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Shanee Edwards

Aaron Sorkin

How Does Aaron Sorkin Tackle His First Drafts? Let Him Tell You

By Screenwriting 101

Do you draft like Aaron Sorkin?

For most of us, writing a first draft of a screenplay can be exhilarating -- creating a new story, new characters, possibly writing in a new genre all adds up to a fabulous new adventure. But not all writers adhere to the same process when starting a first draft, and it can be really helpful to learn how others approach their first drafts. So, what about Aaron Sorkin?

Script Apart, a podcast hosted by Al Horner, actually features interviews with some of the most renowned writers in the industry to garner insight into how they craft their first drafts. The latest episode features the great Aaron Sorkin as he details the process he used to write the first draft of his Oscar-nominated film The Trial of the Chicago 7, a project that required dozens of drafts over its 14-year development.

Listen to Horner's excellent interview with Sorkin below, and then continue on for some of our takeaways.

To Outline or Not to Outline: Aaron Sorkin...doesn't

Sorkin says he’s never been a meticulous planner and, though it’s hard to believe, has never written an outline for a play or screenplay. “The closest I’ve come to planning,” says Sorkin, “is if I’ve come up with a first scene – a strong first scene with a strong intention and obstacle, a fun way to start, and I kind of know what the second scene is and a little bit about the third, then index cards will go up on my corkboard. It’s a lot like walking in the dark with a flashlight. You can only see as far ahead as that beam will go but the farther you walk, the further you can see.” 

Do you like to outline and plan as you work out your screenplay's structure or do you "walk in the dark with a flashlight" like Sorkin?

For Aaron Sorkin, It's Just About Getting to "Fade Out"

Aaron Sorkin encourages writers to get through the entire first draft before going back and making changes. “I tell people when you start writing a first draft and you get to page 40, and you’re starting to change your mind about things, don’t go back to the beginning and start again, says Sorkin. "Get to Fade Out, because by the time you get there, you’ll have learned a lot about what you’re writing.”

Think about the great sculptors, he suggests, comparing the process of writing a first draft to Michelangelo putting a slab of marble on a table and chipping away at the excess. “You get to the end of your first draft and you can start knocking away everything that isn’t David and building up the parts that are,” he says.

Writing a first draft can also be a time for exploration. Not everything in the first draft will make it to the final version so remember you will need to cut scenes – sometimes the scenes you love the most. For Chicago 7, Sorkin’s first draft was closer to a dramatized Wikipedia page about the events than a fully flushed out screenplay. But he says the process helped him figure out which scenes he would – and ultimately wouldn’t – include in the film.

Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7

'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

Don’t Judge Your Characters

All human begins (and characters in films) are seriously flawed. The bigger and clearer the flaw, the bigger the arc in a screenplay. Sorkin says you need to write characters like they’re yelling at God from the gates of heaven making their cases as to why they should be let in.  “It’s most important if you’re writing an antihero,” says Sorkin. “If you’re writing someone like Nicholson in A Few Good men or Zuckerberg in The Social Network, you can’t judge that character, you can’t decide they’re a bad guy. You have to write them as if they’re making their case to God why they should be let in to heaven.” 

Aaron Sorkin Says "Parachute Your Audience" Into Your Opening Scene

The opening scene of Chicago 7 begins with historical newsreel footage of President Johnson discussing the Vietnam War and the need to draft an increasing number of young men to go fight. Images of American flag-draped coffins let you know from the jump the stakes of are life and death. But this isn’t a documentary. Not only did Sorkin want to give context about the Vietnam War, but also introduce his leading characters. 

“There were eight members of the Chicago Seven and they were not all the same stripe,” says Sorkin. “You can’t put them in the box of, ‘Oh they’re hippies. They’re high, they’ve dropped out, they’re all about the Summer of Love.’ These are eight very different people and I wanted to show that while introducing the main characters. I also like to parachute the audience into a situation that’s already going a hundred miles an hour. Anytime you can get the audience to participate in the story, get their minds working, make them sit forward, it’s exhilarating for an audience. Finally, I needed to show a country coming off the rails. I needed to show the temperature going up.”

