David Mamet's Master Class Memo to the Writers of The Unit

CBS's drama The Unit, about the lives of the highly trained members of a top-secret military division, was canceled last year, but a memo to its writing staff from its executive producer David Mamet has just surfaced online. (The source appears to be the online writing collective Ink Canada.) If you think you know where this is heading, you might be wrong:

Besides the fact that it's written in all-caps, there's nothing particularly ranty, pejorative or potty-mouthed about it. Rather, Mamet lays down an extremely sensible case for what makes good television, imploring them to avoid expository writing for what he characterizes as authentic "drama." Along the way, he refers repeatedly to the "blue-suited penguins" (probably the copious-note-givers at the network), while passing along some very useful advice ("any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit") and helpful writing exercises ("pretend the characters can't speak and write a silent movie"). Screenwriters, take note: You may think you knew this already, but there's nothing like Mamet for a good kick-in-the-ass reminder.

"TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT

GREETINGS.

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 FROM THE 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, IN TRUTH, 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.)"

[Photo: Colonel Scrypt]



Comments

  • tom prieto says:

    david mamet is a genius of our time.

  • Sean Nittner says:

    I loved David's letter. It resonated with me. Drama is wanting but not getting and we need this in everything we do. It's why we wake up in the morning.
    I talked about it on Narrative Control, episode 43. Over yonder: http://www.narrativecontrol.com/index.php?post_id=608767

  • Mary Linga says:

    THANKS DAVID. WELL IF FIGURED IT OUT. BUT NO-ONE GOT IT!

  • yousuck says:

    You're an idiot. There is no fucking way in hell Magnolia is better than Glengarry Glen Ross.

  • Just-in-Time says:

    Poor David. But then, wasn't it he who hired a team of writers who didn't already know this elementary stuff? Maybe the penguins made him hire their nephews and nieces. After all, they think "anybody can write."

  • michael says:

    Magnolia is pretentious, self-indulgent, and worst of all, boring. Guess THAT post is disqualified.
    If you can't stick to these simple rules, its not because you're radical, revolutionary or expressive; its because you're lazy, and you're scared. You're scared that your spontaneous, instinctive, first-thing-that-comes-to-your-head idea is enough to make you an artist. It isn't.
    Even Michael Jordan had to train for years and years before he qualified for the NBA.
    Mamet's example is similar: the beatles played for THOUSANDS of hours in Hamburg before they became The Beatles. Hard to argue with that.

  • Mistercrispy says:

    Does Mr. Mamet understand that no matter who you're typing to, TYPING EVERYTHING IN CAPS MAKES YOUR PROSE APPEAR LIKE THE OBNOXIOUS RANTINGS OF AN ANGRY THIRTEEN YEAR OLD BOY IN A WORLD OF WARCRAFT FORUM?
    After I cut and pasted his letter into Word and changed the case, there's some decent advice in here. But nothing spectacular. It's Mr. Miagi advice. Reminds me of when John Madden would explain the obvious during a play. "See, if the quarterback throws the ball to a receiver and the receiver breaks the plane of the goal line, then that results in six points for the offensive team." Aaaahhhh wise words.

  • Sterling W. says:

    MISTER C.
    YOU ARE A SENSITIVE LITTLE FLOWER, YES?

  • Adaptor says:

    It probably means it was a good show :p

  • Joe says:

    Anything written in uppercase takes much longer to read. The brain recognizes words much faster based on the shape of the letters. Anything written in lowercase nullifies that.
    Here is the memo reprinted in lowercase.

  • Joe says:

    That should be: "anything written in uppercase nullifies that"

  • Chico says:

    "There are no absolutes," and "Rules are made to be broken." "Pay attention to the art, not the artist," "Moderation in all things, save moderation." These are ALL absolutes. hahha No modifiers at all. Of course there are rules to writing, just as there are to building a house. Try breaking the basic rules on foundation and structure and your house will crumble.
    Likewise in your writing. "Rules are made to be broken" is the kind of thing people who just don't want to learn say. Would you hire a contractor with that painted on his truck or a doctor with it on his business card or vote for a politician who boldly declared, "Rules are to be broken"? (Well, yeah, we DO vote in a lot of those people.)

  • tarantula2 says:

    i've been cramming myself insane with alot of shit about writing,one academic even went as far as saying you need to write stories about experiences you can relate to,i think that's bullshit.what mamet says is gr8,it beats the shit out of anything else you'll read out there including that formulaic structure shit Syd Field raps about.
    i don't think it needs to get harder than what mamet proposes.

  • David says:

    The creator of the show was an Operator from Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta. Artistic liberties taken for the use of television drama aside, the accuracy of most show related material was authentic.

  • Hi Markus. So fare i can see, Samul has answered your question. I don't see any sense.

  • Motivate Your Reader. If you can, motivate the hiring manager to look into your application form and CV. Typically, you can motivate an employer if he thinks that you might be the right person for the position as it will make his life simpler and his task may be finished much earlier. So always highlight your relevant skills and qualifications for every letter you will be sending.

  • Hi there, this is funny. I just went onto the internet to help my son with his assignment for school. He is also developing a fitness and diet plan. To answer your question, as a non motivated person who really needs to push herself to do a little exercise. Keep it simple. Walking, cycling, pilates is fantastic and is low impact, breathing technique is important, as is diet to help give you energy. Good luck with your assignment. Regards Michelle

  • Roger says:

    What a silly comment. Sorkin wrote the most consistently dramatic scenes in television. The point isn't to write a silent movie (even if that's what Mamet literally says). The point is to only have your characters talk if they have something to say, which Sorkin's characters always do. The point is to expunge exposition or cleverly weave it into drama, which Sorkin always did.

  • I love how Mamet keeps reminding the writers to focus on what the characters want as he keep reminding the writers of what they want (money to buy a house, etc.)

  • David Mamet is a good dramatist. His memo is correct as far as it goes. Every scene in a drama has to play. But Mamet degrades drama by insisting that it not carry information. Without carrying information, drama becomes masturbation, junk food, a thrill ride -- the old joke about Chinese food, that an hour after consuming it you're hungry again.
    Without message, drama becomes redundant of music and without the distinct purpose of telling a story: not just to move, but to edify, enlighten -- and yes, teach.
    The master storyteller learns to convey information through drama, not eliminate information from drama.
    If you can't do that, you're still a journeyman apprentice, no matter how successful you are.

  • Saying that drama is always about failure reduces all drama to tragedy. But drama can also be about triumph. That's the classical definition of comedy.

  • Demanding that all drama be about failure is reducing all drama to tragedy. But drama can also be about triumph, which is the classical definition of a comedy.

  • Bill says:

    Brilliant, simply brilliant.
    I can summarize much of what Mamet wrote with one simple rule: Always Write in E-Prime - never use the verb "to be".

  • D. Ferris says:

    Aaron Sorkin just won an Oscar. David MAMET needs to read this, or at the very least follow his own advice.
    One of the most overrated writers in history, and possibly the most damaging "teacher" on directing, writing, or really anything.
    Another comment on here talks about how he loves "hick speak". Totally true. Every time I hear him interviewed where he puts on a phony blue-collar accent I want to bash him in face and break his nose. Piece of **it.

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