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.
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.”
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