Building a Story - Starting with David Mamet's Three Questions

David Mamet is an excellent writer, and an interesting character himself. I recently took a course from him and he has a lot of advice to offer, but there are three questions that he uses that I want to take a closer look at.


The first question is, "Who wants what?" Those three words are asking for a lot of information. All of character and all of intention is contained within that one question. I have found a lot of different ways to generate story ideas, and I have written a lot of blog posts on them, but if I am working on building up a story piece by piece I have found it easiest for me to begin with either character or intention; Mamet covers those both with his opening question. I know there are a lot of fantasy writers that like to start with setting, and you will see that Mamet's questions don't cater to that interest, so maybe they could add in one of their own at the beginning, "Where the frack are we?"

The second question is, "What happens if they don't get it?" This is an important question, we need a strong motive and high stakes. There are some stories that do not explicitly state what this is, some even intentionally hide it, but we assume that what the character is willing to do is in proportion to its level of importance.

The third question is, "Why now?" Aaron Sorkin and Shanda Rhimes both talk about this as well, the concept of the ticking clock. There can be no room for procrastination, or the character would probably just procrastinate and there wouldn't be an action or drama.

Let's see if these three questions can help us come up with a quick and simple general story idea.

Who wants what?

A poor man wants to get a nice ring for his fiance.

That seems pretty reasonable to me, fairly normal and a good intention.

What happens if he doesn't get it?

If he doesn't get it then maybe she won't say yes.

I don't like it, it makes her seem really shallow.

If he doesn't get it she might lose respect for him.

Same problem just in a slightly different way.

If he doesn't get it he won't ask her to marry him because he would have failed her, and she deserves better than that. How can he give her a good future if he can't even give her a good ring?

Oh yeah, that's pretty good. He has made the situation conditional for himself, and it makes his intentions even more honorable and reasonable. He has a lot on the line, it's like a dare, a bet, an oath, or even a duty that he has. She might even just be okay with a ring he can afford. She can be level headed and he can be committed and determined, even crazed with a mixture of love and devotion and some sort of chivalrous ambition. Let's not make him a Don Quixote though.

Why now?

This is a tuffy. Why doesn't he just push it off until next week, next month, next year?

He has to do it now because she is pregnant.

Does that even work anymore? Who cares if someone has a kid out of wedlock? No one. That's not true though, maybe her parents, or his parents, or all of the parents. Maybe it is a religious thing. Maybe there is a logistical issue. Maybe an immigration thing, or a military right to live together on base thing. None of those sound very appealing to me at this moment. Maybe it's an insurance thing. That seems like it could be promising, but Europe, the US, and Canada all basically have socialized medicine now. Actually, that's perfect. As the medical system in the US is becoming more socialist it is becoming even worse than it was before. I believe even the US government now admits that medical error is the second leading cause of death in the United States. She is on the government program and will get poor medical care for the delivery, but if they marry she will be on his insurance and she can get better care. What if she is having trouble with the pregnancy? No, I think that would be intense enough that our guy would probably pull his priorities away from the ring. Let's see how this comes out.

He has to do it now because she is due next month, and without being married she can't have his insurance, and without his insurance she will have to go to a second-rate doctor. So, it has to be now.

Let's look at it all put together and see how it went.

A poor man wants to get a nice ring for his fiance.
If he doesn't get it he won't ask her to marry him because he would have failed her, and she deserves better than that. How can he give her a good future if he can't even give her a good ring?
He has to do it now because she is due next month, and without being married she can't have his insurance, and without his insurance she will have to go to a second-rate doctor. So, it has to be now.

Now that I look at it put together I see a few things I don't particularly care for. If he is poor, does he really have good insurance? If it's really about getting the insurance, then the marriage certificate is really more important than the ring, and it seems a little late to worry about providing for the future. It's really that third question that threw it off. I need to make a different answer to "Why now?"

A poor man wants to get a nice ring for his fiance.
If he doesn't get it he won't ask her to marry him because he would have failed her, and she deserves better than that. How can he give her a good future if he can't even give her a good ring?

Why now?

Because they are college sweethearts who have had a great four years together, but now she has to decide if she is going to stay with him or if she is going to . . .

I like the direction this is going. Maybe her father is putting pressure on her to get a certain job, or go to a certain graduate program. Maybe she wants to live close to family, but he is starting a company with partners on the other side of the country. Maybe it's just job offers pulling them apart. I feel like I am on a good track here, but I don't want to do something too common.

What if she has an offer to live overseas for a year or something, but he has already started a company with partners so he can't leave. That seems good and reasonable, it just doesn't interest me for some reason. What if I reverse it? She has a great career opportunity and he wants to live abroad and teach English for a year. I like that more. Let's try to put it all together again and see how it sounds.

A poor man wants to get a nice ring for his fiance.
If he doesn't get it he won't ask her to marry him because he would have failed her, and she deserves better than that. How can he give her a good future if he can't even give her a good ring?
He has to propose now because they are graduating next week from Some University, and she has to decide before Friday whether she is going to go to Italy with him and teach English for a year, or become a partner in her friend's tech startup.

This is good, but I think I need to change some of the earlier answers to make it fit.

A broke college senior wants to get a nice ring for his fiance.
If he doesn't get it she might decide to stay and become a partner in her friend's tech startup, rather than coming with him to Europe for a year to teach English.
She has to decide before graduation on Friday, so he has to make his move now.

I like it. That was an interesting exploration, a bit of back and forth between the questions. I will have to play with these questions more in the future. You are welcome to join me and see what happens at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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