Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

David Mamet’s Three Questions for Better Drama

In a now reasonably famous memo to the writing staff of “The Unit” David Mamet wrote:

Drama is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

Actually, I’m taking some license. He wrote it in ALL CAPS. In fact he wrote the whole memo in all caps. For the first time in my life, I think that’s okay because the memo is chock full of great stuff. The kind of stuff you should shout at yourself while you are trying to write a great story. As stupid or crazy as that might seem to you, it is damnably hard to keep every important thing in your head during the strains of creation.

For me, the most valuable part of this memo are these three questions:

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF THEY DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

They are so important that I left them in ALLCAPS! on purpose. I’ve looked at and used a lot of models of drama and story to make sense of what works. Honestly, all of them have been helpful. They’ve all served to help me think more deeply and more critically about story. To understand what makes drama and what kills it. This understanding has not only made me a better writer, but it has helped me to enjoy drama and story more. And to make something that you love more enjoyable is no small thing.

But Mamet’s three questions1 are the ones I find to be the handiest
diagnostics. So much more useful than “is there conflict?” I’ll use an example
from a story everyone should be familiar with, Jaws. Book by Peter Benchly,
film by Stephen Spielberg.

                       VAUGHN
                     What kind of a shark did you say it 
                     was?

                                 HOOPER
                     Carcaradon carcharias. A Great White.

                                 VAUGHN
                     Well, I'm not going to commit economic 
                     suicide on that flimsy evidence. We 
                     depend on the summer people for our 
                     lives, and if our beaches are closed, 
                     then we're all finished.

                                 BRODY
                     We have got to close the beaches. We 
                     have got to get someone to kill the 
                     shark, we need non-corrosive mesh 
                     netting, we need scientific support... 
                     It's gonna cost money just to keep 
                     the nuts out and save what we have.

                                 VAUGHN
                     I don't thing either of you is 
                     familiar with our problems...

                                 HOOPER
                     I'm familiar with the fact that you 
                     are going to ignore this thing until 
                     it swims up and bites you on the 
                     ass! There are only two ways to solve 
                     this thing: you can kill it, or you 
                     can cut off its food supply...

                                 BRODY
                     That means closing the beaches.

                                 VAUGHN
                     Come here, I want to show you 
                     something.

           He leads Brody around to the front of the billboard, on which 
           we see that some pranksters have painted a huge shark fin in 
           the water behind the swimmer, so she looks now like a frantic 
           bather fleeing a pursuing monster.

                                 VAUGHN
                     Sick vandalism! Brody, that's a 
                     deliberate mutilation of a public 
                     service message! I want those little 
                     paint-happy bastards caught and hung 
                     up by their baby Buster Browns!

                                 HOOPER
                          (who has followed 
                          them around)
                     That's it! I'm standing here arguing 
                     with a guy who can't wait to be a 
                     hot lunch. Goodbye.

                                 BRODY
                     Wait a minute! I need you.

                                 HOOPER
                     Out there is a Perfect Engine, an 
                     Eating Machine that is a miracle of 
                     evolution -- it swims and eats and 
                     that's all. Look at that! Those 
                     proportions are correct.
                          (indicates fin)
                     I know sharks.

                                 VAUGHN
                     You'd love to prove that. Getting 
                     your name in the National Geographic.

                                 BRODY
                     Larry, we can re-open the beaches in 
                     August.

                                 VAUGHN
                     August! Tomorrow is the 4th of July, 
                     and we are going to open for business.  
                     It's going to be our best summer in 
                     years. If you're so concerned about 
                     the beaches, you two, you do whatever 
                     you have to to keep them safe, but 
                     with you or without you, the beaches 
                     stay open this weekend.

1. Who Wants What?

Vaughn, the Mayor, wants to keep the town open for business so his constituents
are happy.

Brody, the Sheriff, wants to close the beaches (killing the tourist season) so
he can keep the people of the town safe.

2. What Happens if they Don’t Get It?

Vaughn is going to lose his job. Or at the very least, catch a full ration of
shit from everybody who makes a buck off the tourist trade. Especially if there
turns out to be no shark.

The shark is going to eat another person. In one way, this means that it’s bad
for Brody’s job, just like closing the beaches is bad for the mayor. But, the
interesting thing about Jaws is that’s not what clinches it for Brody. This
does.

      MRS. KINTNER JOINS THE GROUP

           She seeks out Brody, and stops in front of him.

                                 MRS. KINTNER
                     Chief Brody?

           He nods, she slaps him full across the face. There is an 
           embarrassed silence. Some people leave, following a trend 
           that began with the first mention of cutting open the shark.

                                 MRS. KINTNER
                     My Alex was a beautiful little boy 
                     and you killed him. Did you know 
                     that? You knew there was a shark out 
                     there. You knew a girl got killed 
                     here last week. I just found that 
                     out. But you knew. You knew it was 
                     dangerous, but you let people go 
                     swimming anyway. You knew all those 
                     things, and still my boy is dead now 
                     and there's nothing you can do about 
                     that. My boy is dead. I wanted you 
                     to know that.

           She stops, unable to continue. Her father takes her arm and 
           leads her away. Pratt, Harry and the others trail off after 
           her. During the rest of the scene, the camera tightens in on 
           Brody to the exclusion of the others.

                                 VAUGHN
                     I'm sorry, Martin. She's in a sick, 
                     terrible state.

                                 HOOPER
                     Look, maybe this is the wrong time 
                     to pursue this, but I'm not sure...

           Before Hooper can finish, Brody's shoulders slump and he 
           goes slack.

                                 BRODY
                          (almost to himself)
                     She's right.

                                 VAUGHN
                     Let's all get out of here, this place 
                     stinks.

                                 BRODY
                     I'm going home.

If Brody doesn’t do something about this and another person gets eaten by the
shark, he’s not going to be able to live with himself. One of my favorite
things about this story is that it’s really a deeply internal story.

3. Why Now?

It’s the weekend before the 4th of July. Which means high revenues for the
island AND smörgåsbord for the shark. There’s no way this situation doesn’t
come to a head.

The Drama is Built-In

I want to think of myself as a great writer, but — if I’m honest — some days
I feel barely equal to the task. As far as I can tell, all writers feel this
way, at least some of the time. I believe if someone presses on in spite of
this feeling, they are a real writer. Everything else is bullshit and window
dressing. Deal with the fear, you’re an artist. Don’t and you’re not.

Life is really complicated and detailed and impossible to fully capture in
words. So, on some level, writers are always set up for failure. It’s never
quite right. But if you can set up good answers to Mamet’s Three Questions, it
doesn’t matter. It’s going to work anyway. The conflict is there and the
questions make sure it’s comes from deep in the logic of the story.


  1. Like all true geniuses, he undoubtedly he stole these from somewhere else (Greece, ancient?) but since I don’t know where, they are Mamet’s questions. 


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