If you haven’t heard of Aaron Sorkin, you’ve undoubtedly seen some of the dramas he’s written.
He’s the writer behind classics like The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Steve Jobs, Molly’s Game and more.
He’s the kind of screenwriter whose work you can instantly recognize: funny and informal while still being incredibly insightful.
Due to the coronavirus lockdown, I’ve got some time on my hands and I’ve always wanted to improve my writing so I thought I’d give Sorkin’s MasterClass a shot.
It was not what I expected.
Not only did I pick up some helpful writing tips, but surprisingly, I also learned some life advice from the great screenwriter.
It wasn’t all good though, so I’ve decided to put together this comprehensive review of Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting so you can decide whether or not it’s for you.
You might be wondering: What is MasterClass?
If you’re a novice to online education, you may not have heard of MasterClass.
Well, there’s an easy way to understand them: They’re the Netflix of online education.
Because they’ve literally got the world’s most famous instructors teaching their expertise.
For example, Christina Aguilera teaches singing, Thomas Keller teaches cooking, Garry Kasparov teaches chess, Chris Hadfield teaches space exploration. Timbaland teaches producing and beat making…and so much more (really, there are nearly 50 courses all up).
What separates MasterClass from other online education courses isn’t just the famous names. It’s the quality of the videos. They’re incredible.
You can binge-watch them all day. They’re so easy-to-watch and you can actually learn valuable skills. It’s much better for your brain than binge-watching Netflix all day.
Now I’m sure you’re wondering:
How much does MasterClass cost?
If you want to consume just one class, it will set you back $90.
But MasterClass also offers an All-Access Pass that gives you unlimited access to every class for $180 per year.
The best bit?
They’ve got a money-back guarantee. If you’re not satisfied within 30 days, you can get a full refund.
It’s completely up to you though, obviously.
Alright so enough about what MasterClass is. Let’s talk about the course you’re interested in:
Overview of Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting
Make sure to check out the video trailer above. You’ll immediately see the quality of the videos as well as Aaron Sorkin’s cheeky sense of humor. You can see what I mean when I say MasterClass is the Netflix of online education.
Aaron Sorkin talks directly to the camera in the lessons which gives you the feeling that you are having a one-to-one lesson with him.
Furthermore, throughout the lessons, there are sometimes clips of his screenplays which help break down the point he is making.
Let’s go through what content is actually in the course
There are 35 lessons in Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting. Each lesson goes for about 10-20 minutes long.
Here’s what the course covers:
- How to set your script in motion and test an idea
- How to develop characters and create a dialogue that works
- How to undertake “good research”
- How to write stories that keep people engaged and entertained
- The rules of a good story,
- How to deal with writer’s block
And so much more.
What’s more, there are also lessons called a “Group Workshop” where he discusses some pilot scripts students have written.
This is awesome because he talks about what’s wrong with the scripts and shares some simple tricks you can use to improve them. I personally got a lot out of this.
The last 10 lessons dive deep into The West Wing’s Writers’ Room where Aaron and his students break down the episodes of West Wing and reverse engineer the plots.
This is pretty entertaining and insightful.
Lastly, he discusses how to pitch an idea – not only is this useful for aspiring screenwriters, but for anyone who has to sell in general.
Each lesson is also accompanied with a class workbook. This includes assignments and Take It Further Opportunities.
It’s a printable PDF that has places for you to take notes. You’ll also get access to Aaron’s scripts The Social Network and A Few Good Men so you can follow along with Aaron’s examples.
An additional feature is something called Office Hours. This is where you can submit questions and Aaron will give you a personal response.
He won’t answer all the questions, but he has already answered quite a few (you have access to all his answers).
If you go through each of his responses you can get some really insightful knowledge that he shares off the cuff. It also makes it feel personable as if he is having a conversation with you.
Definitely worth checking out.
Another neat feature is if you scroll down you will see a “discussion section”. This is where everyone can comment under the lesson and talk about what they liked, what they didn’t and what they need help with.
This isn’t the only discussion section for students. There is also another feature called The Hub where students can talk about anything. I haven’t used this feature yet but there does seem to be some livable debates on many different topics.
