Carving Your Story

Are we going to cook, carve, serve and eat a delicious meal, or dissect a corpse?

A screenwriting/story analysis textbook by Julia Keefer, Ph.D. Copyright: 2002-2012

(Creating the analogy between crafting a story and hunting, farming or gathering food, cutting, cooking, preparing, serving and eating a meal, or dissecting a cadaver if things go badly)

This book is both critical, linking film analyses to classics of the cannon, cross-cultural literature, and digital variations, and prescriptive, with a Writers Gym to develop skills and discipline, as well as impart knowledge to students, novelists, screenwriters, producers, directors, actors, and the general public.

By comparing it to cooking, there is lots of room for jokes, puns, imagery and word games as well as a way to simplify difficult, abstract concepts such as the ones I introduced in my recent paper �Four Narrative Styles in Transmedia Storytelling� at M.I.T.'s Media in Transition: The Work of Stories in May 2005. Because this book includes global storytelling, I will include different kinds of food such as humus and pita, baklava, Arabic coffee, Italian pasta, French wine and cheese, sushi, Peking duck, paella, burritos, comparing them to the way that these cultures craft their stories.

Chapter One: Reading, Thinking, and Writing

This book deals with the creation of fiction, generally full-length works, either novels or films, but some of the principles could be used to write short films or short stories. There is a difference between traditional linear prose and transmedia fiction, influenced by Gao Xingjian, Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Al Qaid, Orhan Pamuk and my narrative styles--recursive, pass-the-ball multiple narration, tandem-competitive, and conglomerate. Part Four of this book is devoted to narrative style, sequencing, and POV.

If you want to jump to screenwriting format, click here.

Definitions not Prescriptions

Story is the simple chronology of events, specific as to time, person and place but often oblivious of dramatic structure.

Dramatic structure is the orchestration of conflict in the story, exaggerated or edited to produce an exciting fight (mental, physical or spiritual) between protagonist(s) and antagonists. In the classical model, this conflict is related to a central dramatic question, objectives, obstacles and plot points characterized by catalyst, commitment, confrontation, chaos/low point, crisis, climax and conclusion.

Narrative structure is the way the events are sequenced in time and space from the point of view of the narrator in a book and/or camera in a film in such a way that a style is created that expounds the theme, or the way the author feels about the material. In novels and short stories, the narrator or narrators tell the tale in the first or third person, singular and/or plural, and rarely in the second person. In film the narrator can be a real person who occasionally narrates over the action, or simply the POV of the camera.

For example, the CDQ in Pulp Fiction may be �How will the crime unfold among Vince, Jules, Butch etc., but the two themes are �Crime works if you can keep it a secret� within the chronology of events, or �It is possible to get out of crime with a spiritual transformation� based on the focus on Jules' epiphany at the conclusion in the way it is filmed. The story of Pulp Fiction is a mundane one of murder and double-dealing throughout three days with drug dealers; but the narrative structure of the stop action, rewind and fast-forward of a VCR turns the story into a dramatic structure with multiple protagonists where a character with little screen time has the character transformation that restructures the story into both an Aristotelian structure with three crises/climaxes, or a monomyth where Jules emerges from the special world to have a transformation. Don't worry if you don't understand all this right away, as it is covered thoroughly in various parts of the book.

Suggestions not Directions

While movie directors tell you what to do on the set in no uncertain terms, this book is a guide to give you suggestions for improving your writing, to connect you with film and literary traditions, and to improve your knowledge of dramaturgy so you can get what you want from producers and publishers. Write from your guts, listen to your soul, and feel free to break rules.

Paradigms not Formulas

Some of these structures are turned into formulas to the TV mill or pulp fiction genre markets. It is important to study different paradigms, but there is no reason that you have to take a cookie-cutter approach to it. Drama is an intensification of the moment that involves surprise, suspense, and mystery, which means you can't write mechanically. Keep reinventing your characters, knowing that the scene they are in must be played out as a discovery for both them and the audience or reader.


Our lives are affected by destiny and our will, and so should your characters be torn between chance and choice. Writing also has a chance/choice component: while you may choose to write within certain structures with given characters and themes, it is sometimes useful to write freely, or engage in word games, to let surprises sprout from your unconscious.

Open/Closed Structure

There is structure in everything, because what you create exists in some kind of time and space. Be open to new structures.

Structures can be Open or Closed, depending on how they respond to the reaction of the audience.

