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In The Spotlight: David Mamet’s Top 5 Writing Rules

All About David Mamet

David Mamet is one of the most prolific and renowned writers working today. He has a resumé all Bang2writers would surely kill for, spanning the mediums from theatre, TV, film, books and radio.

Mamet is also shouty and sweary as hell, which means B2W obviously loves his writing advice! This post could be also titled ‘How Not To Write A Crock Of Shit, According To David Mamet’.

This is because he wrote a (very sweary) famous memo to writers of his TV show The Unit, way back in 2005. The TV landscape may be VERY different fourteen years on, but the pointers he employs are still BANG ON. Here’s why, plus what you can learn from him.

1) We Mustn’t Be Boring

In Mamet’s famous memo, he asks his writers to differentiate between *drama* and ‘non-drama’. He admits that timing is a problem … TV shows (and all writing, to be honest) has only a small amount of time/space to ‘cram in a shitload of information’.

Mamet says that whilst the story needs to be ‘clear’ in communicating its necessary information, it also can’t be BORING. He says audiences will ‘NOT tune in to watch information‘. They will only tune in to watch DRAMA.

The worst thing any piece of writing can be is boring. Audiences get bored when writers focus too much on information than the story. Novelists talk about ‘info dumps’ in books and I think this is a great thing to think about when screenwriting too.

TOP TIP: Avoid ‘info dumps’ in your screenplay, they are boring. MORE: Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays

2) We Need To Know What Drama Truly IS

But what IS drama? Mamet breaks drama down as being the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him or her from achieving ‘a specific, acute goal’.

Mamet also talks about the ‘job’ of the writers here. He is very clear it is not the actors’ job to be ‘dramatic’, but OURS, as storytellers. Mamet also asserts the job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder and be interested in what happens next. (He also says we must not to explain to them what just happened, or to even suggest to them what happens next).

So, when it comes to what drama truly *is* … Our protagonists must want something and obstacles must get in their way as they try and achieve this. We must keep this in mind at all times.

TOP TIP: Great drama pits a character against obstacles.

3) Every Single Scene MUST Advance The Plot — Or ELSE!

We all know our protagonists must want something, the ‘why’ … Stories become boring then when the HOW is poorly executed. This includes every individual scene as well as the narrative as a whole.

Mamet insists writers must ask themselves these three questions of every scene …

  • a) Who wants what?
  • b) What happens if he or she doesn’t get it?
  • c) Why now?

A scene must be dramatic, must be essential and must advance the plot. It’s not all three? Rewrite it.

TOP TIP: Individual scenes must advance the plot by adding to the narrative as a whole. MORE: Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make Writing Scenes

4) Remember We Are Writing A Visual Medium

Mamet suggests that all screenwriters ‘should think like a filmmaker … what you write, they will shoot.’

I love this, because screenwriters frequently forget they are writing for a visual medium.  As a script reader, I read so many spec screenplays that concentrate waaaaaaaay too much on acres of dialogue.

Yet as Mamet says, we need to tell the story in PICTURES. This is a difficult nut to crack; as Mamet says, ‘This is a new skill. No one does it naturally.’

But as he also says, we CAN train ourselves to do it … But we need to START.

TOP TIP: Write in pictures, not speech.

5) Pretend Your Characters Can’t Speak

Like Mamet, I have said for years on this site there’s too much dialogue in the average spec script. This is why I love this simple tip from his memo so much:

‘If you pretend the characters can’t speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama.’

Depriving ourselves of what Mamet calls ‘the crutch of narration’ will force us to work in a new medium … PICTURES!

TOP TIP: Make your characters earn the right to speak. MORE: DANGER – Why Dialogue Is Killing Your Screenplay


6) Do Not Write A Crock Of Shit!

Finally, probably my favourite sweary tip of all! But what qualifies as a ‘crock of shit’?

  • Any time two characters are just talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.
  • Also when a character is saying ‘As you know’ … This signifies you, the writer, are trying to tell the audience information in a clumsy way
  • When scenes are not dramatic, ie. we don’t know what the hero wants or why
  • Or we explain what just happened, or tell audiences what’s about to happen
  • When you are not writing visually, ie. with pictures

Good Luck!

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10 thoughts on “In The Spotlight: David Mamet’s Top 5 Writing Rules”

  1. Pretend You Are Writing in a Visual Medium — Ha!
    Pretend Your Characters Can’t Speak — HA HA!
    David Mamet literally breaks these “rules” in his own films ALL OF THE TIME. Scene after scene in his movies are filled with characters sitting around talking or giving out information and explaining the plot for the audience’s benefit (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and Spartan all come immediately to mind). His movies are ALL dialogue driven. That is what he is known for, and not much else to be honest. I defy anyone to recall any memorable or iconic visuals from his oeuvre. As much as I enjoy some of his films, the visuals are the least interesting thing about them. He is a playwright, not a screenwriter. And he is NOT a visual storyteller. David Mamet’s advice is hypocritical BS that he never follows in his own work.

      1. The issue is that he doesn’t take his own advice so why should anyone else listen to it? Do as I say, don’t do as I do. Although it’s typical of writing teachers trying to tell other writers how to write. He’s not alone in his hypocrisy.

        1. … Why should anyone listen? Because everything he says is true, especially for a **spec** writer. But if this advice really doesnt work for you, there is plenty more on this site.

    1. If you want to view it as ‘us versus them’ then that’s your prerogative, but that attitude will only serve to trip *you* up, no one else.

  2. I would say Mamet is correct, in that a script/film should be able to tell the whole story effectively by visuals alone. Dialogue and music should be more like embellishments. Study silent movies. As for giving advice, many people know the rules/guidelines even though they might not follow them themselves.

    An editorial comment: What is wrong with this sentence? “(He also says we must not to explain to them what just happened…”

    This is my first time here. I look forward to exploring more.

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