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

  • Jonas says:

    Ohhhh somebody def had the panties in a bunch..
    either way, and amusing read.

  • Eddy says:

    So I fail to read it all. All those uppercase letters made my head hurt way too much. Even if he wrote it like that so could the editor had the courtesy to make it readable. Or ,maybe Im just a cry baby.

  • andrews jenkins says:

    He scrolled through the "comments" like he fingered Sushi, gagging with his index finger from one to another. His eyes rolled with a "Who consumes this raw shit?" look (the comments, not the commented). Me, I guess. They didn't get it, so he hit "post."

  • JLS says:

    HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

    Well that just about sums up about all the crime shows on TV right now.

  • Scott says:

    I can’t believe another network didn’t pick this show up. It was my favorite show and really felt like it could keep going. I don’t know any men that weren’t addicted to this show. I’m hoping the movie is going to happen still. Also hope the original actors are hired. Who knows, maybe after the movie the demand for the tv show will come back. Dennis, good luck on making this happen. No one cares if the name changes, it’s the content of the show that keeps us coming back for more.

    Ps. When I was young, I wanted to either be a top gun pilot or special forces like most boys, I think this show helps civilians see into that lifestyle.

  • mo says:

    How I adored this show! But I could barely tolerate the "drama" that went on with the women, especially toward the end. And I'm a woman! (Though I did end up loving all the ladies as characters, and enjoyed the interaction with the guys. It was all the soap opera nonsense that drove me nuts.)

    I had not heard any news of a movie. It would be a dream come true!

    • John says:

      MO - 4/23/12 at 9:32pm: Very good comments, particularly regarding the "drama", and it should never have become a "soap opera" - major mistake. There is a good amount of reality, much of which takes experience to understand, but well done, nevertheless. Eric did a good job against what I am sure were many "barriers" put in his way.

  • ThatMaskedMan says:

    Paste into Word. Select All. Shift-F3, twice. You're welcome.

    • D says:

      The Unit was an EXCELLENT show. I am able to catch the reruns on Sunday night from 11:00-12:00 and have to force myself NOT to watch the second episode from 12:00 - 1:00 a.m., lest I oversleep Monday morning. I wish they'd bring it back -- just as it was.

    • Michamus says:

      You're a legend.

    • Hannah says:

      OMG..I have wanted to do that for YEARSSSSSS. Yes, THANK you!

      Brilliant freaking schooling from Mamet too, extremely helpful Thanks for posting.

  • [...] one comes comes from David Mamet, perhaps the most well-known living playwright.  He wrote a memo for the writing staff on the CBS show The Unit, where he was an executive producer, reminding [...]

  • [...] The other key problem with book adaptations is that film is an almost entirely a visual medium; Mamet again: “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 TV, what are they seeing?  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.”  David Mamet link [...]

  • [...] A couple years ago this memo was leaked and started floating around. [...]

  • [...] Mamet’s three magic questions are the concentrated version of the famous leaked memo to the writers of his television show, The Unit, available here. [...]

  • [...] Or then there’s the three dramatic elements every scene needs according to David Mamet: [...]

  • [...] noise builds up online, you need increasingly professional messages to cut through the dull roar. Mamet’s definition of drama is very useful: Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things that prevent him [...]

    • john says:

      I am ashamed that as a disabled full time tv watcher, I never saw any promotion for this show unit it was over. I loved watching this show which I did from start to finish twice. CBS did such a poor job of putting this show out there that it took amazon recommended view for me to notice the show. According to the ratings I have seen they really messed up the showing of season four. I liked 24 but thought this show was better.

      • Mo says:

        I'm glad you finally found it! You are so right. CBS gave it ZERO promotion. I only knew about it because I kept up with news about Dennis Haysbert from '24', and then later learned Robert Patrick was in it, whom I also love as an actor.

        Despite some of the soap opera aspects, it was a fantastic show. What a shame it did not gain an audience and ended so soon.

        And yet the trashy reality shows go on and on and on...

  • [...] cite David Mamet’s “master class memo on writing” so often I’ve probably worn a groove in the Internet. It’s must reading if you [...]

  • [...] clunky expositions and the prerequisite numbers of fight scenes (if only more screenwriters follow his rules on storytelling). there are also hints of the samurai/western movies especially with the recurring taiko drum [...]

  • [...]   as summer comes to an end, an hence the ending of the flops of summer, i was going to pick a notorious f.l.o.p. like jonah hex, catwoman, johnny mnemonic or the island of dr. moureau ’96. but chris rock has a new movie out (2 days in paris 2: 2 days in new york, and madagascar 3 counts as a movie, i guess) and i don’t want to miss out on all the decennial celebration in regard to bad company (2002). i couldn’t find anything online but there are ten-year-anniversary festivities celebrating the ten year anniversary of the release of bad company (2002), right? i also thought it would be interesting to see something that’s on the other end of the spectrum of our last movie, david mamet’s redbelt, which cost ten times less than bad company (2002). it turns out to be a beautiful coincident that this is the antithesis to mamet’s philosophy. [...]

  • [...] often guilty of sacrificing plot in the name of character development. My agent actually sent me a rant by a TV writer to help with this issue. I can’t put it better than he does–every character should want [...]

  • [...] exercise was inspired by reading David Mamet’s Master Class Memo to the Writers of THE UNIT.  If you want to learn to create great drama in your story, you must read this memo. Spread the [...]

  • CStoriz says:

    With the garbage that is on television now, it's a shame that a quality drama such as The Unit was cast aside. How I would love to see a movie, reunion, extension picked up by another network. I recently downloaded the original book, Inside Delta Force, by Eric Haney due to this show. Who do we have to write to get networks to reinstate a show? To me, this was one show that could have kept going. I'm now watching it again on Netflix.

    • mo says:

      How I'd love to see it revived! Even a made for TV movie wrapping things up would be welcome.

      What a great show. It is indeed a shame, especially when I see the dreck out there today.

      • Alex Stowe says:

        Great show the Unit. Bring back new episodes. Snake Doctor and his crew are the best. They play their roles very well.

  • [...] enough into my real anxiety. I hadn’t weaved in answers to the dramatic questions the playwright David Mamet insists must permeate every page: Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don’t get it? Why [...]

  • [...] can read the whole thing on movieline.com, but here are some excerpts (slightly edited by me to keep this site [...]

  • [...] there today in some way, large or small, whether it’s realized or not. Mamet’s famous memo to the writers of The Unit is worth a read, at the very [...]

  • [...] David Mamet’s Memo To Writers From The Unit This is a memo that leaked onto the Interwebz a while back… great advice for all writers.  Not just TV writers. [...]

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