Writing Advice Week, I Guess

Posted: March 24, 2010 in Braak

Here is a letter from David Mamet to the writers of The Unit, which I think is a new pornography?  I haven’t seen it.  It comes to us courtesy of /Film.

There are three things that struck me about this letter:

1.  It must be true that David Mamet’s e-mails are ALWAYS in all caps.

2.  This is pretty good advice for scripts.

3.  It was clearly written by someone who has never seen American Buffalo, which David Mamet wrote.

Or maybe he looks back at American Buffalo and is sad about how fucking boring that play is.

Anyway, I almost invariably bristle when someone hands out writing advice, because I hate writing advice.  This is a psychological issue that I suffer from, I think, in that I hate both rules and the people that give me rules to follow.  Since every new revolution in art comes from one or some long-held and inviolate rules being violated, an artistic process governed entirely by guidelines shouted at each other by angry bearded men would be, necessarily, one that never produced anything new.  Also, David Mamet pisses me the hell off, sometimes.

But, he’s right on track here, I think.  Exposition in a script (it works a little differently in novels) is murder; worse, by far, than what all of the writers that Mamet is yelling at are going to do in response:  the creation of artificial drama.  Artificial drama is when you’ve got a scene with two guys discussing the premise of the play so that everyone know what it is, but David Mamet’s loud, angry voice is ringing in your head; then, instead of trashing the scene and writing a new one, you just make up some dumb shit for them to be fighting about.

Like, ooh, brought to mind by this article from the same site, about the Alice in Wonderland screenwriter (Linda Woolverton) writing a movie about Maleficent:  remember in Alice in Wonderland, when the Mad Hatter gets into that argument with the Cheshire Cat about “something something something betrayal, something something something not my fault?”  But it didn’t really have anything to do with anything and could have easily been excised from the movie?  Exposition masquerading as drama.

We had a running joke in my playwriting class, about the clunkiest expository dialog we could thing of:  “Of course you know, I’m your father.”  You can tell that’s stupid; if of course I know it, why are you telling me?  “Of course you know, I’m your father” became the by-word for bad information delivery.

Anyway, I know that a lot of times when I talk about writers it seems like I don’t respect anyone, and I just want to make it clear that that’s not necessarily true.  I mean, I respect their writing, usually, and sometimes I even respect their advice.

I just hate having to hear about it.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    “You may be a successful world-class neurosurgeon, but that won’t bring back your son!”
    (Punch, weep, drink.)

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Also, it’s pretty awesome how Mamet talks to his writers as though they are particularly stupid children.

  3. deb says:

    This is actually quite brilliant advice, David Mamet notwithstanding. You can take heart that he isn’t really giving YOU advice here, he is advising his writers, who do, in fact, seem to be stupid children. (Intrigued by a David Mamet TV series, I watched one or two of the early episodes of the THE UNIT but gave up watching it when it got BORING, right after the first one or two episodes.)

    What I especially like is that he’s not only coming at it from the writer’s perspective — he’s also recognizing that there are actors who have to say this stuff and directors who have to film/stage it. How can you stage EXPOSITION that is divorced from any kind of dramatic content? I hate doing that — it’s static and uninteresting, and unless you’re going to have some kind of weird, expressionistic thing going on in the background, not at all interesting to look at. What are we taught as actors? You have an ACTION to PLAY. You have to WANT something in the scene and you have to try to GET it from the other person or persons. How many plays have you done where you can’t find your INTENTION because the only thing that’s happening in that moment is EXPOSITION? So you make something up and — invariably — it’s stupid and has nothing to do with the OTHER PERSON’S INTENTION and so the scene becomes muddied and dull and then NO ONE, including the actors and director, know what the hell is going on. Mamet’s right — that’s not only boring to watch, it’s boring to play. The more of that there is, the less DRAMA there is. It’s not a play or a film or a TV episode — it’s an essay. And who the hell wants to sit down and watch an essay?

    Of course, this isn’t really surprising — Mamet came up through the ranks writing for actors. He taught acting and playwrighting concurrently. Then he started screenwriting and probably learned an applicable lesson or two. (And I have no doubt he’s looked back at AMERICAN BUFFALO with some measure of regret.)

    Perhaps he’s giving advice to his former self, as much as to his current writers. You don’t think he read your play, do you?

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