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David Mamet on Why Action is Important

One thing I discovered during my time at VCFA: Writers can learn a great deal from theater and movie people. Much of the time, it's movie people (McKee, Truby), but Sandra Nickel's graduate lecture helped me think about how to create non-cliche gestures for my characters, and theater greats like Stella Adler can help us create characters from the inside.

David Mamet doesn't hold with the Stanislavsky method for actors, so he's not much help on the character end of things. However, what he has to say about action in his True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor (New York: Pantheon, 1997) struck me as crucial:

  1. "Action has got to be simple. If it's not simple, it can't be accomplished."

  2. Action has to have an objective. "We all know what it means to truly have an objective. To get him or her into bed, to get the job, to get out of mowing the lawn, to borrow the family car. We know what we want, and therefore, we know whether we're getting closer to it or not, and we alter our plans accordingly. This is what makes a person with an objective alive: they have to take their attention off themselves and put it on the person they want something from." ( p. 73-74, underlining added.)

It's so easy when we write fiction, which does have the gift of being able to share the interior life of a character in a way that theater and movies can't, to get lost in that interior life (especially if we are character-driven writers). But we have to remember, these characters have desires, and those desires will only be accomplished if they do something, which largely means coming up with a plan to get something from someone else, whether that something is a cheese sandwich or love.

Mamet also offers writers of fiction useful advice when he tells actors that the best way to think about a scene is as a unit containing one simple action. "Each scene has its own task" (76)

Thank you, David Mamet.

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Reading Raves

Nation (Terry Pratchett), Men of Salt (Michael Benanav), Paper Towns (John Green), Lavinia (Ursula K. LeGuin), Weight (Jeanette Winterson), The Wizard, the Witch & Two Girls from Jersey (Lisa Papademetriou), Beastly (Alex Flinn), Hogfather (Terry Pratchett), London Calling (Edward Bloor), Before I Die (Jenny Downham), My Mother the Cheerleader (Robert Sharenow), Antsy Does Time (Neal Shuesterman), Against Medical Advice (James Patterson & Hal Friedman), Wait for Me (An Na), Doppelganger (David Stahler), The Year We Disappeared (Cylin Busby, John Busby); Little Brother (Cory Doctorow); King of Screwups (K.L. Going), Tyrell (Coe Booth), Goth Girl Rising (Barry Lyga), Bad Apple (Laura Ruby), The Sky is Everywhere (Jandy Nelson), Hold Still (Nina LaCour), Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green & David Levitahn), Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto (Eric Luper), Ostrich Boys (Keith Gray), Front & Center (Catherine Gilbert Murdock), Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler), I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett), Tales of the Madman Underground (John Barnes), Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King), Sex: A Book for Teens (Nikol Hasler), The Girl Who Became a Beatle (Greg Taylor), Crazy (Han Nolan), Pull (B.A. Binns), Pearl (Jo Knowles)
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