Learning from the master

One of my favourite writers - and a master at character and dialogue. And plot. And humour... and ...

One of my favourite writers – and a master at character and dialogue. And plot. And humour… and …

I’m having a bit of a fan girl thing at the moment – and in between blinking in awe at the light bulb moments, I’m learning a fair bit about how to write. I’ve written ten books (eight published and two more on their way), and won a few awards, but that’s not enough to make me think I know it all – or even that I know a lot. A bit… I think I know a bit about writing, but I’m always looking to learn more.

When signing up for a writing course, or looking for a mentor, I think it’s important that person be someone whose work you admire. If that person’s work is so good it takes your breath away – literally – then that’s even better. So when I found out that Aaron Sorkin was doing an online Masterclass in screenwriting, I couldn’t get my credit card out fast enough.

I am not a screenwriter, although as a movie buff, the idea does appeal. But good story telling is good story telling, whatever medium. Books and films and television all need captivating characters, sparkling dialogue and engrossing plot twists.

And nobody does these things better than Aaron Sorkin. For those who don’t know him – he wrote, among other things – A Few Good Men, The American President, The Social Network, Steve Jobs (the one starring Michael Fassbender), The West Wing, The Newsroom… and a few other bits and pieces. His shelves must be groaning under the weight of all the awards he’s won.

I first discovered Sorkin in The West Wing - which legend says he pitched off the cuff with some leftover ideas from the film The American President. That's what I call a pitch!

I first discovered Sorkin in The West Wing – which legend says he pitched off the cuff with some leftover ideas from the film The American President. That’s what I call a pitch!

The course is a series of lectures and workshops… I’m not finished yet, but I already know that when I have finished, I’ll go back and watch it again. A lot of what he’s saying I have heard before. Or knew already. Or thought I knew. But sometimes, just presenting something in a different way can make all the difference. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m a fan.

Sorkin has written two great film about men who are icons of our time.

Sorkin has written two great film about men who are icons of our time.

Here are a few of the things Sorkin has said that resonated with me, not that I haven’t heard other people say similar things, but because the way he said these things just flicked the switch on some light bulbs.

  • When writing anti-heroes or villains, it is important to identify with them rather than judge them. If you can put yourself in their thoughts, in their point of view, you are less likely to end up with a cliché bad guy.
  • Avoid meaningless research, and look for nuggets that can lead to an engaging plot point. Look for the things you didn’t expect … and don’t worry if you don’t know what questions to ask. Find an expert on that topic and start with “Tell me something I don’t know about…”
  • You will lose your audience if you confuse them. Even the tiniest bit of confusion can ruin the experience. However, be careful of going too far in the other direction – telling them something they already know. And never talk down to your audience.
  • Rewriting is a lot easier than writing, because you have a problem to solve. There’s something wrong with the scene or paragraph or sentence and you have to fix it. Rewriting is NOT the sign of a bad script. It’s the sign of a good writer.

That one in particular has worked for me because I’m been in edits on the latest book as I’ve been watching this.

Brilliant writing - with an amazing performance by Jack Nicholson to make it unforgettable.

Brilliant writing – with an amazing performance by Jack Nicholson to make it unforgettable.

And finally – we’ve all heard of the three act play. That we should structure our books in three acts parts.  I’ve heard many different people try to explain this structure… and some of those explanations have made sense. But this is surely the best and clearest explanation ever….

  • Act 1: You chase your hero up a tree.
  • Act 2: You throw rocks at them.
  • Act 3: You get them down (or not).

Thank you Aaron Sorkin.

I do recommend this course. The next part for me is to watch A Few Good Men. I have the DVD of course. As part of the Masterclass, I’ve been given a copy of Sorkin’s script. So now I’m going to watch and read and try to figure out what makes it so great.

Then I’ll go back to throwing rocks at a character up a tree.

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10 thoughts on “Learning from the master

  1. Pingback: Learning from the master – Take Five Authors – Jenny Harper Author

  2. It sounds like a wonderful course, Janet, and I htink writers can learn so much from across genres. I love the three acts structure!
    Sue’s comment has reminded me I lent my copy of Robert McKee’s Story to someone who has not returned it!

    Liked by 2 people

      • So do I, Janet. Sometimes it is the most unlikely of people who fail to return a book. A friend has a thing like a cheque book and when she lends a book the tear off bit goes with the book with her name on it and the ‘stub’ has the name of the book and who she lent it to. I must try to find one for me.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with you about screenwriters having a lot to teach us about story, Janet. I attended Robert McKee’s seminar called ‘Story’ a couple of years ago and it was mega. I filled a notebook and a bit with notes.

    Liked by 2 people

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