Traditional oral narratives are usually open structures, where multiple narrators get involved in the story, sometimes passing the ball in a linear fashion in Bedouin storytelling, sometimes commenting on the events in an episodic, recursive manner, colored by the point of view of each individual narrator. Commedia del Arte is an open structure but plays that follow the carefully designed script of a single author are usually closed.

While Shakespeare seems to be written in stone, his plays actually changed in response to each audience when they were first performed. Live theater is never exactly the same every night, even though a particular script may stay the same.

Improvisational theater like Chicago City Limits uses paradigms to design scenes but is always responsive to audience/actor interaction and the invention of the moment.

Radio shows are broadcast as closed structures but live shows can open up with callers and surprise guests.

Traditional linear prose, which reached its zenith with the omniscient narrators of the nineteenth century, is a closed structure, although different readers may interpret it according to their unique perspectivesand so is Joyce's Ulysses in spite of its postmodern language because Bloom returns home to Molly as Ulysses does to Penelope, observing the Aristotelian unities in a one day epic exploration into stream of consciousness. However, new prose can embody the compressed characteristics of innovations in time, space, point of view and reality in the electronic media in a kind of trans-media fertilization process.

Internet sites can start as a closed structure but open up with interaction, and grow into the branching narratives of hypertext.The Internet, with its compressed, superimposed yet ubiquitous space, is the tool de jour for instant communication and research, favors highly interactive open stories with branching narratives and indeterminate endings where the first author's tale is submerged in the communal narrative of the global village.

Photos are usually closed structures, although they can be arranged and sequenced in different ways to form a montage in response to POV. Although photography is a hot medium, according to McLuhan, it can create an open structure when used to piece together a story, as photos are added, discarded, or transformed, accompanied by verbal, oral and written, explanations.

Film is generally a closed structure unless it is part of some kind of Virtual Reality. Even when films are supposedly unconventional as in Run, Lola, Run, Memento or Pulp Fiction, they are still relatively closed structures, exhibiting the particular timespace design that their creators have chosen. It is important to note that film, unlike theatre, really has a narrative structure, because of the strong active of the camera as narrator, zooming in and out and over the dramatic events, staying a short time with one image, a long time with another. While television doesn't invite the same constant, direct participation that the Internet does, it is subject to interruption by daily life and therefore favors reality narrative with shorter soundbytes, stories that can and are changed, thereby creating at least half-open structures.

Virtual Reality can be anything you want it to be.

When you are writing, your manuscript is live, subject to change and growth. Once it is published in a book, or made into a film, it becomes a closed structure. The final moments of creation can be agonizing decisions. On the other hand, Internet sites retain a fluidity that allows you to change what you have published.

Marshall McLuhan says the acoustic world of oral culture is recreated with the global community of the Internet. He identifies media as hot and cold, depending on their levels of information, but I am not sure that is still valid because of the divergent forms of expression as well as different cultures' approach to media. For example, French television loads the viewer with info, while some Hollywood films are so simplistic and predictable that there is no information. The medium is no longer always the message. Also McLuhan is examining every use of the media, not just storytelling.


There is no such thing as a neutral story--everything is colored by the narrator, the camera, the writer, the audience. Be aware of shifting or multiple points of view in fiction and film.


Dramatic writing tends to compress time to impose deadlines and create jeopardy that intensifies the conflict, while some long novels span aeons of time. Each scene has its own time that contributes to the rhythm of the entire work. Words or images sequenced in time create a rhythm, whether you are aware of it or now. Words themselves are rhythmic, as evidenced by the tone color of assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and alliteration, all related to the sounds and stresses of syllables. If you divorce the meaning from your words, what kind of rhythm are you creating? Go into your kitchen and bang on pots and pans using different beats and see how different rhythms make you feel.

Levels of Truth

How is your creation related to the real world? A documentary films the real world as is without any attempt to make up a story. Naturalism creates fiction or film that resembles reality, even if it is ugly or aesthetically displeasing. Realism manipulates reality artistically but extracts some truth from it, as in Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. Fantasy adds an element or elements of setting, being or behavior that could not occur in real life, although the basic world may be realistic. Science Fiction constructs an entire imaginary world, although characters or forces may resembler real life. Surrealism superimposes extraordinary over ordinary reality, often producing incongruous, wild and wonderful images. Impressionism gives us fragments of reality to fill in with our imagination, similar to what happens when we recall our dreams. It is the writer's job to believe in the world she creates and describe it so that the reader or audience experiences a suspension of disbelief that allows them to treat this world as even more important to them than the real world, while engaged in reading the book or viewing the film.


