5 Screenwriting Lessons from Aaron Sorkin at the Zurich Film Festival

Aaron Sorkin is such a well-regarded screenwriter that his very name conjures up a pattern of quick-moving, hyperrealistic dialogue that many try to emulate. His television credits include The West Wing and The Newsroom and some of his big screen hits are A Few Good Men and The Social Network. With a biography like that, one would be wise to listen to what the man has to say about screenwriting! Here are a few gems taken from his interview with Carmine Carpenito of BlairWitch.de at the Zurich Film Festival.

1. Even the very best suffer from writer’s block – a lot!

Writer’s block seems to be such a personal thing when it strikes. To be more accurate, it seems like a real mark of shame from which there is no escape. But feel shame no more, as Sorkin himself says he is “almost always in a state of writer’s block.” It seems that being able to write is actually the rarity. “Usually I’m pacing around my office or my house, or I’ll drive around in my car and listen to music, and I’ll go for days without being able to write anything.” The good news? According to Sorkin, you get used to this state of affairs and learn to work around it. Phew!

2. Make sure your goals are clear from the get-go.

Many of us have the deep desire to “make it” in Hollywood, or for a television network or streaming service. But what exactly does this entail? Sorkin explains that he was always very clear about his goal and that this was incredibly useful: “My goal only ever was to be able to be a professional writer, to be able to pay my bills writing.” This meant that any other honor or accolade was a surprise, including going to fancy film festivals. Having a clear ambition like this appears to make it much easier to motivate oneself when the “glory” part of the job isn’t forthcoming. Keep your eyes ahead of you and stay on track.

3. Be a student of film and television.

Sorkin considers himself a “great audience member” when it comes to theater, film and television. He pays attention and immerses himself in the magic of the piece. But this isn’t all he does, and he encourages other writers to follow his lead in becoming a student. “At some point, be a diagnostician. If you don’t like the movie, if the movie isn’t working, don’t just shrug it off […] Figure out why. What went wrong in there?” So, it’s not just passive learning as we sit in the dark and observe; we must keep our minds ticking over, and we must keep growing our understanding of the art form.

4. Aristotle’s Poetics is a vital piece of literature if we’re to understand the rules of film and television writing.

There are thousands of screenwriting books available these days, but Sorkin recommends one that goes back all the way to roughly 335 BC. Poetics was written by Greek philosopher Aristotle and has played a pivotal role in establishing dramatic theory over the years. It is still revered by many writers. When discussing how to evaluate writing, he says: “There are rules. They were written over 2000 years ago by Aristotle in a short book called the Poetics. The rules of drama are older than Christianity, and a young writer would do well to learn those rules.” Looks like some of us have got some homework to do.

5. There are things that can be taught, and things that can’t.

We tend to rely on hard work as the route to achieving our biggest dreams. We need discipline, effort and dedication to grow as artists and reach the highest levels. However, hard work isn’t the only factor, according to Sorkin. “Like most of art, whether it’s playing the violin, or painting, or dancing, or writing a screenplay, there are the things that can be taught, the things you can learn, and then there are the things you’re kind of born with.” Chances are, if you’re developing your writing skills, you have a special “x-factor” that you need to identify and embrace. It’s what makes you unique, and is a special ability that can’t be established solely through hard work, though it can be capitalized on. Go forth and tap into your power!

If you want more of Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting advice, check out Lessons from 2018 Oscar-nominated Screenwriters.

Watch the entire interview below.


Matt van Onselen is a South African screenwriter living in Los Angeles and a graduate of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting program. He focuses on comedy writing, but will do anything for money.


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