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Aaron Sorkin Masterclass Review: An Inside Look

by Tom Shu

Last Updated on November 13, 2020 by Tom Shu

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What We Think

The Aaron Sorkin Masterclass is a great resource for intermediate and advanced writers who want a behind the scenes look into how Aaron Sorkin works. The course is filled with valuable trinkets of information sprinkled throughout its lessons. However, it does not focus on teaching the fundaments of screenwriting so it’s not the most beginner-friendly.

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Masterclass Black Friday Deal (Ends November 30): Masterclass is offering a pretty awesome give one annual membership get one annual membership for free Black Friday Deal! So, if you were thinking of getting Masterclass or giving it as a holiday gift, now is a great time.

PROS:

  • Trinkets of Info: Writing is extremely personal and each person will find little trinkets of information from Sorkin that will help them in their writing. In other words, you will learn things that are not in the standard textbooks.
  • Story Crafting: You will learn how to better craft a story which is helpful not only in writing but in many other aspects in your professional and personal life.
  • Value: At $180 for both the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass and the Masterclass library, it is a great value as you get 8 hours with Aaron Sorkin and access to many other masters in their field.
  • Knowledge: Aaron Sorkin is extremely knowledgeable and dives deep into a variety of different topics such as “Intention & Obstacles”, “The Rules of a Story”, and “Understanding the Audience”.
  • Real Examples: Sorkin uses different examples from his work on the Social Network, Steve Jobs, and The West Wing to illustrate different topics in lessons. He analyzes these examples to teach you why he wrote a scene the way he did.
  • Script Table Read Workshop: You get to sit in on a series of group table reads which is insightful as you get to hear Sorkin’s feedback for each screenplay as well as getting a better sense of what table reads are like.
  • The West Wing Writer’s Room: Aaron Sorkin and a group of students sit down in a writer’s room situation to figure out how to write episode 1 of the fifth season in The West Wing. It’s a great insight into how a writer’s room works and gives you an even better understanding of how Sorkin works with other writers.
  • Learn Your Weaknesses: As Aaron Sorkin is a master, you will get a better understanding of what areas in your writing needs the most work.

CONS:

  • Can’t Buy Classes Individually: You don’t have the option to buy classes individually now, so If you aren’t interested in the other Masterclass courses, it might not make sense.
  • Need to Work at It: As with any skill, to improve, you will need to put in the work and implement what you’ve learned. If you don’t have any plans to do this, you probably won’t get that much from the course.
  • Not Beginner Friendly: This course does assume you have a basic understanding of screenwriting so it’s not the most beginner friendly.

What to Consider Before Investing in an Online Screenwriting Course

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Online screenwriting courses are one of the best ways to improve on your fundamentals of screenwriting and now there are more choices than ever before. The best part about any online course is that you can learn at your own pace and they’re much cheaper than going to a university or enrolling in an in-person workshop.

However, before you spend your hard-earned money on any course, including this Masterclass from Aaron Sorkin, really be honest with yourself to understand your current skill level and where you want to take your screenwriting.

The reason why this is so important is that everyone learns differently and everyone is at a different point in their screenwriting career. If you’re just starting, then taking a Screenwriting 101 course might be more beneficial than taking a Masterclass course like this one from Aaron Sorkin.

Plus there is a huge variety of free and paid screenwriting courses available. Each course is designed for a specific audience and learning style. So, by understanding where you’re at in your journey, you’ll learn more effectively, learn more efficiently, and will get the best value for your investment.

In general, here are the different types of online screenwriting courses available and how they compare to the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass.

Recorded Course Created and Taught by a Master Screenwriter

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A course such as the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass in which the master creates and teaches the entire course from start to finish.

Who’s It For: Writers of all skill levels who would like to get an inside look into the mind of one of some of the best screenwriters there is. Additionally, writers who want to learn things that you can’t necessarily find in the textbooks.

Comparison: Currently there are no other products like the Aaron Sorkin masterclass. Many YouTube videos are dissecting different scenes in TV shows and movies by different writers, but there is not another 8-hour course taught by a master screenwriter such as this one by Aaron Sorkin.

Accredited Online Screenwriting Class

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2 – 15-week online screenwriting courses taught by experienced instructors in an online classroom setting. Some of these institutions include New York Film Academy or UCLA Extension.

Who’s It For: These types of courses are great if you are serious about pursuing a career in this industry, learn better in a structured environment, and want to develop a network in this industry.

Comparison: Accredited online screenwriting courses are much more in-depth and will hold you accountable with weekly deadlines for individual and group assignments. Because of this you will probably achieve more as a writer and will develop relationships with like-minded individuals. The downside is that these courses are much more expensive and time-intensive.

Free YouTube Channels About Screenwriting

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A huge variety of different channels with valuable and free information about a specific topic or an analysis of particular movies. Some of my favorite channels include Film Courage, Think Story, and Lessons from the Screenplay.

