October 12, 2010

Robert Caisley ~ The Seven Deadly Diseases of Writing

What I’m Reading Today: More dabbling in Tolkien, but looking forward to reading a friend's manuscript about a female firefighter.

As I mentioned yesterday, last weekend I went to see three great writers on an annual event in Cheyenne called the Literary Connection. Yesterday, I talked about Rick Bass, today I’ll talk about the playwright Robert Caisley, and tomorrow I’ll talk about the poet Sasha Pimentel Chacon.

You can tell Robert Caisley is in the theater: his presentations are so entertaining and informative and wonderful. He’s not tall, but he’s big and he has a big presence. He’s a kinetic speaker, and when he’s focusing on something, he blinks his eyes. He is an Associate Professor of theatre and film and head of the dramatic writing program at the University of Idaho, and he’s written a lot of very entertaining and moving plays that have been produced all over the country. We got to see parts of some of them on the second day, and I can say that they are great!

Robert began by describing how he became interested in the theater. His father was an actor, and when he was fairly young Robert saw his father in a production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. His father played a guy who dies rather dramatically on a set of stairs, and Robert stood up in the theater and yelled at the top of his lungs, “She killed my dad!” He also talked about listening to Woody Allen monologues and how they have great dramatic structure and how Aristotle’s Poetics is the greatest book on dramatic writing and all the rest are footnotes.

Then Robert used the extended metaphor of the medical profession to “diagnose” ailing writing. He began by talking about the physicians’ concept of “differential diagnosis” ~ essentially that a doctor bears the responsibility to rule out what something isn’t before he or she diagnoses what it is. That inspired him to apply medical terminology to writing. Here are the seven deadly diseases.

1. Obesity. Or too much meat on the bone. Most people’s first drafts are long and need to be cut back. He said that he generally has to cut about 20% off a first draft. (For the record, I generally underwrite and have to go back and add things.) Often this is clunky exposition. For example, he talked about old plays and their “feather duster scenes,” where a maid would come onstage and sort of talk to herself and give backstory. Audiences today have a lot less patience for this, and I think this applies to other types of writing too.

A second thing is that writers will often repeat things multiple times. I’ve certainly seen this in my own writing and in others. It’s okay to put them in as you go, but when you come back and revise, cut them out. A third thing is “too much scenery and not enough scene,” or focus on the action and not the setting and exposition and backstory.

2. Motion Sickness. This is when a play has no sense of direction. A plot, you’ll remember, is not just a straight telling of events but, rather, is the arrangement and construction of events. You can tell the story this way: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. Or you can tell it this way: Scene, hospital room, Jack in bed hooked up to machines. Jill enters. “I’m so sorry, Jack,” she says. “I don’t want to hear about it,” he says. Then flash back to the day before. Jack and Jill are going hiking. And so on. Robert advocates generally for telling it in straight linear structure (something I wholeheartedly agree with), though fractured narrative is in vogue.

Every 10 seconds, a human asks what happens next, and it’s your job to keep them intrigued. If you don’t organize the structure, the human mind will do it for you. He emphasized that it’s the “kinetic connective tissue” that we take for granted but that is so important. Rather than focusing just on scene, we need to focus on this. As an example, he talked about a scene of a man at a window smiling, which cuts to kids playing outside. We infer a lot about the man and his situation just by this juxtaposition. However, if we had the same first scene of a man at a window smiling but then it cuts to some guys robbing an old woman, we infer a totally different set of things about the man. “Film is an editor’s medium,” he said (quoting from someone).

He said that a character needs to have two things he or she is pursuing desperately: 1) something emotional and 2) something physical.

3. Psychological Problems. This medical condition Robert equated with the characters knowing what they want but we have no idea what that is. We need to show what the character wants. He said this isn’t about cliché: “We exist in life in contradiction, so should your characters.” However, it’s complex. Often, we act in direct contradiction to what we want. He used the example of being a kid in class and liking a girl sitting in front of him. Instead of telling her, he pulled her hair. You need to externalize need, but the expression of a character’s need often goes against that need. He said parallel plots are great to show this.

4. Musculoskeletal Disease. Our bodies have a structure that holds us up. So should our writing. He thinks of the structure of a story as the spine, which is often the physical action of the story ~ what the story is about physically as opposed to what’s going on thematically.

5. Sedentary Lifestyle. Before talking about this, Robert put Freitag’s pyramid on the board and talked about story structure. Before the story opens, there is backstory, and often the inciting incident occurs before the curtain goes up. Plays and movies often have a three-act structure, where the first act is the first one quarter (in time), the second act is the middle half, and then the last act is the last quarter. In a film, that’s about 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 30 minutes. The turning point after the first act Robert calls “the point of attack.”

So, to use Hamlet as an example. The inciting incident occurs before the play opens ~ Hamlet’s father is killed. The point of attack is when Hamlet decides to put on the play within the play to pin his uncle down. And so on. Some people think “nothing happens” in Hamlet, that he’s inactive, but that’s not true, Robert says. He’s busy trying to get proof before he kills his uncle, and then he faces setbacks.

So a sedentary lifestyle is that a character can’t live on a couch. He or she needs to get up and so things. Get them up off the couch and doing things in small incremental steps. This can be movement or indirection in other ways, too.

6. Schizophrenia. This is a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be or tries to be everything. First-time writers often do this, he says. Decide what the story is about and stick to it. You can’t pack too much into it. He said not to write this down, but here it is: Just pick three moments (for a story or play). Focus just on those. That should give you enough.

I love this. He also said, “Writing is a collaboration of the many parts of yourself.”

7. Organ Transplant Rejection. He was running out of time, so he kept this one short. Organ transplant rejection is when you take something you’ve already written or something unrelated and try to graft it on. Often, it won’t take.

On the second day, Robert had some great local actors (John O'Hagan from UW and Jason and two student actors from LCCC ~ sorry, don't remember their names!) do skits from his plays. It was wonderful. The actors' timing and delivery were impeccable.  There was a bar scene that began with the line “I knew this girl in Santa Fe” and a soliloquoy called “I learned to kiss from James Bond” and a great scene between two people about lobster mating (lobsters apparently have two penises).

(Robert tells me that the actors who did such a great job, in addition to John O'Hagan, were LCCC's Jason Pasqua and student actors Dominic Syracuse and Lisa Hoover.  Just terrific.  He also said that, according to he and his co-panelists, this was one of the best organized event they've been invited to.  I also urge you to buy Robert's collection of short plays Santa Fe & Other Short Plays!)

Anyway, once again, a thoroughly entertaining and educational experience!

Questions of the Day: What can fiction writers learn from playwrights? I certainly love the focus on inhabiting your character. Other things?

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