David Mamet’s Test: Does The Scene Work?

David Mamet is a celebrated multi-award winning playwright and creator of the Practical Aesthetics acting technique. As the executive producer of CBS’ drama The Unit, Mamet once wrote a memo to his writing staff, highlighting the essentials of impeccable scene writing. While his advice was originally intended for writers, we think that actors can also benefit from his insights. After all, it is equally important for actors to know what makes a scene work and how to get there.

“The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.”

Mamet implored his writers to make every scene dramatic. He believed that dramatic writing made room for dramatic and engaging acting. As such, he told his writers to ask themselves these three golden questions for every scene they penned.

  1. Who wants what from where?
  2. What happens if they don’t get it?
  3. Why now?

The protagonist, he asserts, must possess a “simple straightforward, pressing need” which demands the need to appear in a scene. This desire is why they appear. They will strive to fulfill their needs and they will eventually fail, allowing the scene to end and propelling the audience into the next scene. Writers need to discover how to construct a scene in a way that effectively captures the audience attention – the audience needs to thirst for what happens next. Scenes that fail to advance the plot or are not sufficiently dramatic by themselves are either redundant or needs to be rewritten.

By asking and framing the right questions over and over again, a writer can ensure that every scene works, and that it is strong, significant and substantial.