Back in 2010, a memo to the writers of the CBS drama The Unit surfaced after the show was cancelled. Perhaps in a last ditch effort to inspire the troops, Executive Producer David Mamet presented a sensible case for what makes good television, imploring his team to avoid expository writing for what he characterized as authentic “drama.” Whether it fell on deaf ears or not, it’s great advice for writers and storytellers of all kinds. Interesting that it’s written in ALL CAPS! LIKE HE’S YELLING OR SOMETHING!
“TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT
AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.
THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN DRAMA AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.
EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF INFORMATION INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.
OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.
BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.
IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.
THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. YOU THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE EVERY SCENE IS DRAMATIC.
THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.
IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.
SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS YOUR JOB.
EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A 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 TO GET THIS NEED MET WILL LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO FAILURE – THIS IS HOW 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.
ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.
YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT “INFORMATION?”
AND I RESPOND “FIGURE IT OUT” ANY DICKHEAD WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY “MAKE IT CLEARER”, AND “I WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT HIM”.
WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE WILL BE OUT OF A JOB.
THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. NOT TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
ANY DICKHEAD, AS ABOVE, CAN WRITE, “BUT, JIM, IF WE DON’T ASSASSINATE THE PRIME MINISTER IN THE NEXT SCENE, ALL EUROPE WILL BE ENGULFED IN FLAME”
WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO REALIZE THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
YES BUT, YES BUT YES BUT YOU REITERATE.
AND I RESPOND FIGURE IT OUT.
HOW DOES ONE STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN WITHHOLDING AND VOUCHSAFING INFORMATION? THAT IS THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF THE DRAMATIST. AND THE ABILITY TO DO THAT IS WHAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LESSER SPECIES IN THEIR BLUE SUITS.
FIGURE IT OUT.
START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.
LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.
PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR OUTLINES ARE, GENERALLY, SPECTACULAR. THE DRAMA FLOWS OUT BETWEEN THE OUTLINE AND THE FIRST DRAFT.
THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, YOU ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.
HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.
ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.
DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR AND HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.
REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. MOST TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE RADIO. THE CAMERA CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. LET IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS DOING -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY SEEING.
IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.
IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF SPEECH. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM – TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)
THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO START.
I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE SCENE AND ASK YOURSELF “IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT ESSENTIAL? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?
IF THE ANSWER IS “NO” WRITE IT AGAIN OR THROW IT OUT. IF YOU’VE GOT ANY QUESTIONS, CALL ME UP.
LOVE, DAVE MAMET
SANTA MONICA 19 OCTO 05
(IT IS NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ANSWERS, BUT IT IS YOUR, AND MY, RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW AND TO ASK THE RIGHT Questions OVER AND OVER. UNTIL IT BECOMES SECOND NATURE. I BELIEVE THEY ARE LISTED ABOVE.)”
When my wife needed help picking up furniture for a store she’s opening up, I of course said I’d help. That’s what us husbands do. It was a drizzly Saturday morning. We grabbed to go cups of hot coffee, dropped the kids off at a friend’s house, and headed out. For some reason that morning, I was thinking about Joseph Campbell’s work. Perhaps we’d go on a Hero’s Journey. I kept this in mind as we began our day.
Stages of a Hero’s Journey (as told through our furniture purchase)
Stage One: Call to Adventure:
The hero starts off in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.
My wife purchased a gigantic counter top for her store off of Craigslist. The owner lived in NW Portland, up past the Zoo. We borrowed an old pick up truck from a friend, and headed to the Great Northwest. Going across the Broadway Bridge, I had a sense that we were entering an adventure.
Stage Two: Threshold (Beginning of Transformation):
This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.
I think the hero in this story was a combo deal – my wife and I. We set out on the adventure as a team, met our first obstacle in a hard drizzle (no we didn’t have any tarps to cover the furniture). Our GPS also failed us and we got a little bit lost up in the NW hills. I know, you’re wanting more dramatic conflict. Well ok, let’s embellish a bit. As we were looking for house numbers, a gigantic spaceship plopped down in the road, blocking our path. I slammed on the brakes and came within inches of smashing a small, slender, and naked 3 foot tall alien. He put his hand up like he was saying “Stop in the name of love” or something. His hips kind of gyrated too. Was he dancing? Wait, was this a man or a woman alien? Two other aliens sashayed out of the spaceship, and they all started dancing in unison. No music though. None we could hear. Then all of a sudden, they all stopped, took a bow, and moonwalked back into the spaceship. The doors shut, and the spaceship took off into the sky like a bullet. I looked to my wife. “That just happened right?” I said watching the spacecraft shoot through the gray Portland clouds. “I don’t think so,” she said, looking up at the sky as well.
