March 27, 2010

David Mamet on How to Write for Television


Interested in getting better at writing? I always am. If you are as well this letter/memo written by Mamet to his writing team for the television show, The Unit delivers the goods. Ostensibly "Made for Television" but anyone interested in improving their writing for any medium would do well to mine it for nuggets of gold. Particularly appealing to me is this injunction:

"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."

If I were a tattooing sort of guy, I'd have this tattooed on the back of both of my hands and set it to flash in flaming subliminal letters on my monitor three times a minute.

It is the Talmud to the Torah of:


That's a commandment to remember when writing on the various subjects, arguments, concepts and commentary that arise in the current struggle henceforth to be known as "The Thermonuclear Phase of the Culture Wars."

Long ago, a friend of mine quipped, "Better ideas require better arguments," and while that's true it is also dated. As they wind their way

through the infinite warp and woof of the Web the proposition that many readers come for the "facts" and the "reasons" is true enough, but that's why God created hyperlinks. While some may say they come for "the substance" and without it shall depart forevermore, many more stay and return for the drama. Of those some may complain and forever depart (except for the lurking back-peek) if your flames burn too hot and bright, but it is an adamantine Rule of the Net that "Flame wars are good for business." (As I was at some pains to point out in my now ancient book from 1996. )

"Flames are good for business/traffic." Learn it, love it, live it. In this brave new world that is being thrust up the fundament of freedom like a five-pronged parsnip with every passing day, it's no longer enough to say, "I believe you need to learn a few of the actual facts about this issue which you seem to have overlooked." That is the old-school approach and it don't butter no parsnip.

Instead take a page from David Mamet and write it:

"Listen up, you prolapsed blathering rectum recycling dinosaur dung from your hovel in the downtown trailerpark of Upper Babboon's Asshole, California, I believe you need to learn a few of the actual facts about this issue which you seem to have overlooked because you are a flaming fascist piece of junk that I wouldn't shit on if you were the last wheat seed in the known universe. But I digress...."

There. Much more satisfactory. It is in many ways the 12th step of writing to win. Now having had a spiritual awakening as the result of this step, we must try to carry this evangel to Obamaholics, and to PUNCH UP THE VOLUME in all our postings.

But before you go, take a close look at the Mamet principle of "The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama" in its full context. There lots of gold still to be mined.

To the writers of the unit


As we learn how to write this show, a recurring problem becomes clear.

The problem is this: to differentiate between *drama* and non-drama. Let me break-it-down-now.

Everyone in creation is screaming at us to make the show clear. We are tasked with, it seems, cramming a shitload 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.

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.

If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted.

There is no magic fairy dust which will make a boring, useless, redundant, or merely informative scene after it leaves your typewriter. *you* the writers, are in charge of making sure *every* scene is dramatic.

This means 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.

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.

Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actors job (the actors job is to be truthful). It is not the directors job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is *your* job.

Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.

This need is why they *came*. It is what the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met *will* lead, at the end of the scene,to *failure* – this is how the scene is *over*. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the *next* scene.

All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the *plot*.

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.

Yes but yes but yes but, you say: what about the necessity of writing in all that “information?”

And i respond “*figure it out*” 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.

The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. *not* to explain to them what just happened, or to*suggest* to them what happens next.

Any dickhead, as above, can write, “but, jim, if we don’t assassinate the prime minister in the next scene, all europe will be engulfed in flame”

We are not getting paid to *realize* that the audience needs this information to understand the next scene, but to figure out how to write the scene before us such that the audience will be interested in what happens next.

Yes but, yes but yes *but* you reiterate.

And i respond *figure it out*.

*how* does one strike the balance between withholding and vouchsafing information? *that* is the essential task of the dramatist. And the ability to *do* that is what separates you fromthe lesser species in their blue suits.

Figure it out.

Start, every time, with this inviolable rule: the *scene must be dramatic*. It 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.

Look at your log lines. Any logline reading “bob and sue discuss…” is not describing a dramatic scene.

Please note that our outlines are, generally, spectacular. The drama flows out between the outline and the first draft.

Think like a filmmaker rather than a functionary, because, intruth, *you* are making the film. What you write, they will shoot.

Here are the danger signals. 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.

Do *not* write a crock of shit. Write a ripping three, four, seven minute scene which moves the story along, and you can, very soon, buy a house in bel air *and* hire someone to live there for you.

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*.

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)

This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourselves to do it, but you need to *start*.

I close with the one thought: 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. If you’ve got any questions, call me up.

Love, dave mamet
Santa monica 19 octo 05

(it is *not* your responsibility to know the answers, but it is your, and my, responsibility to know and to *ask the right questions* over and over. Until it becomes second nature. I believe they are listed above.)

Posted by Vanderleun at March 27, 2010 12:31 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

"If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted."

Star Wars prequals! Especially that "Revenge of the Kiwis" one.

Posted by: at March 27, 2010 2:42 PM

Excellent... Thank you for this little piece of knowledge.

Posted by: Captain Dave at March 27, 2010 3:06 PM

A man is leaving a Manhattan theater when a bum accosts him on the street, and asks him for a dollar.

The theater-goer replies, "In the words of Shakespeare, 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be.'"

To which the bum replies, "In the words of David Mamet, 'F*ck you.'"

