Why The Social Network shouldn’t work (and why it does)

by Allen Palmer on December 11, 2010

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

The Social Network Movie Poster

When I emerged from the cinema after seeing The Social Network, my friend asked, “So what did you think?” and I replied, “Fantastic. Brilliant. I loved it. I just don’t know why”. Now I do.

While every screenwriting class is prefaced with the William Goldman caveat that “No-one knows anything”, you will invariably be assailed with a bunch of things that you should and shouldn’t do if you want to have any chance of getting your film made and engaging your audience. In The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin takes that rule book, puts it through the shredder, torches the remnants, and scatters the ashes on the Santa Ana winds.

Why the Social Network shouldn’t work

Here are the screenwriting “rules” at which Aaron Sorkin cocks his snoot:

“Your protagonist should be likeable” – This is a commonly heard piece of screenwriting wisdom. How many of us have received the screenwriting note, “Make him more likeable”? Heaven help the no-name writer who presented a character as unlikeable as the Mark Zuckerberg we see in Sorkin’s The Social Network.

“Scenes shouldn’t be longer than 3 pages” – Students will often ask, “How long should a scene be?” and you’ll say that most dramatic scenes are between 1-3 pages. A scene that is 4-5 pages almost always signals the amateur status of the writer and would have the average script editor calling for a nip and tuck. How long is the opening scene of The Social Network? 10 pages. That’s not a scene. That’s a saga.

“Don’t use voiceover” – Lots of novice screenwriters like to use voiceover but it almost always undermines the drama because it prevents the audience from inferring what the character is feeling (as it does in Animal Kingdom). Sorkin follows his 10-page opening scene with 4 pages of voiceover. Count them: 1, 2, 3, 4.

“Don’t use flashbacks” – Flashbacks too typically diminish dramatic tension. After his 10-page opening scene and 4 pages of voiceover, Sorkin takes us to a deposition scene that makes us realise that the first 14 pages of the film were actually a flashback (or the deposition is a flashforward – another “no no”.)

“Your character should have an arc” – The story paradigm I hold near and dear is the Hero’s Journey, which takes the protagonist through a series of 12 steps that transforms them from flawed to enlightened. Doesn’t happen in The Social Network. The Mark Zuckerberg at the end of the film has endured all sorts of trials but is as clueless about himself and the world as the avaricious dork of that breathtaking opening scene.

“You need to pose a dramatic question” – I am very big on this. I tell my students that, by the end of Act 1, you should pose a dramatic question that the audience wants answered and that the question will almost always start with “Will … ?”:

  • Will the sheriff kill the great white shark?
  • Will Indiana Jones beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark of the Covenant?
  • Will Harry get Sally?
  • Will Michael Corleone honour his family or his principles?
  • Will the 40 year old Virgin get laid?

The Social Network offers up no dramatic question we’re burning to have answered. Will Facebook become a success? In case you haven’t heard, it does. Will he have to settle with the Winklevi for having stolen their idea? It was in all the papers. Will the man who lets others connect with their friends lose his one and only true friend? Ditto. Will he end up with Erica? This subplot has just 3 beats so it’s certainly not the dramatic question that’s driving the narrative (though I will have more to say on this later).

You could say that we stick around to find out “How did Facebook become a success?” but “How?” is rarely as interesting as “Will?” and I for one couldn’t give a toss how Facebook came into being. (I would, on the other hand, be enthralled to explore the story of its demise.)

“You should like the protagonist and hate the antagonist” – I would generally recommend that we are given a reason to respect the antagonist, as we are with Anton Sugar (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men. However, on balance, it’s generally accepted that our sympathies should be more with the protagonist than the antagonist. Yet, when Cameron Winklevoss finally overcomes his fine breeding and respect for the Harvard brotherhood to declare, “Let’s fucking gut that little nerd”, didn’t you think, “Yeah, and about time too!!!”. Sorkin, the iconoclast, has us rooting for the privileged, chiselled Aryan antagonists against our nerdy Jewish protagonist. How dare he?

