David Mamet’s Rules For Screenwriting. What do you think?
By Jacob Krueger
Thanks to Chaweon Koo for forwarding this great memo from 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 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.”
“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.”
“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)”
“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.”
Of course, like any rules, these too have exceptions. Watch the opening of Inglourious Basterds for example, and tell me if that scene would have been better if it had been written like a silent movie. Or take the completely non-essential “McLovin’ and the cops” sequences out of Superbad and see if you still want to watch the movie. I think what distinguishes these exceptions is that even though they violate many of the rules of Mamet’s memo, they are true to the three principles that create drama: a character pursuing something he or she desperately wants, against tremendous odds, and in a way that will forever change his or her life. And of course it doesn’t hurt if you’re funny. So I open it up to you.
What do you think about Mamet’s rules?
Do you have an example of a successful movie, in which two characters talk about a third in riveting ways or break other rules from the list with breathtaking results? Do you have a thought about a film that could have been saved by a generous dose of David Mamet? Go ahead and chime in. Respond in the comments section of this post, and I will put a list together. You can read the full David Mamet memo here.
I also enjoyed Mamet’s bluntly informative email and I have to say I agree with most of what he said. The one thing I would like to point out is that there are always exceptions. Use the information from Mamet, and the hundreds of other screenwriting gurus out there, as a rock to build from. And if you’re a student stick hard and fast to these rules until you’ve learned them well enough to know when to break them. But understand that some of the best moments in film come from breaking these rules of Hollywood.
Don’t give out important info in dialogue. Show. Don’t tell: “Luke, I am your father.” “Leia is your sister”
Don’t use a lot of dialogue. The film should be about the images and the action: “Any Marx Brothers Film”
Abrasive characters can’t be your protagonist: “House”
And many films use the “talking about a third person” or “you know…” approach, because the info is important, they don’t have the time to show it, and showing it would screw up the pacing or emotion. As long as it’s handled well the audience doesn’t even notice or at the very least forgives the cinematic faux pas because the ends justifies the means.
I think it all boils down to “Whatever works.” You can do anything you want to really. As long as it works in the film.
Thanks for this fabulous comment. Some great examples of movies that “break the rules” but still work great. I’d add almost every scene of “When Harry Met Sally” as examples that break the “don’t write a scene where two characters talk about a third” rule. As with everything in screenwriting, this kind of information can be extremely helpful when your scene ISN’T working. But sometimes the best scenes break the rules in interesting ways.
the problem with mamet being so vocal about his rules, is that i can watch his movies. and so many of them totally suck. like Heist. or spartan. or state and main. or or or. clearly, he has no idea.
That’s the problem with rules in general. Just because you follow them doesn’t mean your movie is going to to work. And just because you ignore them doesn’t mean it won’t. (though I have to admit, I love “State and Main”. It’s hard to spend time in Hollywood and not love it!)
Reservoir Dogs, when Mr. White and Mr. Pink are talking about Mr. Blonde before he has been introduced. NOT a crock of shit.
Er, Keyser Soze is a third character talked about for most of Usual Suspects.
Great example Toby! What are you writing right now?
If a writer needs rules they do not have an innate sense of story or taste and they should not be writing.
THis is very helpful