David Mamet's Memorable Memo

Just released today on Movieline.com, and likely to become a cult classic in the screenwriting how-to genre, is David Mamet’s 2005 all-caps memo to the writing staff of The Unit, where he berates them for writing scenes that are all information (and therefore undramatic) and advises them to make every scene dramatic, meaning that a character must have a goal that he or she is trying to achieve (and right now). Or in his words, “The main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.” The scene, he continues, “must start because the hero has a problem, and it must culminate with the hero finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.” As for how to get in all the expository or clarifying information, he doesn’t seem particularly concerned or willing to set down rules for how to do it; his advice is “figure it out,” because the delivery of information can’t be allowed to interfere with the dramatic nature of the scene.

I don’t know whether Mamet really believes that there are hard-and-fast, inviolable rules of storytelling; I’m sure you can look through his own work and find examples of him violating them. But his point, I think, is to get the writers thinking about the dramatic point of every scene, and asking whether the scene exists for any other purpose than conveying information or filling up a plot hole. (This applies more to movies than TV these days, but writers and directors today frequently get so worried about plot holes — or badgered by so many executives who like to point out plot holes — that they waste valuable screen time on explaining things that no involved viewer would ever care about. That’s why most movies are too long.) And I also think that his point doesn’t only apply to suspenseful, what-happens-next drama, but to any kind of show.

Here’s one example I always love to give of how a dramatic goal gives a scene structure and shape, turning it into a great scene. This is the All In the Family scene where Archie argues with Maude (in her first-ever appearance) about whether Maude’s idol Franklin Roosevelt, whom Archie calls “the first creepin’ socialist,” ruined America with his socialist agenda. The scene is good and funny enough purely as dialogue, and arguably is sufficiently dramatic because of how badly Archie and Maude both want to win the argument, plus Edith’s failed attempts to mediate. But the writers, Michael Ross and Bernie West, did something else to make the scene work: they made it not only about the political argument, but Archie’s attempt to get his beloved chair back. Maude is sitting in his chair and won’t get out of it. He starts arguing politics so he can get her angry, get her out of the chair, and finally so he can take the chair back in triumph. That makes it a scene where something actually happens, beyond two people rehashing an argument about politics, and it also gives the scene a physical component, making it more than illustrated radio. It’s a comedy scene, but it’s “dramatic” in every sense of the term.


Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.