If you don’t know the man, you most certainly know his work. And even if you haven’t seen a single film or TV show he’s written, you know about them through pop culture. His fast-talking, fast-walking quixotic characters working behind the scenes of the White House, a newsroom, a sketch comedy show is now the stuff of zeitgeist, and known all around the world. Here are a few pieces of advice from the man responsible for it all.
“Rather than tell the audience who the character is, I like to show the audience what the character wants. It all boils down to intention and obstacle: somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it. They want the girl, they want the money, they want to get to Philadelphia — it doesn’t matter, but they have to want it bad. If they can need it, that’s even better. Something formidable is standing in their way, and the tactics that that character uses to overcome the obstacle is going to define who the character is.”
“The properties of people and the properties of character have almost nothing to do with each other. I know it seems like they do, because we look alike, but people don’t speak in dialogue, their lives don’t unfold in a series of scenes that form a narrative arc. The rules of drama are very much separate from what we know from the properties of life.”
“Story and plot is real weakness. I consider plot to be a necessary intrusion on what I really want to do, which is write dialog. And I can’t write dialog unless there’s a plot. So I will get myself as loaded up as I can on who wants what and what’s standing in their way, just two people in a room who disagree — they could disagree on the correct time of day — but they have to disagree. And once I have that, go ahead and write.”
Aaron Sorkin is famous for creating talky pictures with hypercommunicative characters. All of them argue with each other, sometimes over minutia, sometimes over life and death matters. The real reason they argue in the first place is that they have strong opinions and the need to prove them — intention, and another character they need to prove the opinions to — obstacle. This is an essential rule of storytelling, and keeping track of the intention and obstacle throughout each character’s arc will change the way you experience — and write — drama.
On a Writer’s Voice
“What I’m aware of is sticking to my own voice. [ … ] When I’m starting something, I feel like I need to start it in somebody else’s voice. For instance, with the Social Network, when I began writing it, I was very aware that these were the youngest characters that I’ve ever written for — they alternate between 19 and 25 years old in the movie — and that I needed to sound youthful. And more than that, it was taking place in the 21st century, and I’m just not somebody who’s in the the 21st century, so I needed to skateboard it up or Mountain Dew it up. There are at least two things about that that are crazy. One is, not all 19 year-olds speak alike, that’s not a language. And the other is, I’m terrible when I’m trying to write like somebody else. I tried about a page and a half of that, pulled my head off my torso, put it back on and said, ‘You can’t write like anybody but yourself.'”
The takeaway from this is obvious: write the only way you know how, not the way someone else writes. If you’re worried that the way ‘you’ write is not good, take solace in the fact that it’s at least unique. In any case, writing like someone else can only be a hindrance, so it was never a real option in the first place.
On Being Stuck
“Frequently if I’m really stuck I’ll go out into a public place – a diner, a bus stop, any place you might overhear a conversation. I hope that I can land in the middle of a conversation that will get me thinking, ‘What in the world was the beginning of this conversation?’ I’ll try to write that. I was in a diner once and overheard somebody really frustrated say, ‘I mean, honestly, how many people can you think of named Gordon?’ I thought, ‘I’m going to get out of here and write the rest of this scene, not the beginning of this scene.’ I was in Jackson, Mississippi, and passed by a park bench, and two men were sitting there, and one of them said, ‘Who thought they were going to get the jump on Jesus?’ Again, I thought, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ He wrote the best line in the scene, now let me write the rest of it.”
If you’re feeling stuck in your writing, you need to go out and experience the world. Even if you write nonfiction, your audience still needs to have a connection to the material, and that’s not going to happen unless it comes from the real world. So what you need to do is go out there and experience as much stuff as you can. It will fuel your writing, guaranteed — even if it’s not in the direct way that Mr. Sorkin is talking about it here.