Two characters discussing a third

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  • Two characters discussing a third

    David Mamet once wrote that any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of ****. I'm wondering what people thoughts are about where and when this applies.

    I'm working on a script about two characters living in isolation and given the story circumstances (changing dynamics of associates, physical threats from secondary characters), the two characters are just naturally going to talk about the people around them.

    The situation reminds me of Michael Clayton where the characters don't all know each other first hand and the mystery is unravelling across different locations. There are multiple scenes with two characters talking about a third. Is this what makes it okay? The distance, the subversion, the circumstance?

    Thoughts?

  • #2
    Re: Two characters discussing a third

    David Mamet once wrote that any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of ****
    That's his view.

    Do what you want to do, it's your creation.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: Two characters discussing a third

      I think it's the drama that makes conversation special. I mean, Tom Hanks talked to a volleyball and I was riveted to the screen and cried when Wilson was lost at sea.
      life happens
      despite a few cracked pots-
      and random sunlight

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: Two characters discussing a third

        What David Mamet said, in his memo to the writers of The Unit, was:

        "TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT
        GREETINGS.

        AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.

        THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN DRAMA AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.

        EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF INFORMATION INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.

        OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION -- AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.

        BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN'T, I WOULDN'T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

        QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.

        SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
        1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
        2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON'T GET IT?
        3) WHY NOW?

        THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.
        IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.

        THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. YOU THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE EVERY SCENE IS DRAMATIC.

        THIS MEANS ALL THE "LITTLE" EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.

        IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE'RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.

        SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB
        (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS YOUR JOB.

        EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.

        THIS NEED IS WHY THEY CAME. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET WILL LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO FAILURE - THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS OVER. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE NEXT SCENE.

        ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE PLOT.

        ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.

        YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT "INFORMATION?"

        AND I RESPOND "FIGURE IT OUT" ANY ******** WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY "MAKE IT CLEARER", AND "I WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT HIM".

        WHEN YOU'VE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE WILL BE OUT OF A JOB.

        THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. NOT TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR
        TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

        ANY ********, AS ABOVE, CAN WRITE, "BUT, JIM, IF WE DON'T ASSASSINATE THE PRIME MINISTER IN THE NEXT SCENE, ALL EUROPE WILL BE ENGULFED IN FLAME"

        WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO REALIZE THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

        YES BUT, YES BUT YES BUT YOU REITERATE.

        AND I RESPOND FIGURE IT OUT.

        HOW DOES ONE STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN WITHHOLDING AND VOUCHSAFING INFORMATION? THAT IS THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF THE DRAMATIST. AND THE ABILITY TO DO THAT IS WHAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LESSER SPECIES IN THEIR BLUE SUITS.
        FIGURE IT OUT.

        START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.

        LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING "BOB AND SUE DISCUSS..." IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.

        PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR OUTLINES ARE, GENERALLY, SPECTACULAR. THE DRAMA FLOWS OUT BETWEEN THE OUTLINE AND THE FIRST DRAFT.
        THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, YOU ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.
        HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF ****.

        ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER "AS YOU KNOW", THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF ****.

        DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF ****. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR AND HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.
        REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. MOST TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE RADIO. THE CAMERA CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. LET IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS DOING -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY SEEING.
        IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.

        IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF SPEECH. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM - TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)

        THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO START.
        I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE SCENE AND ASK YOURSELF "IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT ESSENTIAL? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?
        ANSWER TRUTHFULLY.

        IF THE ANSWER IS "NO" WRITE IT AGAIN OR THROW IT OUT. IF YOU'VE GOT ANY QUESTIONS, CALL ME UP.

        LOVE, DAVE MAMET
        SANTA MONICA 19 OCTO 05

        (IT IS NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ANSWERS, BUT IT IS YOUR, AND MY, RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW AND TO ASK THE RIGHT Questions OVER AND OVER. UNTIL IT BECOMES SECOND NATURE. I BELIEVE THEY ARE LISTED ABOVE.)"

        See also his great book "On Directing Film"

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: Two characters discussing a third

          I think what Mamet was talking about is a scene that is devoid of any drama - where it may be two people talking about some past drama... which is second hand and boring.

          Drama is conflict. You *could* have two people discussing a third - and one is the wife and the other the secret girlfriend, and the more they talk the more each realizes who the other is - and that's suspense - and then we reach the conflict. That could work in a scene, because it BUILDS to conflict.

          I saw some movie at a festival that was people talking about funny things that had happened to them in the past - but we never saw nor experienced those funny things. So all of the funny stuff ended up "you had to be there" - not funny at all on screen. That's another possible problem with two people talking about a third - they are telling a story instead of us *experiencing* that story - so it's boring (and not funny in this film's case).

          One of my favorite films, NOTORIOUS, and two of my favorite scenes in that film have two people talking about a third: In the briefing scene the CIA guy is telling Devlin what Alicia's mission will be - to fvck a Nazi and steal his secrets. Devlin is in love with Alicia - and protests the mission... but must act professional because he's not supposed to be in love with her. It's a great subtext scene - but filled with conflict. The other scene has the Nazi realize that Alicia (now his wife) is an American spy, and he goes to his (Nazi) mother and they discuss the best way to deal with this problem (kill her) - but they are planning to kill the woman that the Nazi *still loves*. In a strange way - these scenes are mirror images - two places where love is up against the mission, and the mission wins. Once with the good guys, once with the bad guys.