Who’s It For: These types of channels are great if you have a specific topic you’re researching or you want to learn from the analysis of particular movies.

Comparison: The biggest difference is that instead of analyzing a specific movie from the YouTube channel’s perspective, you get to review the analysis from the master himself in Aaron Sorkin. The downside is that Sorkin’s class often doesn’t go as deep as these YouTube channels but it does go broader.

Books About Screenwriting

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Books either in hardcopy form or in audiobook form are not an online course, but they are a great low-cost way to learn a lot about screenwriting. Some of my favorite books include Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

Who’s It For: Books are great if you want to dive deeper into the subject than what you can find in YouTube videos, but don’t want to invest in a course.
Comparison: Obviously with a book, even if it’s in audiobook form, you are not taught by an instructor and the lessons are not visual. The good part about books is that they usually contain more in-depth information than what you can find in other formats.

The Aaron Sorkin Masterclass

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Writing is an extremely personal skill that will take a lifetime to develop. Even though there are hard rules about what you can and cannot do when writing a screenplay, much of your success will come down to personal motivation, the processes you have implemented in your workflow, and your creativity in crafting an engaging story. 

At a certain point in developing your writing, you will also realize that it’s less about the facts and theories that you have absorbed from textbooks and more about what inspires you to write and take action. 

Because of this, you will learn different techniques and concepts from different teachers even if they’re talking about the same topic.

What makes this course so unique is that it’s taught by Aaron Sorkin who is arguably one of the most accomplished screenwriters in the world. The course is structured very thoughtfully and covers many aspects of what it takes to create a strong screenplay that keeps the audience engaged.

Although you don’t dive as deep into Sorkin’s scripts as you might with a YouTube channel such as Lessons from the Screenplay, it’s a great course that will give you nuggets of valuable information which you can apply to your writing right away.

Sorkin is fun to listen to, very charismatic, and surprisingly humble for being so successful. Most importantly, he concisely summarizes all of his knowledge into practical pieces of information and in a way “demystifies” his writing process.

With that said, like any Masterclass, there are some pros and cons. This course is tailored more for the intermediate and advanced writer and is not the most beginner-friendly which can be expected.

Who Is This Course For?

  • Advanced writers who already have an understanding of the fundamentals of the craft and want to learn things you can’t learn in textbooks. This is important as Sorkin doesn’t “teach” you how to write. What he does do is show you how he thinks and works and in doing so will allow you to see your writing through a new lens.
  • Writers who are fans of Aaron Sorkin’s work and would like to get a better understanding of how he thinks about writing.
  • Writers who want to get an inside look into what a script read through or writer’s room would look like with Aaron Sorkin leading the room.
  • Writers who want to learn at their own pace and have the time to invest in the additional course work that is recommended in the class workbook.
  • If you’ve ever wanted to take an in-person class from a master screenplay writer and don’t have the budget to go to film school. 
  • Writers who would also benefit from the other writing or filmmaking courses in Masterclass such as the David Lynch course on creativity and film, Werner Herzog course on filmmaking, and Shonda Rhimes course on writing for TV.

Who Is This Course Not For?

  • If you’re a new writer who is looking to learn the fundamentals of screenwriting.
  • If you’re not willing to do the work or don’t have the time to invest in the “homework” from the class workbook, then you probably won’t learn as much as you could from this course.
  • If you’re looking for an extremely deep dive into all of Sorkin’s works. This course does use examples from The West Wing, Steve Jobs, and the Social Network, but it doesn’t dive too deep.
  • If you’re not a fan of Sorkin’s work.
  • If you aren’t interested in taking any of the other Masterclasses.

A Quick Note on Masterclass

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The cost for the Masterclass Annual Pass is $180 and for this price, you get access to the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass and the rest of the Masterclass Library.

In my opinion, this is an incredible value considering the quality of the classes and the level of expertise of each teacher. There is honestly no other online course where you can take an 8-hour screenwriting class with Aaron Sorkin and then the next day take a filmmaking course taught by Werner Herzog or writing for TV course taught by Shonda Rhimes.

Since the focus of this article is on the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass, I’m not going to get into the details of the other classes. However, if you want to see what other classes are in the Masterclass library, you can just head over to their website. Once you’re there, you can browse each class offering and you can even see detailed information about each lesson in the class.

Inside the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass – A Complete Look

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The Aaron Sorkin Masterclass is broken down into 35 different lessons for a total of 8 hours. Like all the other Masterclasses, you also get access to a downloadable workbook. The workbook is a nice companion resource as it summarizes each lesson and gives you homework assignments to complete before the next lesson which will further ingrain what Sorkin went over.

Here is what you can expect from each lesson in the course and why I think the lesson is useful. 

