David Mamet, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, award-winning screenwriter, and renowned film director, teaches the art of dramatic writing in this Masterclass.
David Mamet was born in 1947 and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He attended Goddard College in
Vermont, graduating in 1969 with a degree in English literature but considers the Chicago Public
Library his alma mater. A prolific dramatist, David won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1984
for Glengarry Glen Ross and earned a reputation for writing working-class characters and for his
trademark dialogue. In 1985, David and actor William H. Macy founded the Atlantic Theater
Company, an off-Broadway nonprofit theater. To date, he has written 36 plays, 29 screenplays, 17
books, and directed 11 films.
Favorite Take –
The Purpose of Drama
Everything in our life is drama. Drama relieves the burden of our consciousness. We attempt to unite groups of people and establish ourselves and our identity through the stories we tell. This is a primal instinct that has been with us since prehistoric times, when, at the end of the day, we would gather around a camp fire and share stories.
Today the campfire has been replaced by the computer and television, but these devices represent the same attempt to unify us as a species through the telling of tales and narratives. When we relate stories in our everyday lives, we dramatize them. We unconsciously alter what may or may not be real events to increase their dramatic potential, and we tell stories that have surprising punchline.
In drama, we structure everything in our lives into cause and effect, even if there is no real correlation. Drama exists as a way to discharge our leftover energy, the same leftover energy of trying to establish cause and effect.
The purpose of drama is threefold:
• We don’t investigate reason via drama. Rather, drama frees us from reason.
• Drama does not exist to make people better, to give them ideas, to teach, to reform, or to espouse good causes.
• The sole purpose of drama is to entertain
- Your job is to tell a story. The story has a hero, and he/she wants one thing. The story begins when something precipitates an event.
- Be simple in your storytelling so that your audience can follow; they have to know what story they’re following so that you can mislead them.
- Anticipate their desire to jump ahead so you can throw them through a loop.
- A good rule of thumb is, if you think you might cut it sometime, cut it right now
The only purpose of drama is to entertain.
Aristotle’s Poetics as a guide
Aristotle maintains that the hero of a story must undergo two things: recognition and reversal of a situation.
- The hero, simply put, does not understand. Something has to happen from the outside that inspires the hero in a way that he/she didn’t realize before. Aristotle asserts that there must be the unities of time, place, and action. Work on mastering these unities.
- View each scene as an attempt to solve the problem of the narrative. The scene inevitably fails to solve this problem, leading you to the next scene, which contains more information to help ameliorate the situation but also brings more trouble.
- The third scene comprises even more information but at the same time gets us in even deeper. This leads us into the second act, which is where the difficulty in writing any drama — especially tragedies — lies.
- The hero is stuck in the second act. Nothing has worked, and all of his/her good ideas have been unsuccessful. The hero struggles with coming back to a sense of self or purpose in a confusing, tumultuous world.
- At the end of the second act, the hero’s quest is clarified, enabling him/her to go on to the third act. These steps demonstrate drama as an exercise in failure, as well as lies.
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. -Ernest Hemingway
We have ideas all the time. All-day long we fantasize, and these daydreams offer story ideas. W
There is no more to a character other than what he or she does. This is all fueled by an objective: a character wants something and won’t stop until he or she gets it. Even the things a character says are spoken in an effort to obtain something from another person. Never manipulate a change in your characters, as this is equivalent to manipulating the audience.
The plot is all that there is. Think of the plot as you would a joke: everything in a joke moves toward the punchline, and anything that isn’t tending toward the punchline kills the joke. The same rule applies to the plot. If a scene doesn’t serve the plot and help the narrative progress to its end goal, take it out.
A plot needs a beginning, middle, and end, as well as a precipitating event that must inspire the hero to achieve a goal. His or her journey needs a specific end, at which point the question raised at the beginning is answered, either positively or negatively.
The second act, like a midlife crisis, is where everything is derailed. The hero knows where he or she is going and then all of a sudden gets lost. The second act of the play ends with a confession in which the hero acknowledges his or her hopelessness. At this point, the hero has the capacity to face the third act, reinvigorated by the struggle, because it’s the first time he or she is actually understanding it. Following the confession, the hero is energized and inspired to continue the quest.
STRUCTURING THE PLOT
Aristotle tells us that a play is nothing other than the structure of its incidents. Think of a scene as a unit that contains one incident that informs the journey. If it doesn’t contain an incident that affects the narrative, it’s not a scene and doesn’t belong in a play or film. Your goal should always be to get from point A to point B.
- The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
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