The real world is multisensory and dimensional, but a film only records sounds and images on a screen, and a book or Web site, is just words and/or pictures on a page or screen. It is the writer's job to translate the richness of the sensual world through words and images to the imagination of the viewer or reader, which can be a challenging task. The analogy to cooking and eating helps. You must awaken the appetite of your audience, and then serve them a tasty meal.

The Importance of Reading and Seeing to Writing

Writers are always students, learning from life, other writers in other ages, and filmmakers all over the world.

Classics of the Canon

Why do some stories endure through the ages? What is it about Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, or King Lear, Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Hugo's Les Miz, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Tolstoi's War and Peace, Joyce's Ulysses, Proust's Remembrance of Things Past that makes them say somethng new and fresh to each generation? Obviously, there are more classics than this, but let us look at what is unique about each of these works.

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey

Sophocles' Oedipus Rex

In his Poetics, Aristotle used Oedipus Rex as an example of the triangular conflict between Oedipus and the father he unknowingly killed and the mother is mistakenly married. While the play is recursive in narrative sequencing, looking back on the past mistakes in order to gain revelation and solve a problem in the present, it is still an example of the catalyst, commitment, confrontation, chaos, crisis, climax, and conclusion structure that has been so popular in Western culture. The story embodies the eternal guilt, lust, fantasy and terror of having erotic or murderous feelings for a parent, a story that is relived with every person, and documented by Sigmund Freud in his exploration of unconscious and conscious taboos. Sophocles writes simply, starkly, and poetically and the climax of Oedipus gauging out his eyes is more painful than a simple suicide would be. By making the play realistic rather than naturalistic, it retains a certain elegance and beauty that makes its terrifying subject matter more palatable.

Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, or King Lear
Shakespeare's plays were produced in the Globe Theater for the aristocracy and the "low lifes," so that the layered meanings held something for everyone.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities

Victor Hugo's Les Miz was made into a popular Broadway musical, probably because the story about the poor and downtrodden is one that appeals to democratic America and post-revolutionary France. Song and spectacle link together the episodic nature of the novel, compressing it into a lament for Cosette.

Leo Tolstoi's War and Peace/The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

James Joyce's Ulysses

Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past

Shakespeare writes for everyone on a scale larger than life, he obeyed the rules of structure, embellishing and expanding, stole his stories, and listened to actors to create his characters. He was a master of language and created memorable poetry. Midsummer Night's Dream, Rape of the Lock, Porphyria's Lover, My Last Duchess, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miz, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Proust, Ulysses, Shakespeare in Love, The Hollow Men or the Wasteland,Tom Stoppard?

Ionesco? Sartre or are they cross cultural? The canon means perennial, long-lasting, transcending time and culture. National stereotypes versus universal drama.

Sympathy, empathy and antipathy are affected by cultural tastes.

Cross-Cultural Literature

Not every culture follows the Aristotelian paradigm of dramatic structure. The ancient Bedouins told their stories around the campfire at night after a long journey through the desert. Sometimes one storyteller would stay at the oasis and pass the narrative ball to the next narrator to venture by caravan through the arid desert to the next watering hole. In this way, the narrative thread becomes more important than the individual narrator, a phenomenon we see in Arabian Nights, the classic of the Arab world. While Westerners enjoy these marvelous stories, some critics accuse the work of being episodic because it lacks an overall structure, other than the constant jeopardy of Schechzerade who must tell these tales to entertain her husband so he won't kill her and go on to the next virgin. Obviously the stakes are high in this dramatic unfolding, but the stories lack the causal necessity of Aristotelian drama, often combining fantasy and realism in a fantastical way.

The Egyptian writer Yusuf al Qaid uses the pass-the-ball narrative technique in his novel, War in the Land of Egypt, where multiple narrators tell the tale, in sequence, of how a poor soldier stood in for a rich one. Nobel Prize winner (2006) Orhan Pamuk uses this multiple narrator technique in My Name is Red in order to give a traditional murder mystery a rich Turkish tapestry. I use it in Part II of my trilogy, Unclashing Civilizations, in order to give the story of September 11, a subsequent trip to Egypt, the war in Iraq, and a bioterror plot to nonhuman narrators such as a shisha pipe, a watch, a wallet, pearls, shoes, cats, the Sphinx, and the Statue of Liberty, each of whom have a different, and often comic perspective on these tragic events. Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz uses a multiple narrator technique in Akhenaten in order to show how different people--his wife, his mother, his father, soldiers and locals--perceive him and his deeds. Contrast Mahfouz' use of multiple narrators in The Day the Leader Was Killed or Children of Gebelaawi with his third person omniscient narrator of The Cairo Trilogy, a book inspired by nineteenth century European literature.

