Monday, 19 December 2011

A Letter From David Mamet I


This is a letter that playwright, director and screenwriter David Mamet addressed to the writing staff of the CBS show The Unit, in which he lays out his guiding principles for compelling screenwriting. Mamet also takes time to criticise TV executives, who he refers to as ’penguins’. Overall, it offers some penetrating insights into what makes good writing and storytelling.

To the Writers of The Unit

Greetings.

As we learn how to write this show, a recurring problem becomes clear.

The problem is this: to differentiate between drama and non-drama. Let me break-it-down-now.

Everyone in creation is screaming at us to make the show clear. We are tasked with, it seems, cramming a shitload of information into a little bit of time.

Our friends. The penguins, think that we, therefore, are employed to communicate information — and, so, at times, it seems to us.

But note: the audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.

Question: what is drama? Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

So: we, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions.

1) Who wants what?
2) What happens if her don’t get it?
3) Why now?

The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and their answer will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not.

If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted.


There is no magic fairy dust which will make a boring, useless, redundant, or merely informative scene after it leaves your typewriter. You the writers, are in charge of making sure every scene is dramatic.

This means all the “little” expositional scenes of two people talking about a third. This bushwah (and we all tend to write it on the first draft) is less than useless, should it finally, god forbid, get filmed.

If the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors, and will, then, bore the audience, and we’re all going to be back in the breadline.

Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actors job (the actors job is to be truthful). It is not the directors job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.

Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.

This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene, to failure – this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.

All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.

Any scene, thus, which does not both advance the plot, and standalone (that is, dramatically, by itself, on its own merits) is either superfluous, or incorrectly written.

Yes but yes but yes but, you say: what about the necessity of writing in all that “information?”

And i respond “*figure it out*” any dickhead with a bluesuit can be (and is) taught to say “make it clearer”, and “I want to know more about him”.

When you’ve made it so clear that even this blue-suited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job.

The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. Not to explain to them what just happened, or to*suggest* to them what happens next.

Any dickhead, as above, can write, “But, Jim, if we don’t assassinate the Prime Minister in the next scene, all Europe will be engulfed in flame”.

We are not getting paid to realize that the audience needs this information to understand the next scene, but to figure out how to write the scene before us such that the audience will be interested in what happens next.

Yes but, yes but yes but you reiterate.

And I respond figure it out.

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