It was obvious, we had crossed the threshold into the land of adventure.
Stage 3: The Mentor:
Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid them later in their quest.
We arrived to the house where we were to pick up the counter top. We met Jim (not his real name) and he offered a hand in putting the parts in the truck. Jim was in his mid-thirties, stocky in a gym coach kind of way. He wore an Oregon State sweatshirt and hat, and was super helpful.
The countertop came in five large pieces, complete with a sink as well that we didn’t need. There was only one way the pieces could go if they were to fit properly. And apparently Jim was a puzzle expert (I’m not too shabby myself). We fit the pieces in without an inch to spare and tied a few bungee cords together to hold it down. As mentioned, Jim couldn’t have been nicer and more helpful. Like a good mentor, he taught us better furniture packing techniques. After making small talk, we made the transaction and were on our way.
Stage 4: Road of Trials:
The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes.
Hmmm, things in Hero’s Journey story usually get really bad right about here. Our only issue was heavier rain that got the counter tops a bit wet. But once again, let’s embellish a bit. We were driving down Burnside Drive crossing 23rd Avenue when one of the bungee cords popped off the furniture, curled around into the driver’s side window (which unfortunately was open) and hooked me in the mouth like I was a Northern Pike. Surprised by what transpired, I then accidently swallowed the bungee cord. Not good. Kate surely wanted to help but she was too busy screaming. At that point I was so in shock that I forgot we were driving. We then smashed straight through the windows of Pier One Imports. Somehow, the impact of the crash loosened the bungee cord lodged in my throat. It popped out harmlessly and laid in my lap. We came through the crash mostly unscathed, except for being buried in three layers of wicker baskets.
Stage 5: The Ultimate Boon:
The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.
Miraculously, the truck was also largely undamaged. We backed out of the store, said “sorry” and hightailed it out of there. We then went back over the bridge to the East Side, pulled up to my wife’s new store, borrowed a dolly from a nearby restaurant, and unloaded the counter tops. The hard work was done. We had made it through all the grueling challenges and temptations throughout the day. Wooo Hooo!!!
Stage 6: Return:
Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.
We returned the truck to the owner, who luckily didn’t ask about the wicker smell, and went back over to our friend’s house to pick up our kids. We then went to lunch at the Grilled Cheese Grill, told them all about our trials and tribulations, and celebrated a successful adventure.
NOTE: There are many more stages of the Hero’s Journey that we left out of our amazing furniture buying adventure. For more info on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, go here.
(From Writer Magazine, June 2009)
Advice from a Master
Anthony Trollope, still popular 126 years after his death, has much to say to writers about making ends meet.
5 Guidelines on Creating Good Fiction
1. Get a day job. For most of his adult life. Trollope worked full time for the post office; he wrote some of his finest novels in the morning before work, in the evening, and on trains and ships during business trips.
2. Make a schedule and stick to it. Whenever he began a novel, Trollope drew up a diary specifying weekly goals; every day he wrote number of pages written. Usually he set a goal of 40 pages a week (250 words per page)
3. Don’t write what you know. Inventing characters were “the simple result of an effort of my moral consciousness.”
4. Don’t shy away from sensationalism. Trollope considers plot the most insignificant part of the tale but he realizes it’s crucial to popular fiction. The novel reaches full potential when it shows us men and women with flesh and blood caught up in great struggles and dramatic events.
5. Live with your characters. For Trollope, characters are unquestionably the most important element in fiction. The novelist must make his readers “so intimately acquainted with his characters that the creatures in his brain should be speaking, moving, living human creatures.”
My top 10 resolutions for 2012:
10. Shave every other day (I know this is unheard of in Portland, where bearded men outnumber non-beards like 50 to 1, but I’m going for a reverse cool thing here. I want to be one of the few clean shaven male Portlanders).
9. Practice better posture (As most of us, I tend to sit on my butt all day, slumped forward staring at a glowing screen. Once every 15 or 20 minutes, I’m going to arch my back, and maybe even yodel to the heavens).
8. Eat more crispy salads (There’s nothing worse than a “limp” salad with lettuce and fixings that slide down your mouth. Give me some pine nuts, crushed almonds, heck throw in some Chex Mix, as long as it gives my teeth something to crunch on).