God Dies by the Nile, The Sand Child, Wild Thorns, The Great Gatsby, White Noise, The Human Stain? Soul Mountain, No Exit, The Lesson, Exit the King, any Pynchon? Metamorphosis, Penal Colony, Death in Venice ? magical realism?

3000 Years of Jokes and Mistakes

Thousands of years ago Aristophanes wrote a play called Lysistrata where the women in the town banded together to refuse to have sex with their husbands returning from war, in an effort to stop the fighting. This brilliant premise still draws laughter and acclaim from feminists today. 3000 years of jokes and mistakes history of comedy, farce, satire, laughing, feeling and thinking, physical, verbal, situation/story, character comedy, precarious people, slick, slippery situations, adults acting like kids, here is the only place to discuss sitcoms

Film Analyses

Film history and criticism: Run Lola Run, Pulp Fiction, Wag the Dog Melinda Melinda--any foreign films? Good Will Hunting A Beautiful Mind, The Wizard of Oz, Superman, Batman, The Matrix, Gone with the Wind, Good Will Hunting,The Shawshank Redemption. Tootsie, Dead Man Walking, The Silence of the Lambs, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Spiderman.

Any Internet games or hyperfiction? Is the Internet NOT suited to drama? Only information, news, research, gossip, commerce, and personal expression?




How do they divide up?

Criticism of Dramatic Theorists

Aristotle --I like him because, like me, he connects medicine and drama. He was a doctor's son. But he was much more conservative than me, not as wild and creative, a great categorizer, insatiable curiosity, multidisciplinary, observant, empirical, Unities of Time imitate life with melody and rhythm and unity, strong and weak men, distinctions between epic and drama, comedy and tragedy, and the priorities of story making: plot, the imitation of the action, characters doing the action, thought or theme, subject matter, fourth the dialogue or words, fifth song, dance, spectacle, leading to presentation.

But sometimes we start with improvisation or any of the other elements. Simple, complex plots, peripaty or reversals. What is likely to happen according to the rule of probability. Plot structure related to classical logic. Claim Counterclaim Protagonist Antagonist.

Georges Polti, French organization, likes to limit and describe all dramatic works to show they fit into categories of 36 dramatic situations. Then any dramatist should make sure her work fits into one of these situations.

Syd Field had a stringent relationship to time, is a simple, positive, American, clear, decisive, action writer, who plot points like an American Aristotle with can-do characters fighting in a linear sequence.

Robert McKee is an excellent lecturer, director, traditional dramatist, who stresses the relationship of character to classical dramatic structure, and does a good analysis of Casablanca.

Linda Aronson is known for describing new structures such as tandem competitive, flashback. Her latest book, 21st Century Screenwriting,
describes narrative sequencing in meticulous detail.

Neil D. Hicks genre analysis particularly thriller and action/adventure

Joseph Campbell's paradigm of a circular hero's journey with characters as archetypes, relating story to space embedded in its cultural roots, reflects the thoughtful analysis of this cross-cultural researcher enthralled with the spiritual needs of stories who feels that comparative religion and mythology needs are just as important as biological needs.

Chris Vogler applies Campbell 's views to American screenwriters in his Writer's Journey.

Stuart Voytilla applied Campbell 's views to criticism of major American films.

Ken Dancyger doesn't use the right words, maybe leave him out. He is a confused film critic, although he sometimes has good analyses of movies.

Me: Time can be blurred, static, accelerated, slowed down, space vaporous, or homospatial.

IF the action is singular and insurmountable, a vast expanse of time and/or space, heightens the challenge. Keefer cs: Catalyst, Commitment, Confrontation, Chaos, Crisis,Climax, Conclusion, Courage/Conformity

Narrative Styles in Transmedia Storytelling

Adventure versus safety

Form and Formula

Robert McKee: "Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form."

Keefer: "And creative artists invent new rules as they master their form."

However, with screenwriting it's good to know every formula that's been used and abused so you can mutilate and/or rejuvenate it to create your story.

