David Mamet on writing for television

Not long ago, as sometimes happens, a memo emerged from Hollywood: a memo that had been sent from David Mamet, legendary playwright, screenwriter and co-creator of The Unit, to the other writers on that show. Like most of these memos, it’s says as much about its writer as its subject. Unlike most of these memos, it’s actually useful. Here are the top five points:

1. 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.

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

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Remember you are writing for a visual medium. Most television writing, ours included, sounds like radio. If you pretend the characters can’t 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).

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