Keep in Mind That Your Ending May Change

When we sit down to write a first draft, most of us know how the story will end, especially if the story is based on true events. But an ending can shift or change as you get more intimate with the story and your characters.  Sorkin says the ending of Chicago 7 had different versions early on, but after all these years, he can’t remember specifics. But from the very beginning, however, he knew he wanted the movie to have a happy ending. “I want people to have that goosebump, lump in your throat experience,” says Sorkin. He wanted the ending to be, “a valentine to courage, to protest, to standing toe to toe with power.” 

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 is currently streaming on Netflix


Shanee Edwards is a screenwriter, journalist and author. After receiving her MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, she was hired to adapt various stories for the screen including Apes or Angels, the true story of naturalist Charles Darwin, and Three Wishes, based on the New York Times best selfing novel by Kristen Ashley. You can listen to her interview Oscar-winning screenwriters on The Script Lab Podcast, or read her book Ada Lovelace: the Countess who Dreamed in Numbers. Follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

Screenwriting 101: How to Get an Agent

By Contests, Screenwriting 101

It takes a lot of effort, time and possibly even a good amount of sweat and tears to write a kick-ass screenplay. Some of us have been at it for years. There are plenty of classes and books to help you along the way as you craft your story for the screen, but the one thing most people don’t mention is what to do after you have a screenplay that’s ready for the marketplace. 

Screenplays are products and to sell one, you need a literary agent. Some writers get by with just lawyers, but if you’re a new writer, you’ll likely want to start by getting a manager. A manager who believes in you will be able to refer you to agents with whom they have relationships. Agents, on the other hand, are most useful when you’re at the point where studios and/or producers are interested in one of your screenplays and can negotiate a deal. Most industry professionals recommend getting both a manager and an agent to set up your career with the best odds of success. 

If you don’t have any of the above, the first thing you’ll want to do on your quest for an agent is to get your screenplay read by industry professionals. Here are the best ways we’ve determined to get your script in front of Hollywood eyeballs and move your career to the next level. 

1. Make Query Phone Calls

It used to be common to send query letters, then emails. Finding an agent’s assistant’s email address is easy and there’s very little stress clicking the send button. But it’s just as easy to find that assistant’s office phone number, too. Very few people make phone calls anymore so this is a chance for you to stand out. Most likely, you won’t be able to get the assistant on the phone your first try so try a few times (1:00 PM to 2:00 PM PST is the industry standard lunch break, so avoid calling then).

If you do get them on the phone or are forced to leave a message, the secret is expressing your passion for your project while sounding like a sane adult. If you can make an argument as to why the story in your screenplay is the most gripping, relevant or funniest story of the year, you may get some interest. If you’re leaving a message, leave your phone number AND your email address, as they are more likely to email you back. But be smart about who you contact. If you know a manager represents primarily comedy writers, there’s no need to waste your time calling them about your post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic.

2. Attend Screenwriting Conferences and Summits

Some of the better conferences like Story Expo (held in New York and Los Angeles six months apart), Toronto Screenwriting Conference and ScreenCraft Writers Summit, invite successful screenwriters, literary agents and managers to give talks and be available to answer questions. These events are set in a much more casual environment than most industry events, so the odds of walking up and introducing yourself to a literary manager at one of the social mixes are in your favor.

3. Send Your Script to Screenwriting Competitions

Most of us have heard stories about doors opening for a screenwriter after winning a screenwriting competition. At the very least, many managers will request to read the winning script and that’s a good thing. But do your homework. Screenwriting competitions can get expensive so you need to target the competitions you enter. The likelihood of a raunchy comedy winning the Nicholl competition is pretty low, so send them your best dramatic screenplay. If you write horror, focus on The Bloodlist. Austin Film Festival has a great competition and their conference is very writer-friendly. There are several good competitions out there that can open doors for new writers.

