Case Study: “A Few Good Men” by Aaron Sorkin

demi_moore_few_good_men_movie_poster_2a“A Few Good Men,” sold for mid-six figures in 1988 and jumpstarted Aaron Sorkin’s career after he had spent years working odd jobs and struggling to break into the industry. It’s an excellent screenplay that utilizes strong fundamentals to build up to one of cinema’s most memorable scenes. Sorkin’s style also includes a variety of useful techniques that writers can learn how to incorporate into their own work.

Starting with the opening page, Sorkin frequently capitalizes important words and uses punctuation and syntax to control pacing. This is a great way to make the action in a screenplay really “pop” and to control what the reader focuses on. The suspense indicated by this writing style pulls the reader into the story from the earliest moments. As the tension builds, we “HEAR” ominous noises and then our attention shifts to key visuals, including “A LOOKOUT POST,” “A MARINE,” and “THE FENCELINE.” These almost seem to jump off the page at us, creating a clear visual sense of the scene without needing to get bogged down in details.

You might also notice that Sorkin breaks all sorts of screenwriting “rules” on the very first page. He includes shots and transitions (such as “Cut To:”), addresses the reader by using the word “we” in his description multiple times and even writes nine consecutive lines without splitting up a paragraph.

In my view, screenwriters often view conventional wisdom about these sorts of issues in too much of a vacuum, instead of as a means to an end (which is what they really are). Of course, you don’t want to burden a script with unnecessary stage direction or boring, overly dense paragraphs. However, if including stage direction helps you tell your story effectively, then don’t worry about it. And if a paragraph sounds best when it runs longer than usual, then write a long paragraph.

Remember, Sorkin isn’t getting by with this stuff because he’s famous – this screenplay started his career when he was still an unknown. The key is really finding the right rhythm – when you read “A Few Good Men,” the description almost feels like it’s set to music. It doesn’t merely tell us what’s happening, it establishes a distinct voice and mood, and even moves at a specific pace that consistently matches the action.

Character descriptions are also clever and original. When we’re introduced to Joanne (played by Demi Moore in the film), Sorkin writes, “If she had any friends they’d call her Jo.” Then he refers to her as Jo during the rest of the script – making us friends with her. A couple of pages later, after we’ve seen how Jo’s awkward, intense personality keeps her from getting assigned the case she wants, she’s dismissed with her superior officer’s scene-ending dialogue, “Don’t worry about it. I promise you, division will assign the right man for the job.” Then we cut to a scene with the first line reading, “THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE JOB,” followed by our introduction to Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise in the film) who is described as “almost impossible not to like.” The way the last line in the previous scene leads directly into the first line in the next scene, while setting up the script’s main character dynamic in the process, is a great example of a well-executed transition. Sorkin uses this same technique with the last line of dialogue in one scene leading directly into the first visual of the next scene at other points in the script, too. This is an effective tool for any writer to learn and keep in his or her arsenal.

The character dynamic pairing laid-back golden boy Kaffee with ultra-serious over-achieving Jo creates an opportunity to let us know important information without it seeming too expository and on-the-nose. Sorkin has already established Jo as the sort of person who over-explains everything, so when she tells Kaffee about the case and provides us with important background info in the process, it just feels like her social awkwardness is causing her to talk too much. The contrast between her detailed, anxious style and Kaffee’s relaxed (even slightly arrogant) approach creates dramatic tension and humor, elevating the scene beyond the sort of “information dump” it could have felt like in the hands of a lesser writer. All the major characters have distinct personalities, which are designed so that the characters are frequently in conflict with one another. This means, for example, that a number of trial prep scenes (which would be at risk of coming across as dry and forgettable otherwise) include constant bickering and subtle romantic tension between Kaffee and Jo, plus Sam’s turmoil about the questionable morality of a “just following orders” defense.

