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