I’m not the world’s biggest David Mamet fan–and I probably don’t want to meet the person who is. But this memo that surfaced–an exhortation to the writers of CBS’s now defunct The Unit–contains some interesting advice for writers, even if it did cause him to go all caps lock happy:
EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVEA 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 TOGET THIS NEED MET WILL LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE, TO FAILURE – THIS SHOWS 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.
The notion of failure being the thing that pushes plot forward is useful. Every scene, though? Maybe some back-and-forth is needed to create the energy for motion. But yeah, failure. Kind of related to the advice to put your character in a tree and throw rocks or stones or whatever (Charles Baxter?).
I read the whole thing. Very interesting. He keeps re-iterating that this does not happen in the first draft. He's not saying it's easy. It takes work. i especially like this last thought (and would happily call him if I could).
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
Molly, could we make it a conference call? I get the throwing rocks part. But oh, is it hard to kill our darlings in revision and that's what it takes.
I feel like if we answer Mamet's question TRUTHFULLY the answer is almost always, "no." When it comes down to it, is anything essential?
But that's just me being an existential pain…Though 90% of what one writes is generally useless, except that it might get us to the 10% of good stuff, and that's worth everything.
Clearly, they are working in a certain medium where there can be no wasted time. (And yes, Lisa, I have those existential moments too). But I like his push. What is the reason for this scene? How is this moving the plot? They are questions all of you have raised in this blog, and touch upon those editing practicing that Ron brought up too. I admit that I am drawn to the drive to write it again, write it again. That he believes in these writers, so if they don't get it right the first time, they'll nail it the next. The non-attachment of his advice is inspiring.
Gossip: I met Mamet at Santa Anita. I was working for David Milch on that cop show and David wanted Mamet to write an episode. He did, and it was terrific. DM sat there in his black T-shirt and smoked a cigar while DM touted him on horses and they threw around hundred dollar bills. My job was to buy everybody drinks. They were betting tons of money, but I managed to steer DM onto a nice 7-1 shot for a hundred or so. He turned to me and said, "What was your name again." Koertge. So easy to remember.
Wow, Ron, the company you keep.
Who don't you know, Mr. Koertge?