“A Few Good Men” works on multiple levels, and contains nuances that only some viewers will ever pick up on. These are elements that one can still enjoy the movie without having to understand. However, those who do understand them will likely have an even richer experience. For example, we might notice that Sam is Jewish, and deduce that his unease with the idea of “just following orders” being presented as a legitimate excuse could very well connect to his heritage (and maybe even connect to his family history). None of this is ever stated, and it works better that way. Simply letting the implication occur to perceptive viewers is far preferable to having Sam give some sort of speech about relatives who were killed in the Holocaust because of people who were “just following orders” (which wouldn’t directly relate to the narrative and might sound contrived and preachy). Instead, with Sam as the only character who seems to experience significant moral turmoil over the “just following orders” defense, this seed is subtly but effectively planted.

The story itself is fundamentally sound with a standard three-act structure. Most screenwriters who have a general understanding of structure know what the major plot points are meant to accomplish. The protagonist begins actively pursuing his main goal at the first act break, there’s a low point when it seems like all is lost at the end of the second act, and the second act break occurs when, following that low point, the protagonist picks up the pieces and recommits to his goal, leading up to the climax and denouement. However, the midpoint is a weak spot in many screenplays – sometimes it’s difficult to recognize at all and, even when it’s noticeable, it’s often marked by a plot twist that could have fit just as well in some other part of the screenplay. For a midpoint to really have an optimal impact, it should serve as a “point of no return” for the protagonist. (Sometimes, this plot point is called a “reversal,” which is okay as long as the “reversal” in question involves the protagonist becoming fully committed to a new direction – personally, I prefer the phrase “point of no return,” which seems more precise to me.) This is the moment when the protagonist makes a decision that means he can’t turn back – either literally or in a thematic, personal sense.

In “A Few Good Men,” the midpoint is when Kaffee enters the not guilty plea for his clients instead of requesting they be assigned new counsel (which he had been planning to do before). At this moment, he commits to trying a case that forces him to accept responsibility for these young marines’ futures, knowing that they may end up spending life in prison if he screws up – and he’s done so even though he’s known for pleading out cases, and his career and life until now has seemed to be based on taking the easy way out and avoiding responsibility. Not only that, but to make the best possible argument in support of his clients, Kaffee will likely have to accuse high-ranking officers of serious crimes, which is likely to get him court-martialed unless he can really prove it. This is a true “point of no return” in just about every possible way.

The build up to the famous “you can’t handle the truth!” scene during the third act includes plenty of foreshadowing that helps make it believably motivated. We also learn enough about the Marines at Gitmo and the code they live by that Colonel Jessep (played by Jack Nicholson in the film) doesn’t seem like a one-dimensional monster. In fact, his viewpoint that people benefiting from the freedom he provides by protecting them shouldn’t quibble over exactly how he manages to keep them free and safe has some gravitas to it. This is one way that truly exceptional screenplays often differ from most of their competition – they have the courage to make the antagonist a relatable, three-dimensional person with a motivation we can understand. Nobody – (well, almost nobody, anyway) – thinks of himself as a villain. Most amateurs depict antagonists as evil and irredeemable, while most professional screenwriters depict them as motivated human beings with tragic flaws. This makes a big difference – it can help an entire story to come across as honest and believable.

Sorkin’s exceptional talent as a writer is certainly evident in “A Few Good Men,” but many of the techniques he uses can help just about anyone to improve his or her screenwriting. Creating characters who naturally clash with one another, so that virtually every conversation includes conflict and dramatic tension, can be a game-changer when it comes to effective scene work. Remembering to incorporate a true “point of no return” for the protagonist as your screenplay’s midpoint can be the determining factor in a tight, compelling second act. Even the seemingly minor stylistic tools Sorkin uses, such as transitioning from one scene to the next by having dialogue at the end of the first scene represented by the opening visual in the next scene – or capitalizing certain words throughout description as a way to capture the reader’s attention and help set the pace – are an important addition to any writer’s toolbox.

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