Aaron Sorkin is one of the few screenwriters whose name alone can get a film greenlit. And Aaron Sorkin scripts not only make great TV or film blueprints but are genuinely compelling to read as works of fiction.
1. Action Doesn’t Have to be Physical
Dialogue is Action
Screenwriters wanting to write scripts that include uncompromising and combative language should look no further than Sorkin’s work. His scripts, for example, use the rhythm and timbre of courtroom and political dialogue to produce something special.
His scripted court scenes read as a breakneck back-and-forth where characters spit zingers across the room like tennis balls. The action is conveyed by this specific rise and fall of dialogue.
This is because Sorkin writes dialogue as if it is action. In this script excerpt from A Few Good Men, for example, he creates a palpable tension between the characters, highlighting their opposed agendas and escalating conflict. Perhaps the most famous line in A Few Good Men is “You can’t handle the truth”. However, this line makes such an impact because Sorkin has ratcheted up the tension throughout the scene.
Below is an extract that shows the cross-examination of Naval Colonel Jessep by rookie lawyer Daniel Kaffee which perfectly sets this aggressive tone:
In the scene, Sorkin makes Jessep confirm and repeat what he believes to be important testimony. In response, Kaffee’s character meets Jessep toe to toe with curt deference. By using these narrative tics Sorkin raises the action stakes using language alone.
It is the speed and timbre of the conversation which move the plot along at pace, leading to a crescendo, not unlike a set piece in an action movie. This is even more impressive when considering that Jessep delivers all of his lines from a seated position.
Aaron Sorkin scripts show that a tense argument can excite an audience, create action and drive the plot forward, even in a scene set in a single room. The dialogue isn’t just a vessel for the story but a weapon that the characters deploy against one another.
2. Use a Statement Monologue
Sorkin is a big fan of using extended monologues in his screenwriting. And getting to deliver big meaty speeches is one of the reasons why actors frequently want to work with him. Sorkin’s scripts are full of stirring calls to action. And they often mirror the works of Shakespeare, or other stage writing, in this regard. So Sorkin’s wordy writing is, of course, catnip for performers.
However, scripts are written for the audience, not for the players. On-screen, it’s more difficult for a script full of long, uninterrupted speeches to hold the audience’s attention. So Aaron Sorkin scripts always include specific features to justify the use of lengthy monologues.
One of the primary goals of dialogue is to convey information in a compelling form. Sorkin writes monologues which slowly reveal that information, almost as if the actor delivering the lines didn’t mean to give away certain details. This careful trickling of information makes the audience desperate to discover more.
Reveal the Personal
The information reveal can come in many forms, but Sorkin monologues frequently include disclosures of personal information. This humanizes the monologue giver and creates a bond between actor and audience.
- The President is effectively ranting at God.
- In this monologue, it feels that President Bartlet is inadvertently conveying so much about his private, inner thoughts. There is his frustration and sadness, his fervent Catholicism and doubts in his faith.
- In script form, this monologue looks long:
But on screen, Sorkin’s pacing of the sentences is so strong that the speech flows naturally and feels far shorter. Notice, for example, how there are questions peppered throughout the speech.
- This makes it so that the character doesn’t so much feel like they are talking to the audience but to someone else, even if they’re truly talking to themselves.
- Moreover, by continually asking questions and then responding in a kind of way, the monologue feels more like a dialogue.
Sorkin ultimately makes the monologue feel less burdensome as it’s so intrinsically linked with the character’s internal conflict. It doesn’t feel like exposition in this regard, but a vital insight into the character’s mind that couldn’t be achieved via other means.
This monologue also works because the script has been well-crafted both in terms of what is being conveyed and how the form is used. Sorkin makes great use of precise grammar, syntax and parentheses. These screenwriting skills when used together communicate information about the plot and provide a deeper, personal insight into a character.
3. Cut Scenes Together to Breadcrumb the Story
Aaron Sorkin doesn’t only rely on long monologues in his scripts because, if overused, monologues can lose the audience’s attention. Instead, Sorkin scripts often include shorter scenes sandwiched between longer speeches. This is, in part, what makes the monologues work. Sorkin is able to build a gripping story by carefully pairing scenes.
Often, for instance, Sorkin pairs slower-paced segments with those full of action in order to breathe momentum into the entire narrative. This bread-crumbing of ideas both tantalizes and frustrates.
Reading Sorkin’s scripts can teach screenwriters when and how to make precise scene cuts to achieve this dynamism. The scenes must be cut together at exactly the right moment in each plot or timeline to provide a hook and gradually build a relationship between different elements.
Cutting Away From the Boring
The use of quick cuts between scenes set in different places in Sorkin scripts also helps with another common screenwriting issue. As mentioned above, Aaron Sorkin scripts frequently feature characters delivering explanatory dialogue in dry locations. But by cutting together multiple scenes, some full of impetus, others focussing on delivering necessary exposition – like a deposition scene – Sorkin conjures high drama.
