Skip to main content

Aaron Sorkin

The West Wing's Emmy-winning writer explains the "barometer of artistic integrity."

Once you've conquered Broadway and Hollywood, topping yourself is a tall order. But after successes on the stage (A Few Good Men) and the silver screen (A Few Good Men and The American President), writer Aaron Sorkin now offers viewers the wit and wisdom of The West Wing every Wednesday night on NBC.

The hour-long political drama about an impassioned White House senior staff won a record nine Emmy awards after its first season, including one for writing. The trophy haul means that Sorkin now has an Outstanding American Playwright award, two Golden Globe nominations for screenwriting and an Emmy. Not bad for a guy who dreamed of being an actor.

In fact, Sorkin only turned to writing on a whim, and his first play was good enough to merit some high-profile stage readings. His second, much of it written on cocktail napkins, was A Few Good Men. By then, Sorkin had discovered that, unlike acting, writing lets you say whatever you want.

As a master of three mediums, Sorkin is in a unique position to compare them. "On the barometer of artistic integrity, the reading tends to be 'Plays Good. Movies Bad. Television Worse.' Don't you believe it," he says. "Mediums are not good or bad, only the work."

There is evidence of that truth in the complex, fast-paced and riveting pleasure of The West Wing. But along the way, Sorkin also has learned a few lessons about writing for television. Chief among them: Television requires compromise.

"We're shooting my first draft. There isn't time to write several drafts, do two weeks of previews and get it the way you'd like it," he says. "But the reward on the other end is phenomenal. A script that I write this week is going to be on television completely intact three weeks from now. If I was writing a screenplay, I could write a joke today and not hear the laughs for another two years."

Although there is a writing staff for The West Wing, it is primarily a collaboration of content. Sorkin relies on other writers to suggest possible issues—say, school vouchers, slavery reparations and firing a cabinet member—and to collect research. Then he turns to a handful of expert consultants (like former presidential press secretaries Dee Dee Myers and Marlin Fitzwater) and says, "Tell me what you think, and tell me what the really smart person in the room who disagrees with you would say to that."

From that, Sorkin cobbles together 42 minutes of drama. "I'm able to learn little more than the phonetic sounds of an argument," he says, "and when I can learn more than that I consider it a real blessing."

Of course pounding out scripts under the frenetic pace of series television rarely leaves time to ponder such lessons anyway. Sorkin credits his background in screenwriting with teaching him the importance of putting the expectations of others aside and relying on his own judgment when facing the pressures of such looming deadlines.

"For both of the movies I wrote for Rob Reiner, A Few Good Men and The American President, I spent the first few months of the writing process climbing the walls and trying to figure out in my head what it was Rob wanted.

"Finally, the deadline would come up in my face, and I had to start writing something. So I wrote what I wanted to write and then realized that's what Rob wanted. He wanted me. He just wanted me to write."

This article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Scriptwriting Secrets.

Choosing Which Movements To Put in Your Fight Scene (FightWrite™)

Choosing Which Movements To Put in Your Fight Scene (FightWrite™)

Trained fighter and author Carla Hoch discusses how much of a fight's details to actually put into a story, and how even with fight scenes sometimes less is more.

5 Research Tips for Writing Historical Fiction, by Piper Huguley

5 Research Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Author Piper Huguley shares her five research tips for writing historical fiction that readers love and writers love as well.

Announcing 40 More Plot Twist Prompts for Writers!

Announcing 40 More Plot Twist Prompts for Writers!

Learn more about 40 Plot Twist Prompts for Writers, Volume 2: ALL NEW Writing Ideas for Taking Your Stories in New Directions, by Writer's Digest Senior Editor Robert Lee Brewer. Discover fun and interesting ways to move your stories from beginning to end.

Interviewing Tips | Tyler Moss

Interviewing 101: Tips for Writers

Interviewing sources for quotes or research will be part of any writer's job. Here are tips to make the process as smooth and productive as possible.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Eliminate Threat

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Eliminate Threat

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character work to eliminate a threat.

4 Tips for Writing Gothic Horror

4 Tips for Writing Gothic Horror

Gothic horror and its many subgenres continues to increase in popularity. Here, author Ava Reid shares 4 tips on writing gothic horror.

Lucy Clarke: On the Power of Creativity

Lucy Clarke: On the Power of Creativity

Novelist Lucy Clarke discusses how a marathon of writing led to a first draft in just 17 days for her new psychological thriller, One of the Girls.

A Conversation With Jaden Terrell on Writer Expectations, Part 1 (Killer Writers)

A Conversation With Jaden Terrell on Writer Expectations, Part 1 (Killer Writers)

Killer Nashville founder Clay Stafford continues his series of interviews with mystery, thriller, and suspense authors. Here he has a conversation with novelist Jaden Terrell about writer expectations and success.

Connecting the Dots vs. Drawing the Whole Damn Picture: A Veteran Ghostwriter Takes Back His Pen and Finds Something To Say

Connecting the Dots vs. Drawing the Whole Damn Picture: A Veteran Ghostwriter Takes Back His Pen and Finds Something To Say

Writing for oneself after a decades-long career as a ghostwriter is a challenge unto itself. Here, author Daniel Paisner discusses his career as a ghostwriter, how the process differs from writing his own work, and if the two ever intersect.