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Lessons from the screenwriters

I’ve been thinking about movies and television shows lately: the power of their immediacy, the creative constraints screenwriters face in crafting visually rich stories, and most of all, how demanding the craft can be.  While it’s the director’s and actors’ jobs to realize what’s on the page, great screenwriters deliver a vision that illustrates everything — from plot to characterization — in startlingly few words.

In some ways, it’s more poetry than prose. Novelists have 100,000 words to firmly root us in a world, and get us rooting for their protagonists. Screenwriters have startlingly fewer words to tell a compelling tale. Want a crash course in terrific storytelling and killer dialogue? Read a screenplay. Download David Webb Peoples’ screenplay for Unforgiven [1] (PDF), or even a fun actioner like Simon Kinberg’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith [2](PDF), and you’ll be humbled by the depth on those deceptively-sparse pages.

Writers of all stripes can learn a lot studying screenplays and screenwriters. I’ve found analyzing screenplay dialogue to be particularly illuminating. They say if you can white-out the character names in a screenplay and still know who’s saying what, you’re reading a winner. The character is perfectly represented by what he’s saying; no one else in the story could say those words in that precise way. Great movie dialogue celebrates economical, pitch-perfect characterization.

Screenplays and teleplays are, of course, stories … and the best characteristics of brilliant tale-telling are found in flicks, shows, comic books and novels. But it sometimes takes studying a different medium — and listening to what masters of that medium have to say — for the scales of familiarity to fall from a writer’s eyes and behold narrative truths in new ways. This reminds us of what’s important in our craft, and can school us on our personal writing weaknesses. 

Such a revelation happened to me today, as I read a letter David Mamet issued to the writing team of The Unit, an action-drama inspired by the real-life U.S. military special forces. Mamet, a masterful playwright and screenwriter, was the show’s executive producer. (The show was cancelled last year.) 

There’s no context provided for what prompted Mamet’s 2005 letter — which you can read in full here [3] — other than what’s implied in its opening paragraphs. It seems the network was bombarding The Unit’s writers with requests to cram their scripts with more exposition about setting, characters and story. The writing staff probably responded by dutifully adding these bits. This is, as Mamet says in the letter, the antithesis of drama.

This, he says, is a crock of shit. And he’s right. 

From the PG-13-rated letter (which I’ve heavily edited for clarity and brevity, with apologies to Mr. Mamet): 

Drama is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal. We, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions:

 1) Who wants what?

2) What happens if he/she doesn’t get it?

3) Why now? 

The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and they will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not. Every scene must be dramatic. 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. This failure will then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene. 

Jaded pros may read Mamet’s definition of drama and roll their eyes at its simplicity. I suggest they — and the rest of us — give it another read. I have not seen such a perfectly crystalized presentation of the fundamentals of good storytelling. Every frickin’ word counts. Every scene must have purpose — and if it doesn’t, mercilessly kill it. Throw bricks at your characters at every turn. Make your hero earn the right to occupy the story he’s in. In the process, you’ll earn the right to properly tell that story, and present it to an audience.

 Mamet continues, back on the topic that prompted his letter:

“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.” 

Mamet doesn’t declare war on exposition; he’s snarling at a particular breed of exposition. The predictable, anvil-on-the-head bad writing that we often see well beyond exposition. Screenwriters — and all great storytellers — must slyly weave those world- and character-building elements into dialogue and description in unexpected ways. I say writing is the ultimate con game, a tower of lies wrapped in a convincing illusion of truth, designed to keep the reader turning the pages. Steer clear of those narrative anvils, and you’re well ahead of the competition. 

Or as Mamet says, “Figure it out.” 

Is this easy, taking a stern look at your work and beating the snot out of it? Finding those “as you know” moments … and identifying those poor lines of dialogue that could be uttered by any vanilla character … and those paragraphs that excel at telling, yet falter at showing … and a dozen-dozen other meddlesome failings that plague your work? 

Of course it’s not easy. To quote Mamet’s letter: “This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourselves to do it, but you need to start.”

Amen. It’s brutal, elementary advice that every writer needs to hear — and, more important, live. There’s tons of value in his letter, which I recommend you read [3].  And there’s lots more out there in the wild — great insights from stories and storytellers well beyond the medium in which you’re currently comfortably writing. 

Isn’t it time you stretched your legs and saw the world through another storyteller’s eyes? You’ll probably rediscover the most important elements of your craft … and will almost certainly learn something that you can improve your work.

About J.C. Hutchins [4]

J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti and Macmillan Publishers. His latest creative endeavor is The 33, a monthly episodic ebook series.