How The Social Network is written

You won’t believe how long it took me to figure out how to do screenplay formatting in HTML.

David Fincher’s The Social Network turns ten today. What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said? Part-college caper, part-courtroom drama, Quentin Tarantino named this Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic “hands down” the best film of the 2010s. It won big at the Golden Globes, picking up Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Score; Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield were nominated for BAFTAs for their performances; and while it lost out on the Oscar for Best Picture to The King’s Speech (a major-league snubbing if you ask me), it did become only the third film in history to sweep the “Big Four” critics awards. The film’s emphasis on class has come to define the last ten years of mainstream cinema: this year’s Best Picture winner, Parasite, is arguably the culmination of this theme. And it’s only become more relevant as time’s gone on, as Facebook increasingly constitutes a threat to democracy – something writer Aaron Sorkin seemed to pick up on over ten years ago!

I watched the film about a year after its release, courtesy of a Blockbuster rental by my older sister. While I was initially skeptical (it’s the 127 Hours complex: how interesting could a film about Facebook really be??) I now credit the film with a significant step forward for my understanding, and appreciation, of cinema. Much of this brilliance stems from director David Fincher. His filmography is united by steely colour palettes, unconventional narrative structure and obsessive, flawed protagonists (see: Fight Club and Zodiac, in particular). The Social Network, like the rest of Fincher’s work, received a great deal of its critical praise for its direction and visuals. Outside of academic circles, though, I don’t think enough credit is given to the film’s screenplay, courtesy of Aaron Sorkin – probably the most famous screenwriter working today. And as my interest in film has developed towards a career in screenwriting, the film’s screenplay has become one of my favourites to study – particularly the opening scene.

I’ve poured over this scene – extensively – in the hopes of improving the quality of my own writing. It sees Mark on a date with a girl, Erica: it’s a basic setup – two characters talking. Even as the screenplay itself acknowledges,

  • The scene is stark and simple.

You can read the full screenplay here. The Social Network features a myriad scenes that could be picked apart for their screenwriting intricacies – the “full attention” scene or the ‘ambush’ spring to mind – but it’s the first eight pages we’re interested in. Nowhere else in The Social Network are all the hallmarks of Sorkin’s work so clear. The scene in question, as I said, centres on a date between two people, Mark and Erica. It’s also set to one of my favourite songs: Ball and Biscuit by The White Stripes. The first ‘Sorkin-esque’ technique can be seen in the first few lines: the misunderstanding – one of many ways of teasing out exposition in an (ostensibly) natural way. Sorkin regularly employs this technique in conjunction with multiple trains of thought in order to challenge the viewer to follow the conversation, drawing them into the story. The scene begins with Mark quoting a statistic:

  • FROM THE BLACK WE HEAR--
  • MARK (V.O.)
  • Did you know there are more people with genius IQ’s living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?

Erica’s immediately interested, and follows up with a question.

  • ERICA (V.O.)
  • That can't possibly be true.
  • MARK (V.O.)
  • It is.
  • ERICA (V.O.)
  • What would account for that?
  • MARK (V.O.)
  • Well, first, an awful lot of people live in China. But here’s my question:

However, Mark only brought this up to talk about what he’s interested in.

  • MARK (CONT'D)
  • How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SAT’s?

But Erica doesn’t realise he’s changed track, and assumes he’s still referencing China.

  • ERICA
  • I didn’t know they take SAT’s in China.
  • MARK
  • They don’t. I wasn’t talking about China anymore, I was talking about me.

Erica shrugs this off, and turns her attention to Mark and the SATs. He’s still ahead of her though, and only wants to talk about how to distinguish himself.

  • ERICA
  • You got 1600?
  • MARK
  • Yes. I could sing in an a Capella group, but I can’t sing.
  • ERICA
  • Does that mean you actually got nothing wrong?
  • MARK
  • I can row crew or invent a 25 dollar PC.

Mark keeps on talking, and ignores her. So Erica gives up, and catches up with Mark where she knows he’s headed.

  • ERICA
  • Or you can get into a final club.
  • MARK
  • Or I can get into a final club.

In shrouding this exposition in misunderstanding, it seems to arise naturally from what the characters are saying. We’re only a page in, and we already know a lot about these two: we know Mark’s motivation is to distinguish himself, he’s smart – a 1600 clearly impresses Erica – and that currently, he wants to get in to a final club. The misunderstanding is also useful in endearing us to Erica, we know she’s polite and patient, despite a date who clearly has difficulty communicating.

  • ERICA
  • You know, from a woman’s perspective, sometimes not singing in an a Capella group is a good thing?
  • MARK
  • This is serious.
  • ERICA
  • On the other hand I do like guys who row crew.

Erica is referencing Mark’s previous comments in an attempt at a joke, but in doing so, says something that Mark misinterprets. His hurt is indicated by a break in the rhythm of the scene – the screenwriters’ vernacular ‘beat’.

  • MARK
  • (beat)
  • Well I can't do that.

This rhythmic dialogue is another of Sorkin’s techniques. Carther Thallon and Exa Zim (via Insider) compared this scene with two other dialogue-heavy scenes – one from No Country for Old Men (2007) and the other from Shame (2011) – and graphed the number of syllables in each line of dialogue.

Admittedly, I’ve copied it because theirs wasn’t in HD, but as highlighted, there’s far more variation in Sorkin’s dialogue in The Social Network than in the other two. As said in the video, “You can actually see the rhythm of how Sorkin writes, compared to other writers.”

  • ERICA
  • I was kid--
  • MARK
  • Yes, it means I got nothing wrong on the test.

In an attempt to recover from what he perceived as a cruel joke, Mark answers Erica’s question from nine lines ago, about his SAT performance.

  • ERICA
  • Have you ever tried?
  • MARK
  • I'm trying right now.
  • ERICA
  • To row crew?
  • MARK
  • To get into a final club. To row crew? No. Are you, like--whatever--delusional?

She’s asking about rowing crew; he’s talking about final clubs, so she misunderstands, so he misunderstands, and finally Erica gives it to him straight:

  • ERICA
  • Maybe, but sometimes you say two things at once and I’m not sure which one I’m supposed to be aiming at.

By this point, the audience is on Erica’s side. Mark’s obsessive, rude, and has a fragile ego – and this is just page two, there are seven more. What’s especially impressive is that, even if you’re not following every line of dialogue, it’s still easy enough to understand what’s happening. Sorkin makes sure to bookend the scene with a distillation of the entire conversation:

  • ERICA takes MARK's hand and looks at him tenderly...
  • ERICA
  • (close)
  • You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.
  • And with that stinger, ERICA walks off we slowly push in on MARK. A fuse has just been lit.

This final line is important. Even if a viewer hadn’t been paying attention for the last five minutes, this pithy zinger sums up the scene, and introduces a key scene for the film going forward.

To anyone who hasn’t seen The Social Network, I strongly urge you to go and check it out – it’s on Netflix if you’ve got a few hours to spare – but for those who’ve seen it before, go and give it another watch, and take the time to listen to Sorkin’s dialogue techniques. Sorkin also wrote A Few Good Men (1992), Moneyball (2011), Steve Jobs (2015), and more recently, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which is also on Netflix.