What Can 'Mad Men' Teach Us About Screenwriting?
A behind-the-scenes storytelling breakdown from the creator of one of the most beloved television shows of all time, "Mad Men."
Don Draper. The name alone evokes nostalgic images of the 1960s, back when everybody smoked and nobody cared. But there’s a ton of screenwriting work that went into creating Mad Men’s central character. So, what screenwriting lessons can you take away from the iconic AMC show?
In this video essay from Behind the Curtain, we’ll hear what Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has to say about the development and writing of one of the best TV shows in history and see how his nuggets of wisdom can apply to your own work.
Let’s take a look at Matt Weiner’s 6 screenwriting lessons:
Pop quiz: what’s dramatic irony? It’s when the audience knows something that the characters don’t. Matt Weiner uses dramatic irony to create interesting situations between characters because when there’s an information gap like that, it builds tension within a scene. Often, the audience is waiting to see what will go wrong.
Make Every Episode A Finale
One thing you’ll notice when you watch Mad Men is that events are permanent. Matt Weiner did this deliberately; he wanted each episode to feel like a finale. Characters don’t stay in one place, story-wise. The reason this happens is that each episode has its own self-contained story and theme. The “soap opera” aspect of it will continue, but there’s a beginning and a middle and an end to every episode.
How Would A Silent Movie Do It?
AMC executives were originally worried that nobody would know what Don was thinking because there was no character for him to confide to. But that was kind of the point. Matt Weiner wanted people to interpret Don’s thoughts and emotions through his actions. Mad Men takes place during a time when people didn’t think it was polite to talk about themselves, so all we know about Don’s thoughts is what he shows us. As Weiner says, “You can do it if you try hard, like a silent movie.”
It’s Not About the '60s
When writing dialogue, Matt Weiner wanted to create conversations that people could relate to right now, so the way people talk is a bit more abstract. They’re dealing with big questions like “what am I doing with my life?” and “what is my expectation for the future?” These are the same questions that he himself was dealing with at the time.
Earn Your Ending
People always come up to Matt Weiner and tell him how much they love the ending to Mad Men, but it’s important to note that it wouldn’t have felt the same if the characters hadn’t been through hell to get there. It’s easy to forget how much work goes into the build-up of a story, but when it all comes together, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Make sure your ending is earned, and the characters went through enough trials and tribulations for it to be worthwhile.
As Matt Weiner tells it, he wrote the pilot for Mad Men before he ever worked on The Sopranos. In fact, it’s the script that got him that job. Three years later, he started writing for The Sopranos, did that for four years, and then finally AMC shot the pilot for Mad Men. But he didn’t even know if he’d have a show until the network picked it up eight months later. Moral of the story? Never give up. Always be working on something else.
What's next? Why Betty Draper Is A Perfect Tragic Character!
If you’re thinking of revisiting the show, then take a look at how AMC’s iconic TV show Mad Men approaches the tragic arc of one of its primary players, Betty Draper, and how you can apply it to your work.
Click the link to learn more!