The Social Network, a gripping film depicting Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook, and the subsequent lawsuits and controversy that followed. While the film itself, directed by David Fincher, is fantastic, the script, as a standalone, is a beautiful piece of writing worth a deeper look. Unsurprisingly, this well-paced, expertly crafted screenplay was written by none other than Aaron Sorkin.
The true artistic value of Aaron Sorkin’s script is not just the communicative opening scene, the natural dialogue, the rhythmic and stylized writing techniques, but rather his ability to put all of that together into one script to make it well rounded and a great read as a whole.
To better understand how such a great screenplay is crafted, let’s break it down into the most notable elements.
First off, we’ve got the opening scene.
Debatably, the opening scene is one of the most important parts of a film. When writing prose there is always a great emphasis on the hook. You want to start off by hooking your reader into what you are writing and convince them that you have something interesting and worthwhile for them to read. In a screenplay, this is no different.
The great Brian DePalma once said, “[the opening] is your only chance to introduce the audience to your characters and to your movie. This is your opportunity to do anything you want. And a writer/director must take this responsibility very seriously. Think about how many movies start with a generic aerial shot of a city. Why would you blow this opportunity?”
Aaron Sorkin’s first seven pages are a perfect example of a brilliantly written opening. The scene starts off with quick back and forth dialogue between Mark Zuckerberg and his then girlfriend Erica Albright. The banter back and forth involves Zuckerberg spewing information and speaking intelligently, yet with an impulsiveness and lack of social awareness. On the receiving end is Albright who does her best to keep up and not let Zuckerberg’s arrogance trample her.
There is a poetic rhythm to Sorkin’s dialogue that not only allows you to fully understand who these characters are, their ambitions, their insecurities, their triggers, but also provides a satisfying flow that is compelling and engaging to read on paper, and ultimately listen to on screen.
For reference, at the very beginning of the film, Zuckerberg starts off by asking his girlfriend how one should distinguish themself from a mass of people who all got 1600 on their SATs. His girlfriend tries to provide comfort for Mark, but for the most part he ignores what she has to say, and instead, he has a conversation with himself and his own insecurities as he rambles on about not being unique amidst many other highly intelligent people at Harvard.
By putting such depth of character development and emphasizing these gripping themes that will come into play throughout the entirety of the film, Sorkin has set himself up perfectly to evolve this character and tell the story of how these insecurities and personality traits lead him to create Facebook, but also lead him to big trouble with friends and business partners along the way.
The next aspect of this screenplay worth noting is the non-linear structure as well as the engaging and well balanced distribution of dialogue and action.
To recap, this storyline follows both the road to creating Facebook as well as the legal battles that he faced from a fellow Harvard student who claimed Zuckerberg stole his idea. Honestly, a story of some nerdy college students coding a website and a civil lawsuit between them, where they sit and argue about who came up with the idea first, has the potential to be a very drab and boring topic.
However, by exploding the narrative and restructuring it, Sorkin has allowed for a much quicker paced and more interesting story to be told, rather than the long and drawn out reality of the situation. This is one of the beauties of cinema, the ability to alter time, and Sorkin did so masterfully.
The timeline continually cuts back and forth between the past when Facebook was being created, and the present day lawsuit hearing. Sorkin picks key points to jump between, which allows for things in the present to make more sense when they are complemented by the moments of the past. This keeps people wondering what might come next, regardless of how they know the true story to have unfolded.
Additionally, Sorkin has a deep talent for writing dialogue, and he writes action sequences that show his great respect for screenplay writing as its own beautiful artform. The dialogue in every scene feels real, natural, and, similar to the opening scene, continues to emphasize the personalities and intonations of voice so the words float off the page.
Also, as if he is a prose writer, Sorkin writes detailed action blocks that give a deeper context and emotional connection to the writing, the characters, and the situations they go through. Sorkin writes these details regardless of what is shot on film and how much can be seen of the script in the actual making of the movie. This is one more example of how Sorkin’s screenplays are beautiful pieces of writing, not just blueprints for the director to glance over.
The final interesting part of Sorkin’s writing we will discuss, is the screenplay formatting itself. Beyond the standardized formatting that a screenplay must follow, when reading The Social Network, there are small technical details that work to make the script that much better. First off, he uses parentheticals in a very effective manner, expressing the less emotional, but key details of the vision that he wants to come across.
For example, noting what a person should be doing when talking on the phone (i.e. when they need to listen, when they should speak), or explaining who a line of dialogue should be directed towards. These are minute details that could be omitted, but drastically help with clarity. He also puts chyrons into the script, noting things like relevant times or locations (i.e. Harvard University). The last most notable technical element of his scripts is that he writes to cuts. Often a scene will end with either a “FADE OUT:” or a “CUT TO:”. Writing to cut is not something that every screenwriter chooses to do, but Sorkin does.
“Why is this important?” - you might ask...
The importance of Sorkin’s precise formatting, writing to cuts, clarifying chyrons and parentheticals, beautifully crafted and deeply personal dialogue and action blocks, and an all around geniusly arranged storyline that pulls people in from the first sentence, is that it exemplifies what it means to be a true visionary.
Writing a screenplay can mean vastly different things depending on the person writing it, but there is something spectacular about a writer who sees the story in his or her mind and is able to use the tools of language to craft a beautiful piece of writing to give to the world. Sorkin wrote with a passion and a foresight that, even though he didn’t direct the picture, made the movie what it was. And that is a very powerful skill as a writer.
There are many Swila writers in this community, including myself, who have ambitions to be both a writer and a director. But, I challenge everyone of you, writers and writer/directors, to focus this week on the craft of writing alone. Put aside the idea of the final visual/audio creation and think purely and solely about the screenplay. Hone in on the techniques of the greats, like Aaron Sorkin, and try to create a piece of writing that you are proud of, all on its own. Maybe this type of writing won’t be for you, and you can go back to whatever style of screenplay writing suits you best. And that is totally okay. But maybe it will strike something in you that evokes deeper ideas and emotions than you ever knew possible.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; there are great screenplays and amazing stories within all of you waiting to be written. So get writing. We are all excited to see what you come up with.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.