialogue:
Aaron says that he actually doesn’t try to write characters that sound different. All writers are different but his primary interest is in intention and obstacle.
What do the characters want and what’s stopping them from getting it?
Some writers want to write the way people talk, but that’s not the only way to write dialogue. A big example is Shakespeare who writes characters who speak primarily in iambic pentameter.
Aaron believes that “characters are often differentiated by what they want and what’s stopping them from getting it”.
When Aaron was writing The Social Network, he realised he was writing characters that were younger than any other characters he was written before. Instead of focusing on age (which was blocking his first draft), he just wrote how he wanted to write without focusing on their age, instead focusing on intention and obstacle, and that freed him to write the screenplay.
And as for how to deal with criticism that all of one’s characters sound the same? Ignore it! That’s a criticism that all writers are going to get multiple times throughout the career no matter their level of success.
Aaron’s thoughts on metaphor and theme:
Aaron likes metaphors. Sometimes he is aware of the metaphor before he starts writing and sometimes he discovers the metaphor accidentally while writing.
His advice for your first draft is “just get to the end of it. If you’re having problems on page 35, don’t go back to the beginning unless you absolutely have to. Get to ‘fade out’. You will have learned a lot by the end, including a metaphor or two.”
The second draft is where you can get rid of stuff and where you can “gently hang a lantern” on a metaphor so you can write to it a little bit.
Aaron gives an example from Molly’s Game, which he just finished shooting. The movie begins with a skiing accident. The main protagonist has her whole life ahead of her: a great Olympic career and she is getting ready for Harvard Law School. Life looks good. But a freak accident caused by tripping over a stick changes everything. That’s the inciting incident. The more Aaron wrote, the more he realised that tripping over a stick and heading in a different direction was a very powerful metaphor. This prompted him to make a frozen stick the last image of the movie.
Aaron says that if you have a metaphor in mind, you’re in great shape: “Write to it. Calibrate it.” You’ll know by the end of the first draft whether you were too heavy or light on exploiting the metaphor. If you don’t have a metaphor in mind, you’ll find one along the way.
Aaron’s thoughts on want vs need:
Aaron says that you can write a great story about someone who wants something and there’s an obstacle stopping them.
But someone who needs something is always going to be a bit better.
Without taking a political stance, Aaron uses the example of the current President of the United States: “It appeared to most of us that Donald Trump wants to be loved. Now it appears that he needs to be. Like something bad will happen if he’s not loved”.
Need has greater consequences than want.
Aaron has this great quote: “Need is a supercharged version of want.”
Aaron’s advice for screenwriters getting turned away at the first hurdle:
This was a very interesting part of the Q&A because a screenwriter called in and basically said that he has won 53 screenwriting contests and he’s still getting rejected, still getting told “no unsolicited manuscripts”, and has no connections.
Aaron’s response was funny: “This is crazy. Have you run over somebody’s dog? I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
Aaron actually took this man’s information and said he will try and make something happen. How great is that?
But generally, his advice is you’ve really got to hustle. You have to try and get an in with anyone who can help you, even if it’s someone working in the mailroom of a studio. This is a hard gig and you have to be prepared to really work hard for it.
Aaron’s advice for what a submission package from a prime candidate for a staff position on a TV writing team looks like:
When scripts finally reach Aaron, they’ve already been read by several people and they’ve torn off the title page. Aaron doesn’t want to know if it’s a writer he’s heard of, if it’s a man or woman, or their nationality. He just wants to read the script.
A good submission package = script + resume on top.
You want to get your package to someone who reads scripts. Like someone already on a TV writing staff show or an agent. They will then write coverage, a summary, and a recommendation about it.
Aaron says that if you know anyone in the business, or you can get an in, don’t worry about being a nudge or a nag. Just get your work out there.
This is a great lesson and one that more writers need to heed (including myself). It doesn’t matter how good you think your writing is or how much time you’ve clocked putting pen to paper, it’s all for nothing if you don’t share your work with the world. You can’t just be a writer. You have to be your own marketer and promoter too.
For your submission package, you can write a spec script for a show already on the air (e.g. Game of Thrones). Or you could write a completely original pilot script for a potential series.
You should also include any writing work that shows you at your best. If you’ve written a magazine article or blog post, include that in your sample.
Aaron says that the package is the easy part. Getting it read is harder. It requires some hustle.
Aaron on how know when a script is finished:
“A script is never finished, it’s just abandoned.”
Aaron’s first play was A Few Good Men and he literally has not stopped writing it yet.
What Aaron wishes he had known when he was first starting out:
Aaron says that all he ever dreamed of when starting out was “being a professional writer, was being able to pay my bills by writing. I wasn’t dreaming of fame or money or Oscars.”
But it felt like the odds were stacked against him (something we can all relate to).
His advice was this: “The more you do it, the better you get. The older you get, the better you get. It’s the opposite of being an athlete. It takes practice.”
Aaron on writing for the audience:
Aaron says: “Trying to figure out what the audience wants and then trying to give it to them is a bad recipe for success. It’s definitely a bad recipe for good writing.”
Then, in one of the most inspirational moments of an already thoroughly inspirational Q&A, Aaron says this: “Artists are leaders. The audience doesn’t know what it wants. We’re supposed to show them.”
For Aaron, he tries hard to write what he likes, what he thinks his friends would like, and what he thinks his father would like. Then he hopes that many other people will like it too.
“You’re a leader. You don’t follow the audience. They follow you.”
Aaron on feedback you disagree with:
“Absolutely no one wanted Spielberg to makes Schindler’s List. He was allowed to make it in exchange for making Jurassic Park. He was right and everyone else was wrong.”
Final thoughts on Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass Q&A
The Q&A really was just a small part of what made the Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting MasterClass valuable. Yet the Q&A alone was worth the price of admission. Think about that for a moment if you haven’t already made the immensely worthy investment in the MasterClass.
I would like to say a huge thank you to Mr Aaron Sorkin and all the wonderful people at MasterClass for putting together such a valuable and enjoyable course.
If you haven’t already enrolled in the class…
Enjoy! And let me know how much you love it.