7. Take more photos of downtown Portland (Now that I’m in an office downtown, I love taking walks during breaks. Might as well document my little journeys).
6. Teach my eldest son the fine art of play Kung Fu (Not real Kung Fu, but goof around Kung Fu, complete with bows, dramatic poses, and chopping boards made of styrofoam).
5. Be sweet to my wife (Because I love her and she deserves it, not to mention it makes life in the home much more enjoyable and pleasant).
4, 3, 2. and 1. Write a novel, write a screenplay, develop an online children’s book app, develop a line of greeting cards, write 2 e-books, make a short movie a month, and earn over $200k through all of my business ventures (Oh wait, these are lifetime achievements. Oh what the heck, I’ll shoot for the stars in 2012).
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
In an unprecedented move among sole proprietorships, Fulford Creative is announcing it has locked out its only employee, Pete Fulford. Fulford Creative, a creative copywriting and scriptwriting business based in Portland, OR, has worked with a collective bargaining agreement between Owner Pete Fulford and Employee Pete Fulford since the company’s inception in 2004. But that agreement expired at 5:00pm on June 30, 2011. The lockout will commence at 4:00pm on Friday, July 1, 2011, the beginning of the July 4th holiday weekend.
In a statement, Owner Pete Fulford said: “We apologize in advance to our partners and clients, but there will be no business being conducted over the holiday weekend. Any issues regarding projects will be taken up once the lockout is lifted.”
Despite a three-hour closed door meeting on Thursday held in the upstairs bathroom of the Fulford Estate, the final proposal from Employee Pete Fulford was met with a roll of toilet paper thrown in his face. Employee Pete Fulford said in a statement: “The whole bathroom meeting stunk from the start. I mean bad. There was no interest in making a deal. He was obviously taking care of some other business in there.” Owner Pete Fulford commented: “I’ll admit, some bombs were dropped. Tempers flared, and it was obvious no deal was going to happen.”
Owner Pete Fulford admits the owners of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, in which players from both leagues are currently locked out, inspired him. “Needless to say we’re disappointed that this is where we find ourselves,” Owner Pete Fulford said. “But he’s sadly mistaken if he thinks he’s getting another penny out of me.”
At issue is the ownership’s reluctance to provide additional monetary funds into the Fulford Creative Employee Spending Account. Ownership cites other accounts that take priority – the Tax Savings Account, the 529 College Savings Account, the SEP IRA Savings Account, as well as the Rainy Day Fund, among others. Employee Pete Fulford contends he doesn’t receive enough funds to live on. “By the time any money gets to me, it’s chicken scraps. Just the dark meat. I hate the dark meat, unless it’s hidden in an enchilada or something. Then I can’t tell what it is. I just eat it and it’s usually delicious. But we’re not here to talk about enchiladas; we’re talking about moolah-chiladas.”
Employee Pete Fulford says he intends to do nothing but drink beer, visit with friends, and watch fireworks throughout the holiday weekend. Owner Pete Fulford admits he will be doing the same thing. Both concur that negotiations will proceed over the next several days, in between social engagements, and that an agreement will most likely occur prior to the start of business on Tuesday morning.
Why is the book always better than the movie, the TV show spinoff, the video game, or any other subsequent media content? Some say it’s because a book can pursue multitude of plot scenarios, or that it can dive deeper into character and scene descriptions. Perhaps it’s simpler than that.
A book is a single story idea from the author. It’s where it all starts. So why is it that most authors aren’t involved in the development of other media around that story? They don’t write the screenplay (nor do they usually have anything to do with the movie after the rights are purchased). They usually aren’t hired by production studios to help implement other media elements like video games or comic book story lines.
A problem arises when production company takes the story into another medium, and doesn’t really know the original idea. The original idea is where the heart of the story is. It’s where the magic comes from. So when people say, “the movie was ok, but the book was much better,” what they’re saying is that the book story resonates with me, this other stuff doesn’t. It might be fun, or entertaining, but it’s missing that core, that essence of a good story. The author, if asked, could help provide that core to ALL the mediums.
Just like if you photo copy an image a dozen times, the picture gets more and more deluded. The further away you get from the original concept, the less people resonate with that particular story.
In the digital age, people are constantly distracted. They’re more shallow and lazy in their entertainment choices. Yet, they know (or at least sense) when they encounter a good story. This is the reason why the movie and TV business churns out so much crap. We need more story. We need the author to help inject that magic into the story world, no matter what medium it expands to.