Aaron Benjamin Sorkin is an American screenwriter, producer, and playwright. His works include the Broadway plays A Few Good Men and The Farnsworth Invention; the television series Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and The Newsroom; and the films A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson's War, The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs.
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Hi Reddit, I'm Aaron Sorkin. I wrote The West Wing, The Newsroom, The Social Network, Steve Jobs, and A Few Good Men. My newest project is teaching an online screenwriting class. The class launches today, and you can enroll at
Edit: Thank you all for your thoughtful questions. I had a great time doing this AMA.
DID YOU ORDER THE CODE RED?
YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT I DID.
I loved your show “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and was very disappointed when it was canceled after only 1 season. Where do you think you might have taken the show had it not been cancelled?
u/gmred91, thanks for your kind words about Studio 60. We all had a great time doing it, and we all wish we could have done it longer. The answer to your question is, I don't know where I'd take it if there was a second season, but now you've got me thinking!
Did you originally hope that The Newsroom would cause a positive change in today's major news networks?
Avocado, when I write something, I don’t hope for anything more than that you will enjoy yourself for however long I’ve asked for your attention. I don’t have a political or social agenda, with The Newsroom I wasn’t trying to tell the professionals how to do their job. For me it was just an interesting work place in which to set a drama.
What's the worst network or studio note you've ever gotten? (What's the best?)
Ha! Here’s the worst and the best studio note I’ve ever gotten, early in run of The West Wing, there was an episode in which an US Air Force jet carrying a bunch of US doctors accidentally wandered into Syrian airspace and was shot down. The network, NBC and the studio, Warner Bros, both received letters from the Arab American Anti-Defamation League, strongly protesting that story. A few episodes later, I had Toby in a throwaway line make passing reference to hebrew slaves in Egypt 5000 years ago, the network and the studio had an issue and sent me back a note saying please show your research. So I sent them back a copy of the Old Testament with the chapter of Exodus highlighted.
Is there a possibility to see you sitting in the director's chair in a foreseeable future?
Captain, you've asked just the right question in just the right moment. On November 1st, we'll begin principle photography on Molly's Game and Molly's Game is the name of a movie, which I both wrote and will be directing. The movie will be out late 2017.
By the way, we'll be doing a live production of A Few Good Men on NBC in early 2017.
Thanks so much for doing the Masterclass, I've already gotten a lot out of the first lesson. I have two q's:
How much of your character’s backstory do you know before you write? Do you flesh it in other forms first, or does it come as you write the script?
How many drafts do you typically write for a screenplay before it’s finished?
That's a great question. I don't like to commit myself to anything in a character's backstory until I have to. I didn't know going into the West Wing that Bartlet had MS. Then, along came an episode where I needed to introduce the idea that the First Lady (Dr. Channing) was a medical doctor. And the way I did it was by giving Bartlet MS.
David Mamet have written some excellent essays on this subject. You can get lost in the weeds if you sit down and try to create an entire biography for your character. If this is what they were like when they were six years old, and this is what they did when they were seven years old, and they scraped their knee when they were eight years old. Your character, assuming your character is 50 years old, was never six years old, or seven years old or eight years old. Your character was born the moment the curtain goes up, the moment the movie begins, the moment the television show begins, and your character dies as soon as it's over. Your character only becomes seven years old when they say, "Well when I was seven years old, I fell in a well, and ever since then I've had terrible claustrophobia. Okay?
Characters and people aren't the same thing. They only look alike.
I write a lot of drafts of screenplays and plays. I keep writing and I keep writing; what I try to do at the beginning is just get to the end. Once I've gotten to the end, I know a lot more about the piece, and I'm able to go back to the beginning and touch stuff that never turned into anything, and highlight things that are going to become important later on. And I go back, and I keep doing that, and I keep doing that, and I'll retype the whole script, over and over again, just to make things sharper and sharper. That's for movies and plays. In television, there just isn't that kind of time. In television, I have to write a 55-minute movie every nine days, so we shoot my first draft.