For McKee and Keefer a good story comes from LOVE:

l) Love of telling a story--the belief that your vision can be expressed only through story, that characters can be more real than people, that the fictional world is more profound than the concrete.

2) Love of the dramatic-- a fascination with the sudden surprises and revelations that bring sea-changes in life.

3) Love of truth-- the belief that lies cripple the artist, that every truth in life must be questioned, down to one's own secret motives; the ability to see and exorcise your own shit and to bring it up courageously and mercilessly.

4) Love of humanity--a willingness to empathize with suffering souls, to crawl inside their skins, and see the world through their eyes.

5) Love of sensation-- the desire to indulge in and bring to life the pleasures of the five senses.

6) Love of humor--even the most sober domestic dramas need that light touch, the twist of irony, the bite of satire, or the warm, gentle mirth that makes the most mundane scene glow.

7) Love of language--a delight in sound and sense, syntax and semantics.

8) Love of process--a joy in the journey of the story and the solitude of writing.

9) Love of uniqueness--the thrill of audacity and a stone-faced calm when it is met by ridicule.

10) Love of beauty--the courage and skill to develop your own style.

11) Love of duality, conflict, argumentation and the energy to orchestrate scene dynamics.

Unlike the stories of personal essays, memoirs and autobiographical novels, a screenplay must use and transcend or deepen self into the collective unconscious to create a story with universal appeal. Each person has a life story with endless encyclopaedic variations. The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.

STRUCTURE is about making those choices, to arouse emotions and express a specific view of life in a linear or organic mode, or to create a specific design or pattern in an aesthetic mode.

A STORY EVENT creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a VALUE, (Values are qualites that shift from positive to negative such as love/hate, freedom/slavery, truth/lie, loyalty/betrayal etc.) and achieved through CONFLICT. McKee's approach to story structure is not only extremely linear but has the cause-effect relationship of Aristotle's Rhetoric as well as his Poetics: "A scene is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character's life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance. Ideally, every scene is a STORY EVENT.

McKee does not take particularly well to random and chance events, whimsical or theme-based structure; he feels a screenplay should build like an enormous, beautiful building. It's true that these scripts have always been the most successful commercially except in the hands of a brilliant director with an unusual or very sexy story. Learn to build your building but open windows, grow plants and blow up the structure if you have to. Like cells to molecules to atoms to electrons etc., McKee moves from structure made up of ACTS which is a series of sequences (cumulative impact of a series of scenes) that peak in a climactic scene or story event to beat, the smallest element of structure, an exchange of behavior in action/reaction whcih shapes the turning of the scene.

His STORY is an arc, a huge master event, the great sweep of change that takes life to an absolute and irreversible ending through value-charged ACTS, SEQUENCES,SCENES and BEATS. Yet as we read Einstein's Dreams, we see that TimeSpace can go in all sorts of directions. Again inexperienced writers jumbles everything up but artists know linear form and how and why they want to change it. When Quentin Tarantino did rewind and stop action on his story and wove the lives of multiple protagonists together, he was still aware of the thread he could have followed in Pulp Fiction. Same with Woody Allen in many of his films. Plot and Story: Plot is the means to navigate through the story. McKee says it is the ability to choose the "correct" path when confronted by many branching possibilities. However, in hypertext we can choose many different paths and who is to say which one is "correct?" Of course by "correct" McKee means the action that will fit like a piece into the jigsaw puzzle of conflict, surprise and reversal that answers the controlling idea.

Because of his proclivity for logic and tradition, McKee divides all plots into ARCHPLOT, MINIPLOT, and ANTIPLOT. It's a triangle which Archplot at the apex, the classical design which structures a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.

ARCHPLOT: Causality, Closed Ending, Linear Time, External Conflict, Single, Active Protagonist, Consistent Reality He dismisses everything else as minimalism or anti-structure.

MINIPLOT: Open Ending, Internal Conflict, Multiple, Passive Protagonists

ANTIPLOT: Coincidence, Nonlinear Time, Inconsistent Realities

It seems that in McKee's eyes, writers who choose those plots at the base of the triangle are lazy, stupid, pretentious or still infected with adolescent rebelliousness. They shrink, compress, trim or truncate the virtues of the timeless traditional male plot. But what about those writers, particularly female, who see an organic, logical structure outside of the ARCHPLOT.

