The following are excerpts from a memo from screenwriting great David Mamet to the writers of his Emmy-nominated series The Unit. It’s amazing how even professional writers still need to be reminded of the fundamental principles of writing. I particularly appreciate the way Mamet differentiates between the producer’s (often misguided) desire to make things clear with “information” and the writer’s need to create drama.
As Mamet puts it: (Please excuse his capital letters. He’s an excitable guy!)”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.”
That’s because, as Mamet so brilliantly points out, nobody watches a movie for exposition. They watch a movie for an experience. And creating that experience is all about character.
Put all your focus on taking care of your audience, and Dramacool despite all your hard work, they’ll be snoozing in their seats.
Focus on your character, and your audience will follow you anywhere. That means creating a character who wants something desperately, tries to get it against overwhelming odds, and in so doing undergoes a journey that will forever change his or her life.
This is what Mamet calls drama. Again, in his words:
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.
Mamet follows up with a “crock of shit” list of important rules for seeking out and destroying non-dramatic scenes. As all of you know, I’m suspicious of any rules when it comes to writing. But these are definitely worth considering. Here are some of the highlights:
Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.