9 Brilliant Lessons from David Mamet's Writing Staff Memo
Almost a decade ago, celebrated playwright, film director, screenwriter, author and producer David Mamet — one of the kings of dialogue — wrote a memo to the writing staff of his then critically-acclaimed CBS show The Unit, for which he was the creator, producer, and frequent writer. When the memo later surfaced online, shortly after the series was canceled, one of the greatest lessons in television writing was shared with the world.
Mamet also wrote feature screenplays for classic films like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), The Verdict (1982), The Untouchables (1987), Hoffa (1992), the film adaptation of his play Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), The Edge (1997), Wag the Dog (1997), Ronin (1998), and Hannibal (2001).
The many nuggets of wisdom and direction found in the memo can be applied masterfully to both television and feature writing.
Here we share the best nuggets of wisdom from that memo and elaborate on how those words can change the course of any writer's craft for the better.
Note: Because the memo was written in all caps, we will follow suit here as well for "dramatic" effect.
"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."
Mamet was referring to the difference between drama and non-drama. The worst of shows and features clearly don't know the difference between the two.
Information is non-drama. Call it information or call it exposition — in the end, it's non-drama. And non-drama has no place in a story written for television or film. Or any form of storytelling for that matter.
Yes, we need to relay information at times within our dialogue, but when such non-drama overtakes each and every scene for the mere purpose of explaining the plot and characters, the script suffers. When the script suffers, the cast and director suffer. When they suffer, the eventual episode of the movie suffers.
"WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL."
Mamet gives perhaps the best definition of drama — and conflict — as far as what it is, how it affects the characters, and how the audience is affected by it as well.
He goes on to specify three questions that writers must ask themselves when looking at each scene they write:
- Who wants what?
- What happens if [they don't get it]?
- Why now?
These questions are the Litmus test that writers can apply to each and every scene that they write. The answers to those questions will tell you if your scene has true drama or not.
"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."
The best nugget of wisdom within this quote is the reference to scenes with two people talking about a third. Those types of scenes are often used as crutches for writers to explain story and character elements that they are too lazy — or forgot — to write.
The best writers make this mistake, so be sure to go through your scripts and seek these types of scenes out. When you find them — and you will — figure out a way to relay that information through dramatic scenes of showing rather than telling.
"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."
Whether it be expositional scenes — as Mamet details — or scenes that are redundant and unnecessary, it is the writer's job to find them and discard them before taking the script to anyone or handing that assignment in.
So many writers see these boring scenes within their scripts but leave them in there because they know they have to communicate whatever plot point or character moment within that otherwise boring scene. The trick is to pair those elements with exciting and dramatic scenes that pack a punch.
He makes an excellent point of saying that it's not the actor's job or director's job to make something dramatic. It has to start with the writer and the script.
"THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE."
When you're building a scene and when you've asked yourself those three questions above to find the drama within each scene, you also need to determine why the main character is in that scene. Is there a purpose for them to be there? Why are they present? What is the scene really about?
Mamet then brilliantly explains that you'll know when a scene should end because the character has failed to meet their need going into that scene. That's drama. That is how you create scenes that build and build to a climax. You let the character get closer and closer to their goals, but always take them away no matter how much they've learned and how hard they've worked to attain those goals. And then you write the climax of the film where they finally achieve what they set out to do.
This collection of failures, accompanied by how the protagonist reacts to each of those failures, constitutes the plot of the episode or film.
"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."
He goes on to say that writers need to figure out how to get the information (non-drama) communicated through dramatic scenes.
That's your job as a writer. The "dickhead in a blue suit" — as Mamet describes them — is taught to say, "Make it clearer" and "I want to know more about [the character]."
These types of studio notes are what bogs down the process and the eventual screenplay, leading to the unemployment line — figurative or literal.
Writing scenes that feature dialogue like, "But Jim, if we don't assassinate the prime minister all of Europe will be engulfed in flame!" only lessen the impact of such dramatic scenarios. Show it in the moment. Find a way to implement that information within a dramatic scene. The information will be so much more compelling when audiences and readers see and read it as it unfolds.
Mamet wants each and every scene to be as dramatic as possible. Anything less is, as he says, either superfluous or incorrectly written.
"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."
How many scripts have script readers read that have dialogue starting with "As you know..." or any variation of that? Countless.
It goes back to Mamet's declaration of drama vs. non-drama. There's no place for non-drama in a good script. It's reserved for those terrible scripts so many script readers are forced to read.
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"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?"
That is the way to communicate necessary information and exposition. Wrap it around the content of the action that is happening presently.
All writers — for television and features — need to focus on writing cinematic screenplays. Information-drop scenes aren't cinematic. They're horrible. Those are the scenes that are least memorable, despite the fact that writers writing them seem to think they are the most important because they are dumping key plot information within them.
Do you see the conundrum that causes — as far as writing scenes that audiences hate, that are just boring and disengaging, but which contain information relating to the plot, story, and character arcs?
Figure out how to relay that information in dramatic and cinematic fashion.
"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)."
Words can be best featured in novels, novellas, and short stories.
Words as pictures is what screenwriting is all about.
Know the difference between drama vs. non-drama.
Know to look at each scene and ask those three questions of "Who wants what? What happens if [they don't get it]? Why now?"
If two characters are talking about a third that isn't there, remember that this is often a tell-tale sign of a poorly written expositional scene.
If a scene in your script is boring to you — whether or not it provides vital information — it's going to be boring to everyone else who reads or watches it.
Remember to ensure that the main character is in a scene for the reason of them being compelled to be there as they try to attain a goal. And then make sure that the scene ends with them failing.
Remember that every single scene must both advance the plot and exist dramatically on its own merit.
Avoid scenes that have "As you know..." dialogue. It's worthless.
Figure out ways to show rather than tell.
And finally, remember that screenwriting is about telling the story in pictures. Otherwise, go write the great novel version of it. There's a difference.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies