Saturday, January 11, 2014

David Mamet's brilliant memo on drama

I discovered this extraordinary memo from David Mamet to the writers of THE UNIT, a series he created a few semesters back for CBS. (The origination of the memo seems to have come from Ink Canada. I discovered it through Movie Line.)

It is a simply brilliant essay on drama and writing in general. In fact, it’s pretty much all you need to know about writing drama. Excuse that it’s written in caps. I didn’t want to change a single letter.
“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 BLUESUITED 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.

HOW DOES ONE STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN WITHHOLDING AND VOUCHSAFING INFORMATION? THAT IS THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF THE DRAMATIST. AND THE ABILITY TO DO THAT IS WHAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LESSER SPECIES IN THEIR BLUE SUITS.

FIGURE IT OUT.

START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.

LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.

PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR OUTLINES ARE, GENERALLY, SPECTACULAR. THE DRAMA FLOWS OUT BETWEEN THE OUTLINE AND THE FIRST DRAFT.

THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, YOU ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.

HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR AND HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.

REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. MOST TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE RADIO. THE CAMERA CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. LET IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS DOING -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY SEEING.

IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.

IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF SPEECH. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM - TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)

THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO START.

I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE SCENE AND ASK YOURSELF “IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT ESSENTIAL? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?

ANSWER TRUTHFULLY.

IF THE ANSWER IS “NO” WRITE IT AGAIN OR THROW IT OUT. IF YOU’VE GOT ANY QUESTIONS, CALL ME UP.

LOVE, DAVE MAMET
SANTA MONICA 19 OCTO 05

(IT IS NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ANSWERS, BUT IT IS YOUR, AND MY, RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW AND TO ASK THE RIGHT Questions OVER AND OVER. UNTIL IT BECOMES SECOND NATURE. I BELIEVE THEY ARE LISTED ABOVE.)”

30 comments:

Ray Sanford said...

Brilliant! And that kind of clarity and focus extends to any profession. It separates art from the mundane.

January Roads said...

Wow, where else should one work to get a memo as kick-ass as that!?

Good share.

Ray Sanford said...

Brilliant! And that kind of clarity and focus extends to any profession. It separates art from the mundane.

AngryGamer said...

I loled at this

"AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER."

Typewriter... perhaps he listens to music on 8-Tracks too??? :)

The key lesson to me is how he implies that the writers are not using the entire visual medium.

In education the modern world is dealing with what I call the "iPhone effect". What I mean is that when I teach or give talks. There are now a surprising number of folks "fact checking" me live via Wikipedia or some other knowledge base.

It has to be the same for TV these days. When The Unit talks about NGA there surely has to be a few people getting out their iPhone to find out what that means.

I think writers these days use a "mental typewriter" when they construct media. In essence they are still writing to the 8th grade vocabulary mindset without realizing the 8th grader has access to unlimited background information (oh and can pause your show too now).

I would suggest perhaps show like The Unit could take lessons from sports. When you go to a baseball game you don't have the announcer give the full biography about a player. Limited data is displayed on the scoreboard and more detailed "name of pet" background is provided in a program (or gasp team website available via that iPhone).

Just thinking out loud now... is the future of drama/comedy going to be more multi-displayed like say a newscast? Dramatic scrolling text?

Scooter Schechtman said...

Mamet had a funny spot on "Dr Katz Professional Therapist".

Wendy M. Grossman said...

AngryGamer: while what you're saying is true, I think any drama - or even any *song* - should be able to stand on its own without presuming that the audience will do background reading/checking. That doesn't mean there shouldn't be layers of meaning and complexities that only reveal themselves with more knowledge/thought, but that you shouldn't have to sit there guessing. (This was my objection as far back as the 1970s and some Bob Dylan songs.)

The memo is of course brilliant. People who want more should check out David Mamet's books/essays on writing, which contain much more good stuff.

wg
(There was actually a BIG BANG THEORY episode in which Sheldon began a sentence, "As you know..." because he suddenly needed to be a notary public. I almost threw things. I do not like this current showrunner, who seems set on turning TBBT into an amalgam of early 1990s comedies, mostly FRIENDS.

Anonymous said...

Ken -- First of all, thanks for sharing this. Great stuff.

That said -- and this may be a commentary on how hard it is to apply his own principles -- its worth noting the mediocre, second-rate nature of Mamet's work over the last 15 years. Does anyone hanker to 'binge-watch' "The Unit" they way they do for "The Wire"? Mamet's directed a bunch of movies. Can you name one that you'd like to see twice? Like to own?

I admit that my loathing of Mamet is primarily due to his preening media pose as a 'former brain-dead liberal' who has seen the light of right-wing RushLimbaughism, and is courageously exposing NPR as "National Palestinian Radio," etc. If the guy is such a dramatic genius, why hasn't he produced a single thing over the last 15 years that anyone cares about? He's the master -- where are the master works? "Phil Spector"? Really? Really?

I love -- LOVE -- Glengarry Glen Ross. A masterpiece, especially the movie, especially Alec Baldwin in the movie. But the tone of this piece is Resident Cultural Super-Genius yelling at Us Rubes. Okay, Super-Genius, let's see the goods. Sorry, David, maybe ya better go back and study your own lessons...

Anonymous said...

Even the brilliance and clarity of Ken Levine is not enough to make me sit still for David Mamet.

Mamet's memo might date from '05 but as a writer he is stuck in the 80s.

Toby said...

FORBIDDEN PHRASES FOR TELEVISION WRITERS

Do not put these in your dialogue -- ever!

No excuses!