Posted by: at March 27, 2010 6:34 PM

Flame wars, huh?

I can do that.


Posted by: jwm at March 27, 2010 8:45 PM

"Listen up, you prolapsed blathering rectum recycling dinosaur dung from your hovel in the downtown trailerpark of Upper Babboon's Asshole, California, I believe you need to learn a few of the actual facts about this issue which you seem to have overlooked because you are a flaming fascist piece of junk that I wouldn't shit on if you were the last wheat seed in the known universe."

Oh, really? Well, calling that mass of revolting sludge of yours a story about how to write better is like calling a bucket of putrid, stinking, maggot-infested garbage a steak dinner. Like rotting garbage, there’s occasionally some recognizable trace of what it was supposed to be, which only makes the rest of that disgusting sack of offal posing as information just so much worse. Then you have the utter gall to expect people to praise your efforts, as though you actually made some effort instead of just scribbling down your brain drool and contaminating the Net with it. Nobody with the brain of a body louse would pretend that this item displayed any intelligence. In fact, I owe your lice an apology for saying that. I’ve had toenail fungus that was smarter than you. I’ve read better advice in random combinations of words made from old bills that have gone through the paper shredder. You would have to get smarter to become a drooling idiot. Whoever deluded you into believing you could write ought to be flogged. Not only do you expose unsuspecting readers to the foul mess of slaughterhouse waste you call helpful advice, but you cry like the whiny little baby you are when people don’t tell you it’s the best counsel ever. I bet you’re crying right now. You’re an infected boil on the buttock of a diseased whore. Your momma curses herself daily for ever letting a stupid brat like you be born. I hope you someday have the decency to blow your own head off and put yourself out of our misery.


P.S. I stole and revised the material from Wandering Critic

Posted by: viktor silo at March 27, 2010 10:05 PM

Dear Mr. Vanderleun: Disagree with David Mamet on dramatic writing? Dangerous. Nevertheless, being doomed, I march up to the scaffold, adjust the noose, then see your Mamet with Charles Beaumont. Beaumont wrote for the original TWILIGHT ZONE, and knew something about writing for the screen. His summation of all his years in Hollywood? "Writing in Hollywood is like climbing a mountain of cow flop in quest of one perfect rose. Those who reach the summit pluck the rose---and find they've lost their sense of smell."

The old boy knew something, more than Mamet does. The DailyKos has tons of traffic, but the price they pay in understanding is obvious. I will now raise you with H.L. Mencken, who knew something about attracting audiences. From his preface to A MENCKEN CHRESTOMATHY:

"Let them [critics who objected to the word CHRESTOMATHY] continue to recreate themselves with whodunits and leave my vocabulary and me to my own customers, who have all been to school."


Let the trap swing.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

Posted by: Gregory Koster at March 27, 2010 10:35 PM

Interesting. Alas, I'm not a writer, I mostly just make blog comments, and I'm not sure how that relates to writing for TV.

I'll try to keep Mamet's advice in mind, though.

Posted by: rickl at March 28, 2010 12:11 AM

And oddly enough, I find The Unit unbearable to sit through yet I can watch reruns of NCIS indefinitely and often shout at the TV "that's genius storytelling."

Posted by: bonny kate at March 28, 2010 7:43 AM

Drama is when a character, on an ordinary day, turns a corner and meets face to face with a conflict that pressurizes and transforms him and makes it impossible for him to ever unturn that corner. At the end, he is elsewhere.

The audience goes there with him. In the greatest of dramas, they can never unturn that corner either.

Posted by: Martin McPhillips at March 28, 2010 8:16 AM

Tonto not realizing that the Lone Ranger had disguised himself as a pool table, racked his balls.


Posted by: toad at March 28, 2010 10:28 AM

Blah, blah, blah. Horace gave writers the perfect advice for success thousands of years ago. It still works, but few take heed.

Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci, lectorem delectando pariterque monendo.

Posted by: Helen RW at March 28, 2010 8:42 PM


Here, I'll do the dirty work:

"He wins every hand who mingles profit with pleasure, by delighting and instructing the reader at the same time."

Posted by: vanderleun at March 28, 2010 9:43 PM

I am so going to steal this idea.

I have started my own blog recently. It's emphasis is on work I do in kitchen design and remodeling. This little part of the internets could definitely use some Mametfication in its posts and comments. Everybody is so nice to each other. This has to stop in the interest of driving traffic.

If you go take a look, you will see that the thefts have already begun.

Posted by: Mike at March 29, 2010 6:50 AM

As I said at your shop: "Go for it. Attitude pays off more than gratitude or giving kitchen designers latitude with platitude."

Posted by: vanderleun at March 29, 2010 11:18 AM

One respondent here positions NCIS at the top of the mountain. He's kidding, right?

Having watched every episode of Bones and Criminal Minds three times I have lately moved to Law & Order, which shifts mid-episode from formulaic to ADA Sam Waterston, who doesn't always get his way or his man.

Of course I only watch this because I can't find The Gong Show. Did they take it off the air? When did that happen?

Posted by: Terry at March 29, 2010 12:02 PM

Great piece - though I do find it depressing that I seem to violate every one of its directives. Alas and alack. Thanks for posting it.

Posted by: GW at March 31, 2010 10:59 AM