          The DAWN OF THE DEAD remake has some *powerful* conversations between two people about an offscreen third - and they are filled with conflict. Do we kill them or not? And the drama and conflict comes from one believing they *should* kill them and the other believing they should not.

          So, just make sure there is *present conflict* in the conversation about the third person.

          - Bill
          Free Script Tips:
          http://www.scriptsecrets.net

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: Two characters discussing a third

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NjgPDIeSXA

            Here's three characters discussing a fourth.

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: Two characters discussing a third

              Though I cannot think of any examples off hand, I want to say this is a quite common way of building someone up before he's seen. Helps establish the mythology, or legend. I want to say this was used in the screenplay for the upcoming flick based on the Jack Reacher novels.

              Nothing wrong with being opinionated, but David Mamet often comes off sounding oppressive.

              There was hardly any drama or conflict at the beginning of Barberlla, but I wish to Science I had never, ever bothered to watch anything after the first two minutes.

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: Two characters discussing a third

                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCO-SBPTF5E
                Ring-a-ding-ding, baby.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: Two characters discussing a third

                  The Usual Suspects? Keyser Soze? That's your answer.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: Two characters discussing a third

                    Originally posted by JoeBanks View Post
                    What David Mamet said, in his memo to the writers of The Unit, was:

                    ...

                    REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. MOST TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE RADIO. THE CAMERA CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. LET IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS DOING -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY SEEING.
                    IF YOU
                    PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.

                    IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF SPEECH. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM - TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)

                    THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO START.
                    I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE SCENE AND ASK YOURSELF "IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT ESSENTIAL? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?
                    ANSWER TRUTHFULLY.
                    Focusing in on this part of the Mamet quote, how can Mamet say what he says, then write a screenplay like Glengarry Glen Ross that has tons of dialogue?

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: Two characters discussing a third

                      I believe it's because GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS was actually a play, and very little was changed for it's screen adaptation. But I agree with the the point -- that dialogue heavy storytelling can still provide great drama -- but at the same time, I understand the point Mamet is trying to make with the "show not tell" advice.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: Two characters discussing a third

                        You can find a million exceptions, of course. And in fact, sometimes it is a useful craft to mention another character briefly as a setup for when we meet them.

                        In MBFW, she talks about the slutty debutantes. In Manhattan (AH?) when Diane Keaton talks about her lover who ends up being Wallace Shawn? Tiose are setups -- one for convenience -- and both for jokes. This is often needed to orient the audience. The American Girl with Dragon Tatoo has a page-plus scene where the reporter is introduced to the location (and quick summary) of all of the relatives on the island. It has some conflict and humor and a nice surprising beat at the end. It is a necessary evil to give the audience a chance. I like it when a throwaway line gives us some context but also sets up a surprise...like in DPS, the suggestion that Knox is going to meet some really OLD PEOPLE at the Danbury's house.

                        That said, I read way too many scenes where writers use the discussion of a character outside of the scene and it falls flat. It's definitely something to look out for. If it's not building up a clever set up for the OS character or being really effective as a macguffen of sorts to get at the heart of the two people in the scene, then ask if there is a way to get at the scene without the reference to an O.S. character. Most of the time it's a disadvantage to be talking about something the audience doesn't know and can't see...especially early in a movie when the character on screen are new themselves.

                        Forget "never" and "always." How about...."consider"? When you have a scene where two characters are talking about an OS third character, CONSIDER whether you are missing opportunities for drama within the scene and whether it's disorienting for the audience.

                        Jim

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: Two characters discussing a third

                          Originally posted by jonpiper View Post
                          Focusing in on this part of the Mamet quote, how can Mamet say what he says, then write a screenplay like Glengarry Glen Ross that has tons of dialogue?
                          That wasn't written as a movie - it was a stage play that was filmed.

                          Mamet is talking about writing for the screen in this memo - TV and movies.

                          - Bill
                          Free Script Tips:
                          http://www.scriptsecrets.net

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Re: Two characters discussing a third

                            Originally posted by Unfinishe View Post
                            Though I cannot think of any examples off hand, I want to say this is a quite common way of building someone up before he's seen. Helps establish the mythology, or legend. I want to say this was used in the screenplay for the upcoming flick based on the Jack Reacher novels.

                            Nothing wrong with being opinionated, but David Mamet often comes off sounding oppressive.

                            There was hardly any drama or conflict at the beginning of Barberlla, but I wish to Science I had never, ever bothered to watch anything after the first two minutes.
                            1989 Batman when Vikky Vale is talking to reporter about the giant bat.

                            -suspense building

                            I think Mamet was referring to something different that was specific to that particular tv show and is taken kind of out of context.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: Two characters discussing a third

                              Defintely out of context.

                              Say you have a wife that takes meets with a contract killer to discuss taking out her husband. I'm sure's there's plenty of examples on how it can be used, but I'm wondering if the writers of the show were overdoing it as a crutch and he had to call them on it.

                              The best way to get somebody to not do something ad nauseum is to tell them they can't do it at all.

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