The Social Network is one of my favorite films & you're truly an inspirational screenwriter. The dialogue for it is always interesting because if you watch it on Netflix the subtitles can't always keep up as the actors speak.
Anyways. What does your ideal breakfast consist of, my dude?
Brody, first of all thanks for the very kind words, I really appreciate it. My breakfast generally consists of coco puffs when I’m at home, because of my job I have to stay in hotels a lot, in which case it’s pancakes and bacon.
I think Steve Jobs (2015), which is my favorite film of last year, is one of the best dialogue-driven films ever made, primarily due to your excellent screenplay.
That said, what are your favorite dialogue-driven films?
And, have you ever considered writing a novel?
u/TheReuster, thank you very much for the very kind words about Steve Jobs. I had a great time writing and making that movie. I love movies with great dialogue, and there are plenty of them. I would say my favorite film from the last 10 years would be Tony Kushner's screenplay for Lincoln.
The West Wing's fandom hasn't faded one bit since the show went off the air. What do you think about a network reviving it (with an all new cast) for the modern day? If you're open to it, would you insist on writing it or allow someone else to do so?
If I had an idea or a way to do The West Wing today, I would think seriously about doing it. I would want to do it myself because I’m so personally attached to it. Of course, I wouldn’t want to do anything to tarnish anyone’s memory of the show.
What is one of the biggest mistakes rookie screenwriters make?
One of the biggest mistakes rookie screenwriters make is not having a strong intention or obstacle. The drive shaft of a car, beautiful leather seats, a fantastic sound system, a really cool paint job but the car isn’t going to move forward if the car doesn’t have a strong intention or obstacle.
Thank you so much for taking your time to create your Masterclass - it really is incredible!
I have had a problem with Attention Deficit Disorder my whole life. Sometimes it can be as much a gift as it is a curse but generally my mind is trying to do anything but the thing I'm supposed to be doing. Do you ever come up against tough bouts of procrastination when you are writing and if so is there anything you do to try and overcome it?
I think you and I are in the same boat. I have long stretches of what's commonly known as writer's block. I've found it can only be cured by having an idea.
Do you plan to make your dialogue as rhythmic as it comes across?
I assume that the people who watch movies and television shows are at least as smart as the people who make movies and television shows. If the dialogue makes you sit forward a little, and listen a little bit more, that's a good thing. It makes the audience active in the experience.
As someone who began as an actor, how has your knowledge of acting theory informed the way that you write? Do you consider yourself to be an “actor’s writer”?
Thank you for doing this!
Okay, thanks for the question, u/MrTayJ. I think saying that I started as an actor is probably overstating things. I studied acting in college, but when I graduated and came to New York, I knew I wanted to be a playwright. I think the conservatory training that I got as an actor is very helpful. I perform all the roles as I'm writing them. I speak out loud, and that helps me do my best to make sure that the dialog is speakable by an actor.
Hello Mr. Sorkin, I'm a huge fan, your work has taught me so much with my own writing. The Newsroom had such a profound effect on me and it's one of those life-altering pieces of Art especially the line "We just decided to.".
I'm wondering, with your feature work, how much rewriting happens, specificaly to the snappy dialogue and what's your average number of drafts on a script before you consider it ready to hand in?
You've talked before in interviews about your pre-writing time (watching ESPN) so I imagine there ends up being less time to re-write.
Thanks very much for the kind words, I’m able to do much more rewriting in features that I am in television simply because of the time constraint. In a feature, if I get stuck (I get stuck a lot) I can call the studio or the producer or whoever is waiting for the script and let them know that I’m stuck and that I’ll be delivering it 3 months later that I said I would. On television, there are hard air dates, there is no flexibility at all, so in television, we shoot my first draft.
What's your favorite book?
Catcher in the Rye.
Mr. Sorkin, you're my favorite writer of all time.
Do you have a personal favorite episode of The West Wing?
Do you have any new projects currently in the works that we can look forward to?