4. Go to Film Festivals

Even if you don’t live in Los Angeles or New York, you can still go to film festivals like Sundance, Slamdance or South by Southwest and meet other filmmakers, producers, agents and managers. Bring a stack of postcards or business cards that have the name of your screenplay or web series, the logline, your website/blog and your email address. 

5. Get a Job as an Assistant 

If you’re in Los Angeles or New York, or even some of the cities where a lot of filming takes place like Vancouver or Atlanta, there are plenty of film companies and production studios looking to hire that amazing assistant. It’s a great way to learn the business and to make contacts. If you’re nice, professional and helpful, someone will certainly be willing to read your script. 

6. Stunt Marketing

What is stunt marketing? It’s promoting your script in a clever way that hasn’t been done before. Billy Domineau wrote a Seinfeld spec called “Twin Towers” about 9/11 that went viral and landed him a job on Family Guy. Henry C. King purchased billboards near Sony in Culver City and in Studio City near Universal Studios directing anyone interested to look up his script on blcklst.com. These methods are unconventional so do your research before spending any money.

Here is the Writers Guild of America’s list of accredited agents. Be sure to let us know if you have any success!


ShaneeEdwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards


For all the latest from Coverfly, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

You Wrote A Screenplay. Now It’s Time to Turn It Into One Sentence.

By About Coverfly, Screenwriting 101

You’ve done the impossible: you’ve typed the famous FADE OUT, hit save, and completed your cinematic masterpiece. Congratulations! Now comes the fun part of convincing people to read your screenplay. Getting someone to read your script could become the hardest thing you’ve ever done. No joke. Reading scripts is like a first date – you need to psych yourself up in hopes that this one won’t be as bad as the last. Like a killer dating profile, you need something to draw the reader in and get them excited to read your script. Behold the most powerful tool in your arsenal – the logline!

Less is more when it comes to loglines.

A logline should be short, sweet, and to the point. You probably already know what a logline is and have tried your hand at crafting one for each of your projects, but we want your logline to be the best it can be. So let’s skip the basics and get down to the nitty-gritty. A good logline can sell your project, but a poorly written one might be an indication that your script is poorly written, too. If you're preparing your project profile for Coverfly's Free Pitch Week or Live Reads, then this blog post is an excellent place to start.

One, maybe two sentences.

Oftentimes loglines should be only one sentence, but don’t be afraid to stretch it out to two. Sometimes it’s hard to jam everything in and, to help build out the hook, you’ll need space to move. Getting into three to four sentences, however, can be too much information.

It’s this meets that.

If you’re finding yourself able to express the story, but not capture the tone, then consider adding comparables. More often than not, when someone says it’s “this meets that,” we can start to get a visual image. If we hear, “It’s Hot Tub Time Machine meets Little House on the Prairie,” we start to see a fish-out-of-water story about someone who accidentally goes back in time to prairie life in the 1800s. The two concepts in tandem can change the outlook on a script.

The three logline essentials.

There are three core elements you’ll want to incorporate within your logline: character, plot, and tone. In addition, you’ll want to use an active voice and aim to avoid character names (unless they’re well-known figures). It helps to give enough information to whet the appetite, but not enough to give away too much. While these are guidelines, rules can bend and break. Don’t get wrapped up in all the details; we’re selling a story here. Remember, the goal is to entice them to read this script, so hook them with the main elements. Otherwise, you can just write a summary and watch eyes glaze over.

Find the hook.

The easiest, utmost basic template you can follow is this: A character is THIS, but when THAT happens, he NOW must do this.

Essentially, it’s just the first act, break into act two, and a teaser as to what the second and third act will be. The “but” is critical because that is where the hook lives. You can usually turn to the act two break to find your hook. The hard part here is each story is unique, so you need to figure out what distinguishes your story from all others. Making clear what’s relatable and original about your story will further hook your reader.

Use loglines from existing movies in the same genre to guide you.

Here are three loglines from notable movies: 

1. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a young farmer dreams to escape his mundane life. When he begins tinkering with a few broken-down robots, he discovers a fateful message that sends him on the adventure of a lifetime.

