Listening to David Mamet teach dramatic writing is like hearing a raconteur spin tales and tell jokes with middle-class Chicago swagger and the language of hustlers and thieves. He loves Hemingway’s brevity. Aristotle’s wisdom. Dumbo. The poetry of human speech, Shakespeare, and Shel Silverstein. The ideas of English writer Algernon Charles Swinburne. And expletives.
“I always thought that being a writer is a lot like being a beaver. Their teeth itch, and that’s why they cut down trees,” he says. “It’s not my teeth [that itch]; it’s my conscious. How can I get it to shut up for a while? So I give it a problem that it likes. And so once in a while, the problem that it likes is unpleasant, but what else am I gonna do? I’m not gonna play golf.”
The screenwriter of American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna, all based on his plays, Mamet now shares his tips about dramatic writing online through MasterClass. In addition to his plays and books, he’s credited with 29 screenplays, including Hoffa, The Verdict and Wag the Dog, the latter two earning him Oscar nominations for screenwriting. He also created the TV series The Unit and has directed 11 films, including House of Games and Spartan.
The $90 class divides his thoughts into 26 videos about eight to 25 minutes long and grouped by subject – plotting, characterization, dialogue. Students receive a 46-page PDF workbook with external resources and suggested assignments.
One senses that Mamet is not so organized when he sets down to work, but no matter. His stories and examples all relate to points he stresses often, and he’s mesmerizing company. He’s the guy who’s been in the trenches, here to tell it to you straight, and you’ll collect a lot of gems just listening to him.
Here are ten.
1) Everything inspires drama
Mamet has driven a cab, worked at a prison, played poker with thieves, and made cold calls for a real-estate office – the inspiration behind Glengarry Glen Ross. Even if your background isn’t as colorful, you use dramatic instincts every day: “When we tell stories to each other all day long, we’re dramatizing it for effect. We say, ‘I waited for that dang bus for forty-two minutes.’ Well, it felt like 42 minutes, right? We unconsciously alter what may or may not be real events to increase their dramatic potential, and then we add a punchline to be surprising. That’s all drama is.”
2) Drama entertains, not informs
Mamet likens drama to bedtime stories, jokes, and “storytelling that assembles the clan,” like primitive peoples sharing exploits around the campfire. Drama comes from situations, not solutions, so don’t create art as a cautionary tale. People want stories that entertain, even if they’re tragic stories, so view your art as a gift: “That’s enough. I mean, Lord have mercy. If you can entertain somebody and take away from them the burden of their consciousness for a half-hour comedy or a two-hour movie or an hour-and-a-half play, you’ve done a fantastic amount.”
3) Aristotle nails dramatic structure
In Poetics, Aristotle writes that the hero must be transformed “from a beggar to a king, from a king to a beggar,” Mamet says. It has to happen in the least possible number of steps, and the hero must undergo recognition and reversal.
“And at the end, we have to undergo recognition, shock and awe… fear and pity,” he notes. “Pity because, that poor schmo, he’s just like me. And shock and awe, because I didn’t see that coming.”
4) Drama is simple…
A story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The perfect example of a plot is a joke: “There’s nothing in the joke that does not tend to the punchline.”
We all get distracted by other threads and subplots that spring to mind. But think of your story like taking a trip, drawing it out on a map: “If you want to go from New York City to Baltimore, it doesn’t matter if there’s something interesting in Boston. That’s not where you told me you wanted to go.”
5) … But plotting is hard
Mamet says he can’t teach plot because “you have to learn it again every play, because every play, the plot is different. It’s hiding!”
Crafting a plot is work that feels dreadful, and you’ll throw out at least one draft. Sometimes you’ll have no idea what the story is, so keep writing scenes until the plot rears its head: “Writing a plot is one of the hardest things I ever learned how to do. It’s just hard. It’s like playing with some unclean substance – and it is. Because the unclean substance is your own consciousness.”
6) Embrace the difficult and unexpected
The audience is always ahead of you – they can’t help it, Mamet says. It’s a survival mechanism to perceive events in terms of cause and effect, so they’ll problem-solve as your story unfolds, trying to guess what happens next.
“There’s an old theatrical phrase that anybody can write a good first act. I think there’s some truth to it because you’re setting up an interesting problem. The question is how you figure your way out of it,” he says. “What happens when you get yourself into a situation where you can’t think your way out of it? That’s great. Because if you can’t think your way out of it, the audience can’t, either.”
7) Characters are what they do
All we know about anyone is what they do: their actions, Mamet says. Each scene should indicate what a character wants, why he or she wants it, what happens if he or she doesn’t get it, and why this is important now.
Creating backstory is just procrastinating from doing the painful work of writing: “Actors used to talk about where a character would’ve gone to school, or what was their favorite kind of car, blah, blah, blah. It’s a wonderful tool because it keeps them from rehearsing. Because what does rehearsing mean? If you want to be good, how do you start out? By being bad, right? If you were good at the beginning, you wouldn’t have to rehearse. So actors, just like anybody else, want to put off the pain of being bad.”
8) Dialogue is what a character wants
Mamet hates narration and exposition. People talk to each other to get something from each other, he says. “They don’t speak to get or to give information. They speak to get a result.”
9) Treat dialogue like gossip
Mamet is known for his dialogue, and he treasures the rhythms of speech. He grew up in a mixed ethnic neighborhood and loves listening to how people talk. “Human speech is rhythmic. If you’re listening to two people having a conversation, what they’re doing is creating a rhythmic poetry. They’re filling in the pauses and capping each other’s speech and so forth in a way that’s rhythmic.”
Some people are better at this than others, but you can improve by thinking of dialogue without artifice. “[I]t’s just gossip. You know, you make that up all day long: ‘He said, she said.’ What happens is something kicks in, something artificial kicks in between what we do naturally and our ability to do it when we say it’s art. And I think that thing which kicks in is called education. Which is the worst thing to happen since kale.”
10) Just do it
You might be envious of other writers’ talents – but you have your own talents and a right to your own life, Mamet says. So just write. “Get your ass in the water and swim like me,” he says, quoting the title of Bruce Jackson’s collection of African-American narrative poems.
“See what you come up with. Are you gonna hate it? Yeah. Are you sometimes gonna love it? Yeah. And then are you gonna hate yourself for feeling so confident about yourself? Yeah. Welcome to my world.”
Click here for more information on David Mamet’s Master Class.
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Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning veteran crime journalist turned entertainment writer. A member of the Florida Film Network, she writes reviews and analysis for The Script Lab, Signature Reads (formerly known as Word and Film), and The Tampa Bay Times, among other publications. She’s also an emerging screenwriter and script consultant. She lives in Florida.