Finding Your Sweet Spot as a Writer

Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin teaches an online course about screenwriting, offered through the MasterClass company, which I just completed. (Last spring I took another MasterClass course, that one taught by scriptwriter and director David Mamet, and found it worthwhile.)

Even if you don’t know who Aaron Sorkin is you will be familiar with his work. One of the great scriptwriters of our era, he created the TV series Sports Night, The West Wing, and The Newsroom and wrote many of their scripts. He wrote the scripts for the films A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, Moneyball and Steve Jobs; and the plays A Few Good Men and The Farnsworth Invention, which appeared on Broadway. He estimates he’s written 185 scripts by now. Along the way he’s pulled down a passel of awards. I figured with that track record, for the $90 cost of the course I couldn’t go wrong. I was right.

The course covers about five hours of instruction carved up into 35 segments. Lesson lengths range from five to 20 minutes. Listening to one each morning most days, I completed the course in about a month. The course comes with a 38-page PDF workbook and you get lifetime access to the vido lessons.

Sorkin’s first writing was plays. Out of college he bartended at Broadway theaters, selling drinks pre-show and at intermissions. Broadway musicals still tug on his heart. He has just made his movie directorial debut with Molly’s Game, which he also wrote.

If Sorkin can be said to have a writing mantra, it is “intention and obstacle.” It’s not until you introduce the [protagonist’s] intention that you’ve really begun the story, he says. Developing the intention and obstacle creates the friction and tension needed for drama. Sorkin’s mantra is a variation of one I’ve long used, which I term “GMC”, for Goal–Motivation–Conflict. Character X wants Y (Goal), because . . . (Motivation), but there’s obstacle Z (Conflict). Sorkin’s “intention” contains my Goal and Motivation legs, and his “obstacle” is what generates the conflict. This foundation of drama goes back to Aristotle. No matter how it gets stated, it never hurts for dramatists to be reminded of it.

The dimension of scriptwriting Sorkin is most praised for is his dialogue. Although he says dialogue is the least teachable part of screenwriting, he makes an attempt here. Dialogue he views as a form of music (watching Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf first gave him that insight). He speaks all his dialogue out loud to help him hear how it will sound delivered by an actor. “It’s not just that dialogue sounds like music to me,” he says; “it actually is music.”

An unexpected part of the course is eight sessions where Sorkin tries to recreate a writers’ room for a TV series. He plays the show runner (head writer) and leads five young aspiring screenwriters in creating an imaginary episode of The West Wing. I didn’t find these discussions very helpful but for those who will never generate a script as a group effort, they do provide a glimpse of what that particular writing process looks like. I have read varying accounts of writers’ rooms, and the tone is set by the show runner. If he’s a tyrant, the room becomes a vicious, miserable den. If he’s someone like Sorkin (or reportedly Vince Gilligan on Breaking Bad) it’s a mostly positive environment.

I say “mostly” because Sorkin takes time in these mock writers’-room sessions to tell us what they’re really like. “What we do a lot of is struggle. We do a lot of banging our heads against a wall. We do a lot of looking at each other around this table and then retreating to our own offices and think there. Going home at night, coming back in with ideas. Days go by with no [story] movement at all. Panic starts to set in because this thing starts shooting the next day. We’ve promised [the network and audience] a lot and we’re scared to death it won’t get done.” This behind-the-curtain look at the Wizard is reassuring to those of us who write alone because we suffer the same trials Sorkin describes, only in isolation. There can be comfort in communal suffering.

One of the biggest adjustments when I pivoted from business management to writer is that whereas managing others is highly social and problems are frequently tackled by a group, it is alone that a solo writer bears fears and struggles to solve story problems. Sometimes I wish I could walk down a hall and ask Joe or Susie what they think about this or that problem. But Joe or Susie aren’t in.

It is heartening to hear Sorkin’s candor about his own flailing: “[As a writer] you’re exposed. You don’t have to be writing autobiographically. You’re still exposed because it’s your mind, it’s your soul, it’s what you think is funny, what you think is emotional.” He advises to “just power through the days of not being able to write anything.” Most of the time at his desk, he confides, “is spent not writing and it’s agony.” Hearing that from a writer of Sorkin’s accomplishments is deeply affirming.

He also urges authors to write in their own voice. Don’t worry that you’re not writing like Aaron Sorkin or anyone else. Related advice is not to write what you think the studios want to see. That’s a fool’s errand. He cites the writer William Goldman’s famous line about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” “Go ahead and take chances,” Sorkin urges. “That’s the only way you’re going to find out where your sweet spot is; what you’re good at.”

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