Lessons from David Mamet’s Dramatic Writing Class

David Mamet, an established U.S. playwright and director, now teaches an online masterclass on dramatic writing. I got this class as a Christmas present a month ago (very original!) and I’ve just completed it so here are the highlights.

Admittedly, Mamet’s story-telling style is easy-going and conversational which makes all topics revolving around the subject of dramatic writing rather accessible to the amateur learner. On the flip-side, Mamet is rather verbose and often gets side-tracked in anecdotes and decades of experience in the industry so it’s not uncommon for the listener to get lost in the maze that is his brain.

Out of the full 26 chapters or episodes in the class, the first 10 are probably the most useful but if you manage to stick through it, all the way to the end, you’ll learn a number of things:

  1. Writing a plot is all about the protagonist wanting to achieve something or get somewhere.
  2. Act 1 is usually about the current state of the protagonist and some event that takes place, which inadvertently disturbs this state for good.
    The protagonist must then act in order to either: 1) restore the status-quo, 2) change the status-quo, 3) get revenge, 4) become whole.
  3. A tragedy is about the quest of the hero for one specific outcome, resulting in the reversal of situation and feelings of self-recognition in the audience, fear and/or pity.
  4. A drama, on the other hand, isn’t about reversal, fear or pity but about the realization that life’s just like that and this realization is something we all have in common (i.e the human condition).
  5. Act 2 is about the journey that the protagonist has to take in order to achieve his/her goal. Many things can go wrong during this journey, thus Act 2 often has sub-acts and mini-stories that add to the breadth of the story and make the transition to Act 3 that much more dramatic.
  6. And Act 3 sees the story unravel and the protagonist either getting what he/she set out to achieve, failing, or entering a state of nirvana (a surprise ending that the audience couldn’t have predicted).
  7. As a drama writer, if you don’t explain the main character’s journey, thought process and the phases that lead him or her to act a certain way or to progress forward, the reader is bound to become confused, struggling to reconcile the logical flow of events in his/her head.
    This is to be avoided at all costs – the makings of the plot must not remain a foggy haze for the reader; they must think, plot, ration and reason with the protagonist as if they were in his shoes. Only then a plot has the potential of becoming really dramatic and impactful.
  8. If an incident, sub-story or secondary plot line doesn’t add to the protagonist’s quest for wisdom or the outcome, scrap it. The hardest part of good writing is removing the superfluous and staying focused.
  9. Ancient theatrical wisdom reckons that the best way to make any movie better is to burn the first reel (the first 10-12 minutes).
    None of that boring background story really matters; start in the middle and get to the point as quickly as possible.

And boom, you have a play! In short, a traditional three-act play, movie or book script (or any other story for that matter) should follow the following structure:

The protagonist wants something –> He goes on a journey to obtain it –> He either does, or doesn’t manage to get what he wants. THE END.

In all honesty, Mamet is completely winging this class. It is clear that he made little effort to prepare any sort of notes or come up with any great structure for the class, which is why after a few chapters the narrative gets really long-winded and the student is tempted to tune out, or quit altogether.

All in all, this class will still help you learn the basic of drama writing and it’s undoubtedly entertaining but don’t expect it to significantly up your game if you’re already a decent writer.

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