Writing Advice From David Mamet

Here are three lessons from the man himself

Let’s talk about David Mamet. Even if you don’t know who he is, you definitely know his work. On the off chance that you don’t, you’ve definitely seen writing that’s been influenced by him: his art has molded a generation of writers, and then some.

Over the years, he’s dispensed advice on the craft of writing that largely concerns writing screenplays of the dramatic variety, but can be applied to any type of writing. Here are three lessons from the man himself:

Keep Exposition to a Minimum

In Mamet’s view, writing exposition-heavy dialogue is for hacks:

“Anybody can write a script that has “Jim, how were things since you were elected governor of Minnesota? How’s your albino daughter?”

This kind of writing isn’t challenging neither to the writer, nor the audience. It’s not engaging, it’s simply conveying information, and goes against the rule of “show, don’t tell”. The trick is conveying that same information through action and drama. You’d be surprised how much the audience can figure out on their own when you stop hitting them on the head with the obvious.

How to apply this to your writing: get to the point. Don’t treat the audience like they’re dumb by spoon-feeding them information they need to figure out. Speaking of information:

Convey Drama, Not Information

In 2005, Mamet wrote a memo to the writers of The Unit, a CBS drama that had just premiered at the time. The memo describes in loving, ALL-CAPS detail how to write a dramatic scene. The antithesis of a dramatic scene, according to Mamet, is a scene that purely conveyed information.

“EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A S**TLOAD 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.”

He goes on to outline that drama is the quest of a hero to overcome the things that prevent him from achieving a specific goal. A dramatic scene, then, is one where a character attempts to reach their goal. Every action is motivated by a need to overcome the obstacle at hand, and, in the end, results in failure. Over the course of the narrative (in this case, an episode) this constitutes the plot.

How to apply this to your writing: don’t bore your audience by giving them information they need to properly digest whatever comes next. Instead, reshape and rewrite it until it’s interesting. In Mamet’s words, “FIGURE IT OUT”.

Put the Audience in the Protagonist’s Position

In an interview with John Lahr for The Paris Review, Mamet lays down the perfect scenario for drama:

“Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position.”

What this means is, the audience must identify with the protagonist. The reason why we relate to characters is that we are in the same position as them: if you’re watching a crime drama and it’s following detectives trying to solve a murder case, aren’t you trying to solve it with them, or at least guess who the murderer is? In this example, the fictional detectives are getting information at exactly the same rate you, the viewer. This inevitably makes us relate to them, because we’re both digging ourselves out from a hole of not knowing.

How to apply this to your writing: everything you write has a beginning, where the audience does not have certain insight or knowledge, and ends with them obtaining it — the same as the character. To ensure that both the audience and character are on the same quest, put them into the same position.

Read this article published via Write!

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Laconic Lemming
Content crafter at Write!, spends all his time writing or learning how to write better. A few time was caught reading The New York Times and watching TED talks during working hours.
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3 Comments

  • Damn, I wish I could think of something smart like that!

  • David Mamet. What a legend.

  • David Mamet is the man. Thanks for writing this, really enjoyed it.