“The climax should pit protagonist vs antagonist” – Storytelling for me is about the ending. Taking the audience to a place of unbearable tension and then resolving the crisis in a way that releases a torrent of emotion. Sorkin uses the legal actions as the vehicle to help us tell Mark Zuckerberg’s story but feels no compulsion to drive it to a nerve-jangling verdict.

“They’re going to want to settle?”
“Oh yeah.”

“Screenplays should be 110 pages” – Any idiot knows that screenplays should be 110 pages. (Any idiot used to know that screenplays should be 120 pages until the attention span of the average cinema-goer was reduced through excessive internet exposure – and Facebook use – by 10%) How long is the script for The Social Network? 162 pages. That’s not a screenplay; that’s an environmental catastrophe.

So why does The Social Network work?

The simple answer would be that Aaron Sorkin is a genius whose brilliant dialogue lets him get away with things that would condemn the screenplays of we mere mortals.

“She was under oath.”
“Then I guess that would be the first time somebody lied under oath.”

“I’m six-five, 220 pounds, and there are two of me.”

“From the look of it, they want to sell me a Brooks Brothers franchise.”

“I’m an entrepreneur.”
“What was your latest preneur?”

“He was right. California’s the place we’ve got to be.”
“You’re Jed Clampett?

But, Sorkin isn’t just a genius of the spoken word. He is a master dramatist. And there are a whole bunch of rules to which he does adhere that allow him to break others.

“Drama is conflict” – The greatest rule of all. In my Introduction to Screenwriting course, I tell my students that if they only take one thing away from the weekend, let is be this. Drama is conflict. And while Sorkin might be willing to ignore some of the outlying territories in the nation of screenwriting rules, he bows down and prays at this particular altar. There is conflict at every turn:

  • Mark Zuckerberg vs Erica
  • Mark Zuckerberg vs the exclusive Harvard Final Clubs
  • Mark Zuckerberg vs the Harvard Academic board
  • Mark Zuckerberg vs the Winklevi
  • Cameron Winklevoss vs Tyler Winklevoss & Divya
  • The Winklevi vs Larry Summers
  • Mark Zuckerberg vs Eduardo
  • Eduardo vs Sean Parker
  • Eduardo vs his psycho girlfriend
  • Sean Parker vs the police
  • Sean Parker vs Mark Zuckerberg

Conflict between us and them. Conflict within us. Conflict within them. Brilliant. And necessary. But still not sufficient. There is one more rule that Sorkin honours that allows him to get away with a 162 page doorstop about an unlikeable protagonist who doesn’t grow and betrays his best friend.

“The audience must connect with your protagonist” – When I talk about what you need to establish during the Ordinary World sequence of your screenplay – the 7-12 pages that precede the inciting incident or the Call to Adventure – this is the one I have front and centre. We don’t need to “like” the character. Indeed, likeable characters tend to be nowhere near as engaging as outrageously maladjusted individuals (e.g. Miles in Sideways). But we absolutely need to connect to the protagonist and Sorkin achieves this in at least 4 ways.

Why we connect to Mark Zuckerberg #1: Special powers

We tend to be intrigued by characters who possess powers that exceed our own and Zuckerberg certainly qualifies in this regard. He’s prodigiously intelligent – a gold-plated nerd – as we discover when he hacks into the campus websites to create Facemash.com and when he leaves the lecture on Operating Systems not because it’s beyond him but because it’s beneath him.

Why we connect to Mark Zuckerberg #2: Wit

Humour is another way a character can engage us even when we might otherwise be entirely outraged by their actions. Think Phil Connors in Groundhog Day or the eponymous Bad Santa. And Mark Zuckerberg scores here too. He’s very witty – or, at least, his character benefits from having had his dialogue crafted by a very witty screenwriter.

“Can I ask what part of the intern’s job will they need to be able to do drunk?”
“You’re right. A more relevant test would be seeing if they can keep a chicken alive for a week.”

Acerbic, yes. But, wouldn’t you love it if your tongue were that sharp?

Why we connect to Mark Zuckerberg #3: Chutzpah

Chutzpah is another way to engage an audience because we admire (and yearn to be like) people who have the balls to do and say things that we can’t. Think about how Oscar Schindler wins over the Nazis in the opening scene of Spielberg’s Oscar-winner. Mark Zuckerberg has king-sized cojones.

“As for any charges stemming from the breach of security, I believe I deserve some sort of recognition from this Ad Board.”
“I’m sorry?”

Why we connect to Mark Zuckerberg #4: Empathy

The big Daddy where connection is concerned is empathy. We see the protagonist undergo a pain that we’ve experienced – that’s part of being human – and our hearts go out to them. This is the real secret, I think, to understanding why we continue to engage with The Social Network at a character level even if we aren’t particularly interested in what transpires in the plot.

Mark Zuckerberg might not have a charismatic personality like Ferris Bueller or Indiana Jones or R.P. McMurphy, but that’s the whole point. He’s like us. He doesn’t always say the right thing in social situations. He’s a weedy nerd in a world where girls like guys “who row crew”. Which brings me back to the consideration of the dramatic question, “Will Mark Zuckerberg get Erica?”

No, I don’t think that we want him to get the girl, and, no, we don’t keep watching to find out how it resolves, and, no, it doesn’t drive the drama. But, without this overarching narrative element, I think the whole film falls in heap.

Yes, there are only 3 beats on this subplot but what extraordinary beats they are. It begins with that stellar opening scene where Zuckerberg is both brilliant and gauche and Erica shows extraordinary forbearance before he finally pushes her over the edge by suggesting he will open doors that would remain closed to a mere BU graduate. She dismisses him in a way that admits little possibility of reconciliation and, like a Greek chorus, prepares us for what we’re about to witness:

“Listen. You’re going to be successful and rich. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. 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.”

The second beat is almost as good. Having achieved every male undergraduate’s dream of a blowjob in the toilets from a woman who doesn’t even know how to spell “reciprocity” – and feeling that he’s finally made it on this hallowed campus – he stumbles on Erica again. Surely, now, he’ll have regained her respect? No, again she humiliates him both consciously and unconsciously.

“You’re not a real person, Mark. You write your bullshit from a dark room because you’re a failure at human contact”.


Then she adds, “Good luck with your video game”. What makes this even more cutting is that she has no idea she’s demeaning his achievement. She genuinely has no clue what he’s done.

This is the classic Ordeal of the Hero’s Journey where the antagonist holds up a mirror to the protagonist and lets them see their flaw. In a traditional narrative, the hero responds by changing. In a tragedy, they blunder on as they are. What is Mark Zuckerberg’s reaction to this chastening experience?

“We have to expand”.

And then we come to the poignant final beat.

I’ve heard the ending of The Social Network derided as its “Rosebud” moment, a reference to the sentimental McGuffin that binds together the life story of Citizen Kane. But I think it’s the perfect ending.

Here we have a guy who, in the pursuit of fortune and fame, has been happy to sacrifice the one friend he had in the world. And now he has it all. He’s worth $25 billion – the youngest billionaire in the world. He can have anything he wants, except the one thing he wants most of all. The girl.

In the final moments of the film, the founder of the world’s all-consuming social network is reduced to the same level as any of his gazillion members – pathetically refreshing the screen to see whether, in the last five seconds, the woman he loves has accepted his electronic request for friendship.

Refresh … refresh … FADE TO BLACK

Aaron Sorkin is brilliant. And he does break a truckload of rules in The Social Network. But his weighty script does have sound dramatic fundamentals, and, in Mark Zuckerberg, he has created a character who might be “unlikeable” but his yearnings, failings and disappointments still remind us more than a little of ourselves. The Social Network works. And that’s why I think it works. Why do you think it works? Please comment below.

PS Went to see it again last night and liked it even more the second time. Surely it will win the Oscar for Best Screenplay?

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Other screenwriting articles you might be interested in:

Where I disagree with the Hero’s Journey
A new character-driven Hero’s Journey
How to write a logline
How to write better loglines
The secret to subplots
The one subplot you really need
What should happen at the midpoint
10 screenwriting insights I wish I’d had 25 years ago

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