Linear and Non-linear: In screenwriting a story can begin in the middle and end at the beginning and contain multiple flashbacks but still be linear. To McKee nonlinear is pure chaos. But some of us know there is order in chaos and that you can draw a flower, a circle, a zigzag as well as a straight line. It really comes down to what is organic. McKee acknowledges but does not favor slice-of-life and absurdist drama. Characters can and do think in screenplays. We are aware of their internal conflicts and dilemmas. But the exposition can't meander off the story for any extended period of time without losing the attention of a mass audience.

Chapter Two: Chaos of Creativity Photo: Michael Gatsling

Black is white and white is black. The door opens both ways. Look at the world through your enemy's eyes.

Can you imagine other worlds in detail? What if you could have anything you wanted? What is the worst possible thing that could happen to you or your characters? The best?

Play like a Child
Laugh, giggle, jump around, make a fool of yourself. Let your characters make fools of themselves.

Plummeting the Unconscious
Even though your product may be family friendly, creativity is rated triple X, just like your dreams. Turn nightmares into delightmares by recording and twisting them into your artistic creations. photo credit: Michael Gatsling

Literature and Terrorism

Story as power, a political weapon, how to record, represent or depict the terror of real life, social versus personal terror

In an age of terror, how does literature help us transcend our reality, lend perspective to our confusion by pulling us into the past and other cultures, and give expression to our anguish and fear through catharsis? They survived it; so can we. In this course we will define terrorism the way the Arabs define it, as any organized violence, by an individual, group or state, legitimate or illegitimate, against a civilian population, either intentional or unintentional. Because this is about twentieth and twenty first century literature, we will include the two World Wars with All Quiet on the Western Front, Night, No Exit, The Plague about Algerian terror as well as the German occupation and natural scourges, to Islamic militant terrorism in Egypt in The Day The Leader Was Killed, Satanic Verses, God Dies by the Nile and War in the Land of Egypt, to Israeli/Palestinian terror in Martyr's Crossing and Wild Thorns, to the terror of hostage-taking and kidnapping in Mao II, News of a Kidnapping, and The Hostage, to the terror of totalitarian regimes such as China in Red Azalea and Soul Mountain. Black Water is both a personal and stylistic meditation on terror as well as an indirect indictment of the terror a powerful political leader has over an innocent civilian. Because one objective of fiction/drama is to create a combustive drama for the reader's catharsis, literature and terrorism are really competing with each other. Sometimes real life provides so much terror that the reader hides in literature for escape, seeking fantasy, happy endings, funny, harmless stories that eschew the turmoil of an unlivable situation. Often cultures will move through a transformation like New York did after 9/11, moving from the transformation of reality into tragedy with heroic stories, to silly, innocuous escapes, to some social comedy, and finally to stories that deal with fictional terror. No one can take too much of one thing. When New Yorkers were coughing from the smoke and toxins downtown, they did not go to the movies to see sci fi representations of Manhattan blowing up. Enough is enough.

But literature is different from film because we can choose when and how often to put the book down. Instead of watching a naturalistic representation, we recreate the story in our minds to excite, soothe or incite us. Many of the writers we will study had personal experience of a world war, the holocaust, the Israeli checkpoints, prison for their writings or gender brutality such as clitorectomies. Some could not write for years afterwards; others wrote on toilet paper in prison. It is significant that terrorism demands a certain amount of intelligence in order to achieve its devastating effect. Formalist agenda about character, plot, style/language, theme, setting/geography, descriptive techniques and narrative point of view must be supplemented and developed to deal with how "literature engages with contemporary critical understandings of nationalism, race, gender, sexuality, global multiculturalism..." I would add cyberspace to the list. I also believe that it is stultifying to repress critical reflection on difference to be politically correct. Not only does it make us oblivious to the richness of difference, but we also lose our sense of humor.

One of the most influential persons of the twentieth century was Albert Einstein, not only for his theories on relativity, but because he revolutionized the way humans perceive time and space in all domains from art and literature to atomic warfare. The twentieth century novel  broke with traditional structures as it questioned the linearity of time, the certainty of empirical relality, and the "reality" of the external word by focusing on stream of consciousness techniques, interior monologues and a nonlinear use of time/space.  James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust were the innovators of this new novel, but we see their influence in the works of Joyce Carol Oates BLACK WATER, Gao Xingpian's SOUL MOUNTAIN, Don DeLillo's MAO II and Salman Rushdie's SATANIC VERSES