Chapter 2 – Intention and Obstacle

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In this first lesson, Aaron Sorkin goes over intention and obstacle and why it’s arguably the most important aspect of creating a strong screenplay. As Sorkin says, the intention and obstacle in the screenplay is the drive shaft of the car. Without these two aspects of your story, it can’t go anywhere.

Why It’s Useful: All great stories have strong intentions and obstacles which will create friction for the characters in the story. The lesson is useful as Sorkin introduces the concept and goes over how you can show it in your screenplay and when to introduce it in your story.

Chapter 3 – Story Ideas

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In Chapter 3, you will learn how to formulate the ideas you have into a screenplay. Most importantly, you will find out that even though you have an idea for a screenplay, you don’t have a story until you can use the words “but”, “except”, and “then”. The lesson then dives deeper into figuring out where the conflict is in the story and whether or not the story is a better fit for TV or as a feature.

Why It’s Useful: Understanding what makes a story versus just having an idea is an important distinction to make as you’re formulating your screenplay.

Chapter 4 and 5 – Developing Characters Part 1 and 2

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In this lesson, you will first dive deeper into how all great characters are not just created but born from intention and obstacle. Then Sorkin will cover some of the things he likes to do when developing his characters.

Why It’s Useful: Writing a great character is tricky and Sorkin provides you many nuggets of practical advice that you can use right away in your character development.

Chapter 6 and 7 – Research + Incorporating Research

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In these next two lessons, you will learn what to focus on during the research phase of writing your screenplay and various tactics you can use to help improve your research.

Why It’s Useful: There are two different types of research. The first type is the factual information you need and the second type is information you need to figure out the plot of the screenplay. It’s important to be tactical when you conduct your research as it’s easy to get sidetracked and waste time.

Chapter 8 – The Audience

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In chapter 8 you take a look at one of the most important aspects of a successful screenplay, the audience. You learn that the audience doesn’t want to just sit back and relax, but wants to participate in the movie. Most importantly, Sorkin articulates what you should avoid so you don’t lose the audience.

Why It’s Useful: If you can’t satisfy your audience then you won’t have a successful screenplay. Sometimes when writing, it’s easy to get lost in the writing and lose sight that the screenplay will eventually be acted out for an audience to see. The practical pieces of advice in this lesson will help you keep things in perspective.

Chapter 9 – Rules of the Story

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In this lesson you learn that although writing a screenplay is a creative endeavor and art, there are still strict rules in place which make the art beautiful. Most importantly, you find out that when you start to pitch your screenplay, you will run into many people who will make up rules about why your screenplay might not work.

Why It’s Useful: By understanding the rules of the story, you will better be able to write an interesting screenplay that works. Additionally, you will be able to separate the good advice from the bad.

Chapter 10 – Film Story Arc

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In chapter 10 you learn about how to set up a 3-act drama and what to include in each act. Most importantly, Sorkin goes over how you can set up Act 3 through exposition in Act 1 and why you have to make the first 15 pages of your screenplay the most memorable.

Why It’s Useful: Learning how to to effectively craft your story to fit the film story arc will help to ensure that your audience remains engaged and entertained throughout the film.

Chapter 11 – Writing Habits

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Chapter 11 is one of my favorite lessons. In this lesson, you learn all about how Aaron Sorkin prepares to write and what he does when he has writer’s block. The reason why I like this lesson so much is that it humanizes Sorkin and shows you that no matter what level of a writer you are, you will still struggle at some points. What’s important is how you overcome this struggle.

Why It’s Useful: Writing is hard and it’s hard for everyone at every level. Learning about what strategies Sorkin uses to get over writer’s block and inspire himself might give you some ideas for when you’re struggling too.

Chapter 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 – Group Workshop

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I think this workshop series is invaluable to any aspiring writer. In this series of lessons, you get a behind the scenes look into a group read-through of screenplays written by 5 different up and coming writers (each lesson is a different screenplay). After the read-through,, you will follow along as Sorkin provides feedback for the writer. 

Why It’s Useful: You will not only get an inside look into what a group read-through with Sorkin is like, but you can also learn from the feedback he gives to each writer.

Chapter 17 and Chapter 18 – Writing Scenes Part 1 and 2

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In these next two lessons,, Aaron Sorkin gives you some practical advice on how to strengthen the scenes in your screenplay. Also, he gives you specific examples of what makes a great character introduction scene and a great opening scene.

Why It’s Useful: Your screenplay is essentially a series of scenes so if you can strengthen the scenes then you will strengthen the screenplay as a whole.

Chapter 19  – Scene Case Study: Steve Jobs

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In this lesson, you take a deep dive into the first-act scene between Steve Jobs and Andy Hertzfeld when Hertfeld is telling Steve Jobs that the voice demo for the 1984 launch demo of the Macintosh has a 1 in 6 chance of working. Through the analysis of this scene, you learn what the intention and obstacles are and why the scene works.