Now that we’ve talked about the general structure of Aaron’s MasterClass course, let’s dive deep into the lessons.
A Deep Dive Into Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting
As I mentioned above, there are 25 videos which on average run for 10-15 minutes.
The first 12 lessons (which I’ll discuss below) is where Sorkin talks directly to the camera and takes you through the whole process of creating a story.
The lessons after that are “group workshops” as new writers have their work critiqued by Sorkin and a mock writer’s room where they workshop a fictitious first episode of the 5th season of The West Wing.
I’ll talk about the first 12 lessons here. After the introductory video, Sorkin gets into the first proper lesson…
Lesson 2: Intention and Obstacle
Aaron discusses why every great story is born from intentions and obstacles. You’ll learn how to build the “drive shaft” that will set your script in motion.
This lesson really hooked me in whenever he used personal anecdotes to illustrate his points.
He says that one of his biggest mistakes he made when he was in his early 20s was “writing snappy dialogue that doesn’t add up to anything.”
I found this lesson compelling and easy to understand.
Lesson 3: Story ideas
Aaron explains how to you can figure out if your idea is good enough to turn into a script.
Aaron walks through the exact steps every writer should take to test an idea – and decide what platform it will work best on.
This is a pretty cool lesson. He says that you need to break down story ideas into 2 key parts:
- Is there a conflict?
- What is the then/but of your idea?
Very simple but it’s a great point.
Another part of this lesson talks about how you can identify whether your story is good for TV, a movie, or a play. I’d imagine this is sometimes hard to figure out for a writer, so this will be a very insightful lesson for most people.
Lesson 4: Developing Characters Part 1
Aaron shares some of the decisions he made to develop some of his most memorable characters – The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg and The West Wing’s Toby and Leo. Very entertaining and insightful.
Lesson 5: Developing Characters: Part 2
Aaron talks about why you don’t need to always make characters that are “likable”. Drawing on examples from A Few Good Men and Steve Jobs, Aaron explains why he always empathizes with the character even if he disagrees with them.
Aaron says that characters “are born from the intention and obstacle”.
I felt like things were starting to tie together now, providing complete advice for creating your story.
Lesson 6: Research
Aaron explains why the key to a great script is good research. Bad research is simply a waste of time. Aaron shares lessons from Malice and The Social Network to help you gather the information you really need.
He talks about 2 different types of research: “Nuts and bolts research” and “finding the movie research.”
I found this a really helpful way of breaking down how to research a story idea. Sorkin’s advice is really practical and can be applied to any type of writing project you’re engaged in.
Lesson 7: Incorporating Research
Aaron talks about what to do with your pages of research and how to weave it into your story.
Lesson 8: The Audience
Aaron talks about the importance of knowing that your audience isn’t just watching, they’re participating. He also talks about how to write stories that keep the audience engaged and entertained.
I found this lesson really entertaining and helpful. He explains how the audience intrinsically knows when a story isn’t convincing.
“The worst crime you can commit is telling the audience something they already know”.
Lesson 9: Rules of Story
Aaron talks about the rules of a great drama. These rules were laid out more than 2,000 years ago by Aristotle in his Poetics, and how you can use those lessons to become a diagnostician for your own story ideas.
Sorkin says that a lot of people just write without following any rules. But you can’t do that if you want to be successful.
However, what I love about this lesson is that he isn’t too dogmatic about applying a rigid structure.
Yes, he says that rules help writers out, but you can’t go too far with it.
“There’s a tendency to think that art is finally the place where there are no rules…I’m just going to sit down in front of the keyboard and it’s just going to flow out of me onto the paper and it’s going to be pure art. NO. What you are describing there is finger painting.”
Lesson 10: Fim Story Arc
Aaron talks about page numbers, which doesn’t sound exciting, but they’re a great tool for tracking the act-structure and pacing of your story.
Lesson 11: Writing Habits
Aaron talks about writer’s block and what writing tools to make sure you’re ready when inspiration strikes.
He also touches on how you might write comedic scenes, opening scenes, and character introduction scenes.
There’s definitely a lot of great learnings in these lessons.
The next lessons focus on “Group Workshops” and the “West Wing Writer’s Room.”