No Exit is a good way to explore basic dramaturgy: unities of time, space and action, character conflict (different objectives) and orchestration, crisis/climax/resolution, and relationship of theme, HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE, to central dramatic question, WHAT KIND OF HELL WILL EACH PERSON EXPERIENCE? In terms of content, it deals with the German occupation of France during world war II, and the Empire drawing room satirizes the stultifying life of the French bourgeoisie in contrast to the new Marxism Sartre probably misunderstood. It is the most accessible introduction to the philosophy of existentialism, existence precedes essence, in contrast to the Cartesian saying, "I think, therefore I am." Sartre was a prolific writer of fiction, drama, literary theory and philosophy.  He popularized existentialism with sayings such as "I am therefore I think," "Man is nothing more than the sum of his actions," and "Hell is other people." We will act out scenes from his brilliant, provocative, well-structured play, NO EXIT, to be found on my website.  During the anthrax scare in the Fall of 2002, students identified with the characters and situations in Camus' The Plague.  Both works are essential to an understanding of their times, and yet they transcend their times so that they speak to us now in the darkest moments of our war on terror. The Plague introduces us to the formal elements that make a good novel, the third person narrative that clinically but compassionately describes the struggles of Dr. Rieux to help Oran survive the plague. Unlike drama, description and narration assume paramount importance as the world transforms from before plague, to plague, to post-plague. If we recall the anthrax attacks after 9/11, we remember how easily Manhattan could be transformed into Oran. This is also as wonderful study in character transformation as each person's true character is revealed when he is confronted with the existential dilemma of possible or imminent death.

While No Exit is a battle of individuals, The Plague charts the growth, collapse and renewal of a community through a skillful, meticulous attention to description and narration, the chief elements of novel writing. Each culture has different expectations regarding characters, plausibility, and levels of introspection, censorship, conformity to cultural values, as well as the kinesthetic thrust of the drama. Western dramatic structure is more linear, moving to that one big climax, while Arabic literature is recursive, with many climaxes. American literature often wants "three-dimensional" characterization and transformation while Arabic literature can sometimes go for good versus evil. Spanish rhetoric/narrative styles are more circumlocutious, less direct. Indian writers are often more diverse, layered, even chaotic than Arabic ones. Rushdie versus Saadawi. Is this because of the pluralism of their religion versus Islam's relentless monotheistic focus? Contemporary American audiences expect a higher degree of plausibility, unless dealing with science fiction. Yet there is much cross cultural influence. Oates' Black Water is as recursive and thematic as an Arabic poem. DeLillo's Mao II has the plurality, variety in tone, playful satire and chaos of a Rushdie work. Martyr's Crossing is written in the same studied, skillful style as many New Yorker fiction pieces. And most significantly, Soul Mountain combines the reflective, vast space of pre-modern China with the effects of the repressive Communist regime and then a deconstructed narrator, an I, she, he, you, who plows through these mountains with the introspection of a French postmodern writer. Perhaps that is one reason it won the Nobel Prize. What makes cultures different? History, geography, ethnicity, language. But adaptation and change occurs in response to the land, to the struggle for survival. Arabs are desert peoples. In the desert the people see forever; their God is the sun, their enemy excessive dryness. The vast mountains of China created a collective culture in contrast to the vast mountains of America where ambitious individuals forged a frontier through the wilderness, killing the indigenous people. So as our cultures mix and mingle, delicious new concoctions of literature will be created. We must preserve the distinctness, the diversity and the difference of cultural flavors, rather than looking at the more homogeneous products of American mass culture with which we are already familiar. By studying the narratives of diverse people we come to an empathy and understanding for "the other," so that we are not trapped in that good versus evil, us versus them, binary crusade of many American politicians.

Ask yourselves why members of some cultures seek solitude, whereas those of others feel sad or even incomplete if they are not continuously in the company of other people? Why do some cultures worship the Earth, whereas other molest it? Why do some cultures seek material possession while other believe they are a hindrance to a peaceful life? Are some cultures more visual, kinesthetic, linguistic, rhythmic than others? As we analyze different styles of communication and expression, we weave a fine line between political correctness and legitimate diversity, homogeneity from the global melting plot, and specific differences that foster both creativity and a combustive clash of civilisations.

It takes tremendous strength to keep your focus throughout a long work, recreating your central questions and premises, and letting your characters pursue their objectives relentlessly. To develop your strength, power and endurance, link your artistic production with your biological rhythms.

Why does drama historically mimic the rise and fall of the male orgasm?

Is there a dramatic structure that is multi-orgasmic?

Are some dramas sexually frustrated in rhythm, not content?

