This is an oldie but goodie. David Mamet wrote an impassioned memo to his writers on the now-cancelled show The Unit, laying out some principles of good dramatic writing. He wants three questions answered for every scene: "1) WHO WANTS WHAT? 2) WHAT HAPPENS IF [THEY] DON’T GET IT? 3) WHY NOW?" The memo also includes a few putdowns aimed at studio executives, and is a good read -- and yes, he wrote it in ALL CAPS to stress the importance of what he was saying:
TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT
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?
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.)
Here's a clip from the show. Does it carry out Mamet's instructions? It does include two characters talking about a third, but in the context of the scene it seems unavoidable...
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'The Unit' was a great series. Too bad it was killed...
October 26, 2010 at 6:35PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Those are some great questions to ask... it's a pity that most movie and TV show witers don't ask them more often.
I love the part in that clip right after you see the girl bleeding, we cut back in and one of the characters says "She's bleeding" as if the red stuff pouring out of her leg and smeared on the glass wasn't a good enough indication of that. haha
October 26, 2010 at 8:54PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Totally true. I would have liked it better if the fact that she was leaving a trail was made more obvious in the quick flash-back bit instead of revealing it in the present scene.
or they could have shown a conflict of opinion between the two who observed blood on glass, in taking their next step, and could have made one shout out that he thinks she was trying to leave a trail and so the other should shut the f* up and listen to him kinda thing. in reality no one typically pauses in a war zone and walks out to a more vulnerable area just to have a quick flash-back.
if i may go on a tangent really quick, i hate spoon-feeding in movies. that's the reason Memento worked better than Inception for me. If you string together the scenes of Memento in right timeline, it would still be a good drama/thriller but would loose it's "mindf**k flick" tag. the screenplay chosen challenges your memory to keep track and sort the scenes as you watch and audience love to be mindf**ked. Inception on the other hand, though is definitely another mindf**k flick, tries to be more explanatory. some scenes seemed to have been plugged in just to educate the viewer when we could have interpreted them easily through other scenes or by watching the movie over and over.
alright... i will stop my rant here. Loved reading the post. Thanks for posting.
November 7, 2010 at 10:25PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM