Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Mamet’s unsubtle knife

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Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my favorite books on storytelling is David Mamet’s On Directing Film. Since I’m preparing to outline my second novel over the next couple of weeks, I read it over again the other day—it’s only a hundred pages or so—and if anything, my admiration for it has only increased: it’s probably the single most useful guide to creating a plot I’ve ever seen. I’ve spoken about his advice here before, but today, I thought I’d highlight the three questions that Mamet reminds authors to ask themselves while writing:

1. What is the scene about?
2. What is the protagonist’s objective?
3. How do we know when we’re done?

It sounds simple, I know, but these three questions are the key to all good fiction. I was so invigorated by reading On Directing Film again, in fact, that I ran to the library to borrow a copy of Mamet’s other major book on writing, Three Uses of the Knife. Unfortunately, the second book isn’t nearly as good: instead of the chatty, inviting style of On Directing Film, which is structured around a series of classes that Mamet taught at Columbia University, Three Uses comes off as compressed and crabby, which was also true of his more recent Bambi vs. Godzilla.

It’s a shame, because Mamet is still just about the smartest man in movies—his intelligence shines through in all of his commentary tracks—and, judging from his earlier book, he has more useful information to impart about the craft of storytelling than anyone else I can name. In his recent work, sadly, the desire to teach seems to have given way to the temptation to lecture, a tendency which probably isn’t unrelated to his simultaneous slide into cultural conservatism. The title of Three Uses of the Knife, for instance, comes from the blues musician Leadbelly, but you need to go back to On Directing Film to figure out what Mamet means by it:

As Leadbelly says about the blues, he says in the first verse use a knife to cut bread, and in the second verse use a knife to shave, and in the third verse use it to kill your unfaithful girlfriend. It’s the same knife, but the stakes change, which is exactly the way a play or movie is structured. You don’t want to use the knife in the first verse to cut bread and in the second verse use it to cut cheese. We already know it can cut bread. What else can it do?

This is invaluable advice—you don’t want to hit the same beat twice in a row, unless you’re writing for television, in which case you’ll probably need to hit the same beat over and over again. On Directing Film contains dozens of similarly lucid pieces of guidance; Three Uses of the Knife yields perhaps two or three, because Mamet’s obsessively tight style has squeezed out the rest. Which tells me that what the world really needs is a great book of conversations with Mamet. And guess what? As luck would have it, it exists.

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2011 at 9:20 am

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