Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Aaron Sorkin MasterClass in Screenwriting is as awesome as you expect it to be

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

As longtime readers of the blog know, I'm very careful when it comes to endorsing products and services. So long as there are plenty of free and cheap screenwriting resources out there, I'm always wary of sending business to services and charlatans who charge hundreds of dollars for their expertise.

When I do endorse a product, I always make sure it's one that I've used myself. I've thrown my weight behind the Black List and I've paid to post four scripts up there. Last year, I was invited to check out the MasterClass video series with Dustin Hoffman (available here) and recently I was granted access to an even more relevant MasterClass - with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

Aaron Sorkin probably needs no introduction, but manners demands that I do so anyway. His first film was an adaptation of his own play, A Few Good Men. Subsequent films include Malice, The American President, Moneyball and The Social Network, for which he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. He's enjoyed similar success in television, having created Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom.

A Few Good Men is one of my favorite films and one of those that if I come across it while flipping channels, I have to watch the rest of it. The Social Network deservedly won the Oscar because it manages to tell a very complex story with complete clarity. The script deals in multiple timeframes, including two separate depositions as framing sequences and the audience is never once lost or disoriented. When this class was announced, I saw one snarky person retweeted into my feed who sneered, "I don't think there's anything at all about screenwriting I'm interested in learning from Aaron Sorkin."

Look, I'll admit I wasn't the biggest fan of Studio 60, but it's petty bullshit to use a writer's weakest moments as the disqualfier for anything they have to say about the craft, you need a serious attitude adjustment. When someone like Sorkin offers the chance to pick their brain, you shut up and listen.

The Master Class is a series of 35 videos that total nearly eight hours of viewing. That's $90 for eight hours of viewing. That's a cost of less than $12 an hour. Think of it like this - would you pay $25 to see Aaron Sorkin give a two-hour talk about screenwriting at the WGA Theater. I bet many of you would, and on a per-minute basis, that would cost you more.

Sorkin has broken the class into a suggested viewing schedule that paces the videos out over six weeks. I wasn't able to take that leisurely tour, but it makes sense to me and if you look at it that way, you're paying only $15/week.

There are several components to the class, delivered in Lesson Videos, which take the form of direct lectures and workshop sessions. In the workshop, Aaron works with about a half-dozen students. In some segments he reads a scene from their script and offers critiques. What's refreshing is he's a very encouraging teacher, always finding something positive to say and offering criticism in a way that's instructive without being rude. He's also upfront when he's out of his own depth. (He tells one student who's skilled at action writing that he doesn't know any advice to give because action writing is his own weakness. He jokes that if he had written that scene it would have just been two people talking.)

There's also a multi-video series where the same students become Sorkin's writers room and as an exercise, they begin to break what would be the first episode of the fifth season of The West Wing. (In other words, they try to figure out how Sorkin would have continued the show, had he not left at the end of the fourth season.) I've been able to see three different showrunners in action in their writing rooms, and I can tell you that Aaron leads the discussion very differently than most. (However, there's also a power disparity. In other rooms, you'll find co-EPs and midlevel writers who bring a lot of experience to the table. Aaron is essentially working with staff writers, so the dynamic is different.) I say this because it's not a perfectly accurate representation of a writers room, but it's still a very instructive series on a lot of levels.

The real gold is in Sorkin's direct lectures. If you are interested in screenwriting and either didn't attend college or your college didn't have a Screenwriting course, these lecture videos are an excellent way to begin thinking about the basics in a way that's digestible and encourages you to apply these lessons to deconstructing films you've seen.

One of Sorkin's fundamentals is the idea of the "Intention and Obstacle." The Intention is what the main character wants, what's their goal, what's their drive? If the movie is about a cross-country drive to San Francisco, why is it important that they are going now? What are they going towards, and just as importantly, why do they need to be there at a certain time? Sorkin points out that it's a better movie if they NEED to be there by, say, Thursday for a job interview. That's better than if there's no tension at all for when they arrive. The obstacle, of course, is what is getting in the way of their intention, and Sorkin goes through a couple examples.

In other videos, Sorkin shows a scene from his work and deconstructs various aspects of the writing. He puts us in his head as he crafted the scene, showing why specific choices and lines of dialogue were chosen to carefully reveal something about the characters, or to push the drama forward.

I especially appreciated a video where Sorkin described himself as a "rules guy." He believes there are absolutely rules of drama, principles that all great works conform to. However, he wisely reminds the audience not to be led astray by "fake rules." The real rules come from Aristotle's Poetics. The fake rules would be guru-speak like "Never use voiceover."

Each lesson is accompanied by a PDF that recaps the basic point of the lesson and offers further assignments and resources. These assignments might be something like "Pick a movie to watch tonight. Critically look at why the movie works or doesn’t work. If you find yourself using snarky terms, remember, that doesn’t help you diagnose the script. Keep a journal and write down what works about your five favorite and what doesn’t work about your five least favorite movies. Share your findings with your MasterClass classmates and see if they agree or disagree."

I wasn't able to participate in any of the community discussions due to time constraints, but I'm sure they'd be a useful resource. Similarly, I wasn't able to make use of the Office Hours feature, where students can submit video and text questions for Aaron to answer. Even before factoring in that added value I feel like the class is well worth it.

I give the Aaron Sorkin MasterClass my enthusiastic endorsement. Particularly if you are new to screenwriting and really have a desire to understand the fundamentals, this class is a fantastic resource. In the grand scheme of things, $90 is a bargain for all of this. Christmas and Hanukkah aren't that far off, so if you can't commit that cash yourself, put it on your wishlist. You can find this and every other MasterClass at www.masterclass.com.


  1. Thanks for this. I've been leaning towards taking the class, as soon as my schedule opens up a bit (2 more weeks). This settles it: I'm in!

    1. Enjoy! The necessity of posting this review in a timely fashion forced me to binge, but I feel like you might get more out of the class if you follow Sorkin's suggested schedule, as included in the workbook.

  2. I actually take the Writing Masterclass by James Patterson. It is every bit as enjoyable and expert as you mention Sorkin's class to be. I've oft thought of taking a scriptwriting class as well and I am sure Sorkin's is the one I will take. The presentations and feedback are amazingly easy to get into and the self-paced and ability to go back over and over help a lot. I love the set up of Masterclass and I am glad you wrote about it here as well.

  3. Your review of Sorkin's class was spot-on. I now worship at the altar of intention and obstacle.