Dramatic Rules

David Mamet

Lesson time 11:48 min

As a dramatist, your job is to tell a story. David teaches you how to keep your story simple by using Aristotle's <span style="font-style:italic">Poetics</span> as a guide. Learn how to keep your hero's journey at the heart of your narrative.

David Mamet
Teaches Dramatic Writing
The Pulitzer Prize winner teaches you everything he's learned across 26 video lessons on dramatic writing.
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Your job is to tell a story. The story has a hero, and he or she wants one thing. And the story begins when something precipitates the event. Aunt Martha dies, and the first nephew or niece who can get to her house gets a million dollars. The story didn't exist before that, now it does exist. OK. The story ends when we either find out that Aunt Martha left you the money or find out why she didn't. Everything in the story has got to be a progression from the telegram I have to get to Aunt Martha's will-- to the reading of the will. Anything which is not in that line, throw it away. And what happens when you get yourself into a situation you can't think your way out of? That's great. Because if you can't think your way out of it, the audience can't either. So that's the point you've got to say, hold on, it's now time for me to sit down and drive myself crazy trying to figure out how to get out of Buffalo. Aristotle wrote a little pamphlet on playwriting called Poetics, and he said it all comes down to very simple rules. He says it's the hero journey from A to B. The hero has to be transformed from a beggar to a King, from a King to a beggar. It has to happen in the least possible number of steps. It has to happen in one place over 48 hours. And at the end, we have to undergo recognition, we have to undergo shock and awe, we have to undergo fear and pity. Fear and pity. Pity, because we see the poor schmoe. My god he's just like me. And fear, because you might say, oh I didn't see that coming. How is it possible that I, just like the hero who represents me onstage, didn't see that coming? If they undergo-- and so that's what we have to undergo. What the hero has to undergo, is two things called recognition and reversal of the situation. In one moment, bam, Aristotle-- he realizes he's been sleeping with his mom. He killed his dad. He puts his eyes out. He goes from being the most powerful man in the world to being a blind beggar. So he undergoes reversal of the situation and he undergoes recognition. He has to undergo-- he has to say, oh my god. What have I done? And that's the punchline of the tragedy. So that's basically Aristotle's Poetics in 30 seconds. Every play needs to have a beginning, middle, and an end. So Jean-Luc Godard said, yes, every movie needs to have a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order. And that's why French movies are so effing boring. Because it says F-I-N at the end. Which is French for, you can go home now. So a play needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like a joke has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So you've got to start at the beginning, go on till you get to the end, and then stop. So every story is the hero journey, and we're the hero. But there's Moses. He's the prince of Egypt, he's like unto...

Write great drama

David Mamet sat in on a poker game full of thieves and left with the inspiration for American Buffalo. Now, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of Glengarry Glen Ross takes you through his process for turning life’s strangest moments into dramatic art. In his writing class, he’ll teach you the rules of drama, the nuances of dialogue, and the skills to develop your own voice and create your masterpiece.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Thank you David and Masterclass! Thank you for the suggestions and the encouragement to keep writing.

David is so witty and engaging, the class skewed a bit more towards inspirational (to go f'n write) than informative but I still took away many gems!

Very insightful and meaningful. Doesn't beat around the bush and tells it like it is.

I will be listening to this course again and try to make sure I have understood whatever implications were there. David teaches some foundational truths, I believe.


Philip V.

I don't think Mamet is declaring that the audience doesn't "learn" from a story. He is, rather, declaring that the initial spark (the writer's intention), shouldn't derive from a need to teach or inform. Not that this isn't needed or valid. Only that we already have genres for this style. This is the domain of non-fiction, or Errol Morris. Or Moises Kaufman. It may also explain why works like "The Laramie Project," while feeling necessary and powerful, also feel, at turns, preachy and teachy. That is, without the "surprise" of fictional narrative. In the end, it's not the "teaching" that lights the fire. It's the enlightening. When the Hero seizes on (Aristotelian) recognition, as Mamet notes, we the audience recognize our own universal sameness--we are also the "poor schmo." We are also, along with the Hero, enlightened. Is this the same as educated? Maybe so. It just far more entertaining because we didn't just kill our father and sleep with our mother!

Quinn D.

I'm unsure on the bit about the purpose of drama not being to teach. If the purpose is just to entertain, what differentiates intelligent drama from your regular high octane explosion fest?

A fellow student

I am in shock with the great statement of Mr Mamet. Entertaining its the goal and I am like a nun trying to tell something to change lives haha but I understand now what Mamet is telling!!! Smart entertainment inevitably leads us to connect the dots and find the meaning of the epic. If the starting point is to "teach" something, we put ourselves in a pulpit and grace does not appear, ever. We are not smarter, enlighten, better than our readers...

Kristina T.

Chapter "Purpose of drama" feels like it is my own beliefs and conclusions about drama and the human nature brilliantly put into words. Thank you! You've given my thoughts shape and direction.

A fellow student

I'm enjoying listening to what David Mamet has to say. It's obvious he speaks from the heart, and his advice is interesting and enlightening.

Tia F.

I completely agree that you should broadcast anything that is meant to be educational if people believe it’s entertaining mostly because I believe it is possible to do both!

Sharon S.

Found it enlightening. Thinking of my story that I want to write and how my ideas fit into the lesson.

Rosemary D.

I'm guessing Tartuffe's opening act is less shocking today than in France 1665. Have not had a chance to read Poetics yet. Moving right along...

Vincent D.

what about causing some shock? is that drama? like if you are going to sneak into an abandoned grocery store and almost get caught?

James C.

I am an Actor, I want to Act, I want to Act so much that I am going to write. I love Mamet's work. I trust the story will unfold and I will become a working Actor. This is my journey.