For example, the script for The Social Network includes multiple scenes in faceless legal offices. Characters are in legal fights in dull boardroom hearings. These scenes would be boring and difficult to follow in the hands of a lesser screenwriter. But Sorkin’s use of quick cuts between different scene types creates a sense of urgency. Now scenes act like boxers trading shots.
See this scene in The Social Network which includes cut after cut comparing excited campus students with a later legal hearing about the exchange in question:
There are four scene cuts on this page alone. But each cut is related to the other. The separate scenes are in direct conversation with each other and consequently, the sequence feels completely cohesive.
Reading Aaron Sorkin‘s script for The Social Network one can see that the script includes many scenes from deposition hearings juxtaposed against action scenes. Sorkin recognizes that visually representing ideas unfolding in concurrent timelines can be the best way to convey the feeling of the action as well as the facts of it. This moves us on to another key lesson to be learned from Aaron Sorkin scripts…
4. Show and Tell
The universal first rule of screenwriting is that the writer must show not tell. Aaron Sorkin scripts don’t exactly adhere to this rule. Instead, he seems to prefer to write scripts which show and tell.
However, Sorkin’s scripts are the result of his careful decisions. He balances at what point the audience will see what is happening on screen with when explanations of the visuals via dialogue would make more sense and when to show how the visuals impact on character journeys.
There is a Hollywood lore that every word and punctuation mark in an Aaron Sorkin script is there for a reason. This not only refers to the dialogue used but also to action descriptions and stage directions. Sorkin’s scripts show how he writes thrilling events by scheduling scenes with overlapping dialogue at pivotal moments. This requires pinpoint precision to connect words and images and reveal a greater theme.
Reading Aaron Sorkin scripts can help screenwriters see how such meticulous planning requires a number of pages. This is one of the reasons why Sorkin’s scripts are so lengthy, as he recognizes that a script must include information, instructions and imagery descriptions. However, what is long on the page is shorter on screen as these scenes will all be processed simultaneously by the viewer.
Sorkin’s script for The Trial of the Chicago 7 includes a brilliant example of this technique.
- For instance, a distressing riot scene is overlaid with one character’s court testimony and another character’s stand-up routine.
- The event in question is relayed via different means. But these different vessels for the riot together create a powerful, dissociative effect on the audience, helping ease the wealth of information conveyed and illustrating a powerful message about the story’s overall theme.
5. Educate and Entertain Through Repetition
The above-mentioned scene from The Trial of the Chicago 7 also illustrates another feature of Aaron Sorkin scripts. Sorkin loves to use repetition in his screenplays, partly to hammer his point home and partly to ensure that he doesn’t lose his audience when they come across a complex idea or industry term.
By having different characters in different circumstances repeat complicated terms, Sorkin can (somewhat) minimize the audience feeling patronised. And complex terms come up frequently in Aaron Sorkin‘s scripts, typically because he enjoys writing characters who are the best in the world at their specific jobs.
Sorkin creates believably intellectual characters on the page by asking them to explain complicated ideas using simple dialogue. Take his script for the film Moneyball about the success of Billy Beane as general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Baseball is a sport riven with numerical data and complex acronyms. But movies aren’t usually used as education texts.
So Sorkin is careful to ensure that the Moneyball script does not make the audience feel like they’re at school. He does this by including scenes where characters repeat information and unfamiliar words in conversation accepted by the scene partners. This makes the dialogue feel believable.
The above scene, for example, accomplishes a number of things in a short run time. It explains unusual sporting terms and data, introduces a new character as mathematically superior to the establishment and explains what Billy Beane’s goal is.
And the script does all of these things smoothly by making characters repeat complex terms in a naturalistic manner. Most characters within this scene are learning about Billy and Peter’s unique methods for recruiting players alongside the audience. This way, the audience doesn’t feel like they are being talked down to. Instead, they are partners in the scene.
Aaron Sorkin Scripts – In Conclusion
Is Aaron Sorkin the best screenwriter of all time? This debate, in a sense, isn’t important. What’s important is what budding screenwriters can take from one of the most successful and well-regarded screenwriters of all time.
You don’t have to hold him on a pedestal and worship everything he does. All writers make missteps (The Newsroom anyone?). However, what Aaron Sorkin‘s writing demonstrates is what it is that many audiences (and readers) will gravitate towards when it comes to a screenplay.
Aaron Sorkin, perhaps most of all, manages to lace his acerbic and fast-paced dialogue with meaning. And this, in turn, not only makes its texture enjoyable but allows it to move the story on too. His writing might seem to be free-flowing and loose. However, by giving his screenplays a tight structure he allows the best aspects of his writing skills to shine.
Sorkin is a master of technique in this regard, smuggling his own distinctive style into his screenplays through rigid attention to the essential craft of screenwriting and storytelling in general. The audience is in the hands of a confident storyteller in this regard, a feeling that makes any viewing experience inherently more enjoyable.
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This article was written by Sarah-Louise Dean and edited by IS staff.
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