BFA, like any proud father, I don’t like picking a favorite episode. There were some that worked better than others and there aren’t any that I don’t wish I could have back and write all over again. That said, if I were to give someone one episode of The West Wing to watch, it would either be 17 People, Two Cathedrals, or Noel.
As for upcoming projects, in the fall I am going to be directing for the first time, the movie is called Molly’s Game, a true story of a young woman, played by Jessica Chastain, who ran the world’s most exclusive high stakes poker game. Early in 2017, NBC will be doing a live production of A Few Good Men and I’m currently working on a Broadway interpretation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Mr. Sorkin, thank you so much for taking the time to do this and thank you for the masterclass! I’m thoroughly enjoying the content so far.
My question is as someone who has found success in both television and film, does your writing process fundamentally change when switching between those two forms? Or is a scene a scene, no matter how many are stitched together?
MrTayJ it’s good to talk to you again, fundamentally the writing is the same for me, for television and film. The big difference is time, With a movie, I have a year or two to really think about what it is I’m going to write and to do any research I may need to do to write a big clunky first draft and turn it into a less clunky second draft. With television, I only have 9 days and about 5 of those days are going to be taken up with trying to come up with an idea. So we have to shoot my first draft.
I saw an interview where you talked about always looking for OBSTACLE and INTENTION in a scene. Is this foundational or just your style? How does this tie into the design of the entire plot. Or is the plot just one giant O/I too?
I'm taking your MasterClass.
Intention and obstacle is everything. Intention and obstacle is what makes it drama. Somebody wants the money, they want the girl, they want to get to Philadelphia; it doesn't matter, they just need a strong intention, and then there needs to be a formidable obstacle. The tactic that your protagonist (or protagonists) use to overcome that obstacle is going to be your story. That's what you're gonna hang everything on. Without intention and obstacle, you're coming dangerously close to finger painting.
Hey Aaron, I'm a big fan who can't wait to watch your masterclass!
Just wondering, what is one "rule of screenwriting" you find especially stupid?
When it comes to screenwriting or television writing, there are real rules, and there are fake rules. In 1970, a CBS executive famously said that there are four things you'll never see on television: a Jewish person, a divorced person, a person from New York City, or a person with a mustache. Obviously, that CBS executive had no idea what he was talking about, and those are the fake rules.
The real rules can be found in Aristotle's Poetics.
LA or NYC?
NYC. There are four different seasons, and not everybody fundamentally does the same thing I do for a living.
Do you practice mindfulness or some type of sitting meditation to help you focus?
I'd love to be able to do that. I'd love to be able to relax in my chair, and god knows anything else that you focus is good. But, I've never tried meditation.
Do you think screenwriters in NYC have the same chance of success as ones in LA? Any recommendations on resources in NYC for script writers looking to get their names out there?
When you’re a screenwriter, it’s the material that’s speaking for you. When I started out, I was living in New York and when I would come to LA for meetings, I was considered exotic because I was there from New York and everybody wanted to meet with me because I was in town for only a few days. I think that you should, whether it’s New York or LA or Wyoming, I think you should live where you’re happy and comfortable and where you’ll write the best.
Just like a LA screenwriter, a NYC screenwriter has to get his work into the hands of the people who read scripts. So my recommendation is stay warm in the winter and hate the Red Socks.
Hi Aaron. I'm half way through your Masterclass. Thank you so much for teaching! I've learned so much. I'm a DP who is venturing into writing/directing. I have a good idea for a story/premise, but dialogue is bogging me down. Do you have any practical tips on developing dialogue? PS. I would totally watch "The Merc" if it's made into a series!
u/AngryCotton, your experience as a DP is going to serve you well. Already, I guarantee you, you have a better visual sense than I do. When it comes to dialogue, you're gonna need to find your own voice, and trust it. I find it very helpful to say the lines out loud while I'm writing them, and you can hear for yourself whether it sounds like the bad dialogue you're familiar with, or the good dialogue you're familiar with, or even better, something you've never heard before.