Why It’s Important: Listening to Sorkin analyze this scene gives you a better understanding of the lessons that he has gone over to this point and how he thinks when he writes.

Chapter 20 – Scene Case Study: The West Wing

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In this lesson, you take a deep dive into the episode “Posse Comitatus” from season 3 of The West Wing when President Bartlet runs into his presidential opponent Robert Ritchie in the backroom of a Broadway theater. Through the analysis of this scene, you learn about the intentions of Bartlet and Ritchie, and how their different intentions lead to a very interesting dialogue.

Why It’s Important: Listening to Sorkin analyze this scene gives you a better understanding of how solid intention can lead to strong and interesting dialogue.

Chapter 21 – Writing Captivating Dialogue

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In this lesson, you learn how Sorkin compares dialogue to music and how the similarities between the two help him craft an interesting dialogue between characters. Most importantly, Sorkin shows you how he tests out his dialogue to see if his writing is stilted or if it flows.

Why It’s Important: Dialogue is the most personal part of writing and it’s also one of the hardest parts to teach. By hearing how Sorkin thinks about and executes dialogue in his screenplay you will get a better understanding of how to improve your dialogue writing.

Chapter 22 – Dialogue Case Study: The West Wing

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Adding to the previous lesson, you take an even closer look into the dialogue between Bartlet and Ritchie in the same scene from lesson 20 to deconstruct the musical qualities found in the scene.

Why It’s Important: By taking some time to analyze Sorkin’s writing, you get to see how much similarity there is between his dialogue and music. This is probably one of the main reasons why Sorkin’s dialogue plays off each other so nicely. 

Chapter 23 – Rewrites: First Draft

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In this first lesson about rewrites, Sorkin goes over some tips he has when it comes to rewriting the first draft of your screenplay.

Why It’s Important: At this point of writing your screenplay, it’s probably not as good as you think it is and there is still a lot of work to be done. The information Sorkin provides in this lesson gives you a good understanding of the next steps you should take and what to focus on.

Chapter 24 – Rewrites: Notes

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Continuing from the previous lesson, you learn about how Sorkin collects feedback for the first draft of his script and the process he uses to retype the script.

Why It’s Important: When collecting feedback for your script and when writing your 2nd, 3rd, 4th draft, etc, its important to find people that you can rely on and trust. By going through Sorkins process, you will get a better understanding of how you can improve on your rewriting process.

Chapter 25 to 32 – The West Wing Writers Room

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This is my favorite section of the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass and one that I think every aspiring writer needs to watch. In The West Wing Writers Room chapters, you will get a behind the scenes look as Sorkin and the group of writers from the group workshop come together to write the first episode of Season 5 of The West Wing. 

The reason why this series is so valuable is that you get to see what a writer’s room looks and feels like with Sorkin in charge. Additionally, you will learn more about what the brainstorming process might look like in making an episode of an award-winning drama.

Why It’s Important: Unless you have been part of a writer’s room under a deadline before, it’s hard to replicate how it looks and feels.

Chapter 33 and 34  – Group Workshops: Pitch Sessions

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These next two lessons are more for fun and don’t contain the most valuable information. In the first lesson, you will hear pitches from 3 out of the 5 writers in the group workshop. Sorkin does provide some feedback, but each feedback session is short and doesn’t contain too much information. 

In the second lesson, Sorkin pitches an idea he has titled “Mission to Mars” to the rest of the writers. 

Why It’s Important: These are the only two lessons in the Masterclass that I think are ok to skip. It’s fun to watch, but there is not much information.

Chapter 35 – Closing Thoughts

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In this lesson, Sorkin closes out his Masterclass and leaves you with some very valuable pieces of wisdom to help you on your journey. Here are just some of the points he brings up in this lesson:

  • Learning how to fail early in your career is important as the consequences of failing when you’re just starting are much smaller.
  • Take chances as that is the only way to find out what you’re good at.
  • Make sure you write the way you want to write.

Why It’s Important: When you’re just starting, failing doesn’t have as big of consequence as later in your career. You will always learn something from your failures, so it’s important to embrace failure as a development tool.

Conclusion

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Writing is extremely personal and there are so many different routes you can take to become a professional writer. Like many creative skills, one of the best ways to improve is by doing. 

Yes, you have to understand the fundamentals of screenwriting to succeed. However, at a certain point in your career, the facts and the textbook knowledge you have will be less important. What will be important is that you’re inspired and proactive about taking action and that you understand yourself as a writer.

This Masterclass is a great course to take to inspire your own writing and to obtain practical information that you can implement into your own writing process right away.

It’s true the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass isn’t for everyone, but if you have always wanted to learn from Sorkin or another master screenwriter, this is one of the best options!

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