Writing

David Mamet’s Top 9 Tips For Writing Dialogue

Written by MasterClass

Jul 31, 2019 • 6 min read

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David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing

Playwright, screenwriter, and author David Mamet is one of the most influential names in theatre and film today. No matter what medium Mamet is working in, his deftness with dialogue shines through. Below, Mamet shares his thoughts on what makes effective dialogue, advises first-time writers on how to find their characters’ voices, and gives creatives working across both stage and screen everything they need to avoid the common mistakes of bad dialogue.

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What Characterizes David Mamet’s Approach to Dialogue?

Mamet doesn’t just write good dialogue; his dialogue is so famous it has its own name: “Mamet speak.” Characteristic of his approach is a sharp, rapid-fire dialogue flow that approximates the interruptions and interjections of real life—while somehow being much more entertaining.

When Mamet writes dialogue, the speech patterns of his characters are similar to that of a real person, but without the umms, ahhs, stammers and lack of precision that would otherwise almost certainly appear.

David Mamet’s Top 9 Tips For Writing Dialogue

Mamet loads his dialogue with plenty of subtext and foregoes small talk for robust lyricism. Below are Mamet’s top 9 tips for writing dialogue:

  1. Be clear on whether your script is for the screen or the stage— it will dramatically alter your dialogue writing. Mamet breaks it down this way: a play is all dialogue, and a movie is all pictures. You could have no dialogue in a movie and still tell a story through the juxtaposition of images. “If you're writing stage directions, you're doing something wrong,” says Mamet. “‘Jeanine came into the room. Her light brown hair frizzled from her day on the beach. Obviously, she had forgotten to wear her bathing cap. Where could it be?’ Forget it. All we know is she came into the room and she said, ‘Good morning.’ If you're writing stage directions, you don't understand the nature of drama. Similarly, when you write a movie, a movie is pictures. That's all it is. You show the audience a picture for a tenth of a second. They get it. If you're writing dialogue in a movie, you're doing something wrong.”
  2. Be alive to the rhythms of speech. “You have to write dialogue in a rhythmic way because human speech is rhythmic,” says Mamet. “And if you listen to people having a conversation, what they're doing is they're creating rhythmic poetry. They're filling in the pauses and capping each other's speech and so forth in a way which is rhythmic.” Mamet sees even the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare as naturalistic. "’Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I,’ is iambic pentameter,” he says. “‘I’ll see you Sunday if it doesn't rain,’ that’s iambic pentameter. That's the rhythm of natural English speech.”
  3. But don’t be afraid to add lyricism. Some writers hesitate to add flair to their lines of dialogue, worrying that it will no longer sound realistic. But Mamet advises that it is in your interest to heighten the language. Your turns of phrase are what will draw in and impact your audience. “A play is essentially a poem,” he says. “It's a poem written for two voices, or three voices, or four voices, so the lines have to be a rhythmic and beautiful, if you can, because they aren't about conveying information. For example, Churchill says, ‘We will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them in the fields, we will fight them on the landing fields. We'll never surrender.’ And he could have just said, ‘We're gonna fight,’ but his speech created an idea in the minds of its hearers … That's the power of poetry.
  4. When you’re stuck, go back to your characters’ motivations. Mamet believes in the adage that people only speak to get something from one another. “It might seem like they speak to express themselves, but, as I understand it, that's not true. They only express themselves to get something from one another,” says Mamet. “Similarly, on stage, they only speak to get something. So the question is what does each person want? Then we know why they're speaking. Then we know what they want to say.” So try to write characters’ dialogue knowing exactly what they want out of the scenario. These aims might be overt, or they might subtext. The character might be aware, or they might be acting subconsciously. But you should know the truth, write dialogue that fits with their perspective, and use it to drive the story forward.
  5. Let your characters write the dialogue. Mamet may be known for realistic dialogue, but that doesn’t mean he actually copies from life. “When I first started writing in Chicago, a couple of people that worked in the newspaper said, ‘Oh, this guy just takes a tape recorder and goes onto the bus and records people,’” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, that's a pretty high compliment.’” But it is true that Mamet’s dialogue sounds spontaneous largely because it is; it is what unfurls spontaneously in his head when his characters meet. He is able to enter the minds of his characters. If you’ve done the requisite character development, you should be able to too, and an overreliance on plotting might sabotage the potential chemistry when your invented personalities meet.
  6. If the actors are misremembering a certain line, learn from that. Mamet doesn’t say his lines aloud when he’s writing or editing, but once his plays enter the rehearsal room, he sees an opportunity to finesse the script based on vocalization. And he sees what actors do about their lines more informative than what they say about them to him. In particular, a repeatedly misremembered line is a sign the original word choice is unnatural, he thinks. “Once it's probably a bad line, if they do it twice it's certainly a bad line,” he says. “So the actor commits himself, commits herself, to saying the line and they can't quite remember it or they can't quite say it, something's wrong. So that's a great, great help to me.”
  7. Cut, cut and cut again. Dialogue needs editing, just like any other kind of writing. He advises you to be ruthless when you spot waffle or ambiguity. “There's an old phrase that says, ‘If you can't express your thoughts clearly, your thoughts are muddied,’” says Mamet. “So, cut, cut, cut. As I used to say, ‘Shoot for show, cut for dough.’” He describes teaching his teenage son to edit via the gaming magazines the boy read. “These magazines are really dreadfully written, at least the ones that he gets,” he says. “And so they say things like, ‘The reason for this fact is because of the prevailing fact that prior to this happening...’ And I say, ‘Rewrite that.’ And he says, ‘Okay, when.’ I say, ‘That's right.’”
  8. Dialogue can’t be taught—but don’t let that stop you. “Some people have that gift, some people don't,” says Mamet, which stops him from being too didactic about process. He believes some people can naturally write dialogue and some can’t. On the plus side, he believes if you’re one of the ones who struggles, it’s not the end of your writing career. “Do you need to be able to write dialogue in order to write a play? The answer is no,” he says. “How do we know? Because we do plays in translation. You know? Most people in America don't speak Russian, yet we understand Chekhov. We appreciate Chekhov's plays. How do we know you don't have to do dialogue? We watch movies with subtitles. Right? Or we watch movies that have been dubbed. So if one can write dialogue, that's a plus. But you don't need it to hold the audience's attention.”
  9. Read the work of great dialogue writers as a follow-up to these tips. Mamet recommends George V. Higgins, Patrick O’Brian, John le Carré, and Dawn Powell. In particular, read Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream.

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