"I came as soon as I heard."

"What are you talking about?"

"What do you mean?"

"As you know…"

"Yeah well…"

The Mutt said...

I did a play once where my character's sole reason for existing was to deliver exposition. It was maddening. I was constantly telling the audience things they had just seen, or were about to see, or that the writer thought they were too stupid to figure out on their own. I even had to deliver one of those "As you know, Bob..." lines.

I don't think I've ever had less fun being in a show, including the one where I got stabbed in the eye with a sword.

MJ said...

God, this made me laugh. Equivalent to a half-time pep talk by a flummoxed coach. Though I've seen this before, it never grows worn for me...

Pete Sutcliffe said...

The mistakes in grammar and punctuation are shocking coming from a writer of his calibre. A bit ironic. While he's giving instructions on how to keep an audience engaged with effective writing, I was utterly distracted from his point because I couldn't stop imagining one of America's great playwrights failing high-school English. Then I wondered if he was doing some kind of cute ee cummings thing with a memo, or if he just hasn't mastered certain functions of his keyboard. And then I gave up because it became too taxing to read any further.

pumpkinhead said...

To add one to Toby's list:

"[whoever] told me you were here."

Dale said...

Why is he SCREAMING???

He sounds less than sane.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. Plenty bits of great advice here! I love:

"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."

And:

"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."

(yes!)

And:

"IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CAN'T SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA."

(Which is something I thought BREAKING BAD did brilliantly -- and of course something which the Coen Brothers regularly excel at.)

Don't forget the act breaks, though, Mr Mamet:

"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."...

...except at the end of an act, where the hero will often APPEAR to be one step away from success. (I see this a lot.)

This is wonderful stuff. It makes me want to take apart an episode of a great drama and see how they manage to do this every scene.

Obviously the true masters know when they can break the rules (I'm pretty sure the THE WIRE dances around all the rules at times).

Great stuff.

Johnny Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

Toby, I was reading through your rules and, mixing in what Mamet said, I came up with this:

"I came as soon as I heard."

"What are you talking about?"

"Mandy called me and said there was an emergency..."

"You know that Mandy has some serious problems?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, for a start, she was in that terrible car crash..."

"Yes, I remember that. Just yesterday, wasn't it?"

"Right. And before that there was the business with the drugs, the mental breakdowns, and the whole attempted murder thing..."

"Yeah well..."

"Given her state of mind, I have to wonder what she's going to do next."

"You don't mean?"

"Well, she HAS been talking a lot about how she hates the current President..."

"That's true. And she DID just buy that high powered rife..."

BOTH CHARACTERS STARE AT EACH OTHER WITH SHOCK ON THEIR FACES, THEN THEY TURN TO THE CAMERA AND STATE IN UNISON:

"I wonder what she's going to do next?"

---

Pretty amazing huh? The worst scene ever? :)

(It's strange how trying to write deliberately awful dialogue sounds a lot like a 1950s B-movie/TV show to me. There always seemed to be a scientist or a detective spooling out information to the audience in lots of those things.)

Tim said...

AngryGamer: You're completely right about leaving out details. It's sad how little research some shows will do on some popular topics. Like, all those crime shows when it comes to technology, it's really sad. It just is lazy writing to have these computers that can do whatever they need them to do.

And what makes it terrible is that they'll start throwing around computer terms, and if you know anything about what those words mean, it's just total nonsense. It's not nitpicky for me to say that it takes me out of the scene when someone actually says "I'll make a GUI in Visual Basic" to solve a crime. And that's an actual line I heard. If they left it simple, nobody would care.

But my favorite is whenever actors are playing videogames on screen. Apparently, I want to see them having spastic seizures while they randomly press every button on the screen, before saying "Oh, I almost got the high score!"

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Anonymous Toby said...
FORBIDDEN PHRASES FOR TELEVISION WRITERS

Do not put these in your dialogue -- ever!

No excuses!

"I came as soon as I heard."

"What are you talking about?"

"What do you mean?"

"As you know…"

"Yeah well…"
_______________________

In that case, don't watch "Community." You won't like what you hear.
Dan Harmon is the Duke of "What?".

Marty said...

Ken, any chance you can delete the offensive comment left at 1/11/2014 11:31 PM?

John L. Monk said...

Great read man, thanks.

Richard Lewis said...

Yes, there are many golden nuggets here - but haven't we seen them shining in other windows before? There's nothing here revelatory. What a previous poster said is correct - we don't binge watch Mamet - there are others I prefer to learn from: Vince Gilligan, David Chase and if I really want to do good work Billy Wilder.

Brian Phillips said...

Here is what Mamet thinks about all of us reading his notes:

http://davidmamet.com/musings/access-to-the-secret-knowledge/

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Tim: Yes. 24 lost me in episode one, when Bauer barks at an underling: "Get me all the Internet passwords associated with this phone number."

Just no. Their smart and clever way with technology is one reason I like THE GOOD WIFE so much.

wg

88622170-7a63-11e0-8ac7-000bcdcb8a73 said...

I don't know much about David Mamet's work, but his daughter is effing brilliant in "The Neighbors".

jbryant said...

Pete Sutcliffe: Grammar and punctuation mistakes aren't that important in screenwriting (especially the latter). They're a pain in the butt if you read screenplays for a living, but very few of them actually show up on screen.

Gerry Mooney said...

Great essay!

Mike said...

Regarding scenes should not be redundant, haven't you posted this memo already?

I don't remember it being as poorly written the first time though.

Mike said...

Tim,
I write GUI in Visual Basic all the time. What's the problem?