Obviously, this is from Star Wars, and it gets to the core of the story.

2.  When a 23-year-old slacker musician falls head-over-heels in love with a beautiful young woman, he’s shocked to discover he must battle her seven evil ex-boyfriends to be with her.

From Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, we learn it’s an action-filled romance distinguished by the battle between a slouch and his love-interest’s seven evil ex-boyfriends. 

3. Desperately wanting to be accepted by the cool kids, two nerdy teenagers agree to supply beer for a party. But when they learn that their friend’s fake ID is a bust, they must go to the ends of the earth to get the booze or confirm they are the losers everyone thinks they are.

This logline from Superbad makes the story very relatable because everyone has a memory of wanting to fit in. 

While these are not the official studio loglines, they include the primary story beats and just enough context to pique interest.

Streamline your loglines. 

Once you start to get the essentials of the narrative, start to figure out how to make it exciting.

Try different variations of your logline, ranging from completely different sentences to just a few words changed throughout; it all comes down to a single word sometimes.

For instance: A theme park suffers a major power outage that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok, forcing paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant to risk his own life to protect two young children.

Jurassic Park’s logline gives you everything you’re getting in the story and every word is essential to convey this. What if it was adjusted?

During a preview tour of cloned dinosaurs, a theme park suffers a major power outage that allows its exhibits to run amok.

It still works because... well dinosaurs. But it doesn’t have the emotional impact of the first one. In thinking of previous rules about character, plot, and tone, this specific one lacks our protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant. It shows sometimes rules can be broken and that dinosaurs can outsell people.

Another strong example: Three groomsmen lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during a night of drunken escapades in Las Vegas, forcing them retrace their steps to find him.

The Hangover is a story that many of us can relate to, whether or not you’ve been to a bachelor(ette) party or Las Vegas which hooks us in. It answers the who, what, where and why of the story while sneaking tone in by using specific words like “buddy.”

Logline structure.

When you start to tear down loglines, keep in mind the type of story you are trying to tell. I can’t stress this enough. Very often, a logline promises a story that the script doesn’t deliver. Imagine thinking you’re getting Jurassic Park, but then read Schindler’s List. While both are great (and Spielberg films coincidentally), you don’t want to disappoint the reader.

Loglines help focus your story.

A logline is a great tool to help develop your script further. If you’re having difficulty getting the story down to a sentence or two, or you’re struggling to find the hook/other elements you need to convey, you may want to evaluate your narrative as a whole as there might be some underlying story problems you weren’t aware of. It’s a great way to start to find the story within the story and zero in on what you want to tell.

Practice makes perfect.

A logline is a tool to learn about your story as much as it is a sales pitch. Make it exciting, eye-catching, and draw in the right audience. Don’t forget what type of story you’re telling and stick to it. Stretch the logline out if you need to and go for two sentences. Use comparables. Lose the micro-details that, while may be essential to the narrative, aren’t necessary to get the read. Stick to the overarching concept that makes your story seem fresh and will be like nothing a producer or director has ever read. 

More helpful tools.

Once you have your killer logline, be sure to include it in your writer profile, here on Coverfly. We're the industry’s largest database of screenwriting competition entries, searchable by industry pros who are looking for good screenplays. The best part of Coverfly is that you can add your profile and screenplay for FREE. A tip: when creating your profile, include your demographic information, including awards and placements for discoverable projects, links to social media, agent and manager representation and a profile pic. Providing this data helps producers who are looking for writers with specific traits that will make stories feel more authentic and true to a certain voice being expressed.

Ready to pitch your ideas to agents and managers?

The deadline for applying to Coverfly’s next Pitch Week is December 1. After reviewing applications, 20 to 50 writers will be selected and matched for virtual video conference meetings and phone calls with Hollywood literary agents and managers. It’s free to apply and free to participate. Sign up here.


ShaneeEdwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards


For all the latest from Coverfly, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.