These are very insightful. Sorkin basically dissects different scripts and explains what’s wrong with them and where they can be improved.
All in all, the course is broken into 35 lessons, which cover the whole story writing process. From story ideas, developing characters, research techniques, finding the arc of a story and much more.
If you’re wondering how long this course will take you, I was able to complete it in one week.
But it is actually designed as a 6-week program. I had time on my hands, but I’d imagine if you had more breathing room between each lesson you might be able to better digest what you’re going to learn.
Alright now that we’ve covered what content the lessons focus on, I’m going to break down what I liked most about Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass and what I disliked.
1. The lessons are easy to follow and understand
What I loved most about Aaron’s Sorkin’s teaching style is that it’s very easy to follow.
He explains everything in a simple way, making it easier to understand.
I learned something from every lesson, and I could pretty much apply it immediately.
This was also the case because of the time limit. For me, 15 minutes was the perfect length of time because I didn’t lose focus and it wasn’t possible for him to give you too many insights to frazzle my brain.
The wealth of knowledge Aaron shares, and the way he communicates his ideas makes me believe that this course can benefit a professional as well as an amateur. It’s the kind of material you could watch over and over again.
2. The use of his anecdotes was very insightful
In nearly every lesson he used an anecdote from one of his Movies to break down his teachings.
This, again, made it easier to understand and follow.
It also made the teachings practical and useful.
Sorkin has a wealth of experience and it’s refreshing to hear him be honest about the mistakes he has made.
3. The lessons cover all aspects of writing and each lesson can be applied practically
If you watch some other MasterClasses, you might find that it’s more entertaining than practical.
But what I loved about Sorkin’s MasterClass was that it was actually useful.
As I said above, every lesson had a point to it and it was easy to understand.
This made it practical because you could almost immediately apply it to your scriptwriting.
I have no doubt that the lessons I’ve learned from this MasterClass will improve my ability to write a story from beginning to end.
1. Some lessons were better than others
While I did get a lot out of each lesson, there seemed to be a broad inconsistency from lesson to lesson.
What I mean by that is that some lessons are really detailed, while others are a little more general.
2. It can get a little boring as the lessons go on
The reason for this is because the lessons mainly involve Sorkin talking to the camera.
While he is quite charismatic, honest and insightful, it can get a little tiring maintaining attention for countless lessons of him talking for 15 minutes straight.
3. In some lessons, he has a tendency to ramble
While I mentioned that one of his strengths is his anecdotal style, this does mean that sometimes he rambles on about a story for too long.
This comes across as a lesson that isn’t really well planned.
While it is entertaining, you can sometimes lose focus on the point he is trying to make.
All in all, I strongly recommend this MasterClass to any filmmaker or writer who is looking to learn some useful and practical skills to enhance their craft.
If you’re a writer, I think this course is a no-brainer.
Sorkin packs a done of knowledge and detail in this course. What’s more, the lessons and tips are very easy to digest and most importantly, they are practical.
Even if you’re not a writer, I still think you could get a lot out of this course. After all, the ability to tell story is a useful skill no matter who you are.
So wherever you are in your filmmaking or writing journey, I highly recommend you take this course and dive deep into all the assignments to get the most value out of it.
For me personally, this has given me a lot of insight into how to write stories that keep audiences engaged and entertained.
In my opinion, it makes sense to get the All-Access Pass. It’s only double the money and there are many courses that you might be interested in.
After all, big names like David Lynch teach creativity and film. Jodie Foster and Werner Herzog teach filmmaking. Mira Nair teaches Independent Filmmaking. There’s so much more.
So my advice is to go through the list of courses, who is teaching them and see if you’d consider taking a few of them.
If you would, then I think it’s a no-brainer to get the All-Access Pass rather than just spending $90 on one single course.
For filmmaking, I think it’s worth it to get the All-Access Pass as you’ll get more well-rounded knowledge on all things to do with filmmaking and storytelling. You’ll get plenty of actionable tips you can use throughout your creation.
Personally, I’ve certainly got my money’s worth when it comes to the All-Access Pass. I’ve now completed 10 courses, and besides a couple of them, I’ve found them all incredibly useful and practical.
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