Why does literature disturb the monotony of the heartbeat with fluctuating rhythms?

If stories traditionally mimic the birth, growth and death of nature with a beginning, middle and end, what happens to stories in cyberspace?

Is comedy as toxic, irreverent and effervescent as urine sprinkling in a toilet bowl?

Do poems have the same cleansing, cathartic effect as a good bowel movement, as well as appealing to our higher sensibilities?

Or are some poems more like eating a lavish meal or tasting wine or burning your tongue?

Why are most dramas (films etc.) contained in the same time frame as a dream sequence at night?

Are writers conscious or unconscious of the biological rhythms of their structure?

How do the biorhythms of writers affect their writing?

Do you write best at night, in the morning, in the winter or the summer, outside or inside, lying or sitting etc?

How does your breath affect your writing?

Years ago when I first became an organic professor on the inorganic Internet, I focused on the biological rhythms of literature for the first time.

Silence, space, nothingness. How you put this in your story is important because you, the characters and your audience have to take breaths. This is the correlation between drama and the respiratory system. As events unfold in time, you want to know when to inhale or take, when to pause, when to exhale or give.

The heart rate hopefully stays even and predictable; otherwise you would need a defribrillator. But with art, be it drama or music, we want uneven rhythms, varied dynamics, sudden stops that border on heart attacks. The predictability of life systems in homeostasis must be played with, the way cancer does, but hopefully with a constructive, life-affirming final outcome--to give the audience or reader a catharsis through laughter,slick, slippery things, precarious people tears, fear, love, to make them think, wonder, explore, or ponder or enter the dreamworld. I also have to cover shock radio, sadism, Howard Stern techniques, insults etc. Media--see, read, interact, hear.

The actions of the reproductive system, aside from having sex, are passive so that may not be a good analogy.

Fucking and orgasm are related more to hunting, eating. The reproductive system isn't analogous to the creative process.

Urinary system purifies and filters as good storytellers should do.

What do you want the reader or audience to digest? What do YOU want to get out of writing this? Is it a form of conscious or unconscious psychoanalysis for you?

Base everything on the biological rhythms of literature Web site.

In all of this, make room for chance versus choice, improvisation versus design, luck versus control, accident versus strategy.

Is the skeletal system the structure? It is already there. There is no rhythm. I have to stick to hunting, food gathering, nutrition, eating, sex, digestion and elimination.

Increased sense of vitality, or escape from reality. Difference between feature film, short film, fiction-- how to use poetry. Are novels more sensuous than film? Not necessarily more sexual. Or maybe they are.

Story and spirituality--is that the brain, the mind, or the aura?

My trademarked class and international online journal EvergreenEnergy go through the 13 energy centers of the mindbodyspirit: earth, water, laughter, fire, heart/wind, ether/arms and throat, mouth, nose, eye, brain, crown, aura, and nothngness. When creating characters, it is important to visualize a spirituality that transcends the biological systems as constructed by Western medicine. Indian chakras and Chinese acupuncture also have interesting ways of perceiving the body and its extensions.

You need patience to work methodically and slowly at times, to listen to your characters and people in the world, to savor the works of others, and then to wait for your acclaim. It takes time for the world to appreciate artists, especially if they are original.

Humans are imperfect. Not only must you be tolerant of your characters' flaws, you must have compassion for your own. Don't be such a perfectionist that you can't finish and show your work. Some artists feel flaws are actually part of an individual's style.

Courage is necessary to face your own demons, to look at your work critically, and to show your work to others.
Censorship: Self versus State

Forbidden FruitsCollage by Jane Schreck

Literary and filmic creation is sometimes a metaphoric act of war, Self versus State, a stance that requires tremendous courage in the face of social conformity.

I teach a course called Forbidden Fruits, where students read censored literature and then perform mock trials, where the author must defend her/his book against a state, religious or other social organization. Read below to gather the courage to knock out your fears to pursue your deepest delightmares.

Claim: That the study of censored literature can promote cross-cultural understanding by sharing our deepest fears and anxieties and exploring the taboos of religion, sex, politics and society.

Counterclaim: That we need sober truth and civility not the fabricated illusory truth of fiction. Also when countries change, like Israel, Germany etc, it is best not to dwell on their past transgressions.

Authors and Crimes:

Nikos Kazantzakis: Humanizing Christ
Naguib Mahfouz: Humanizing all the Prophets, but it was Mohammad, the hashish-smoking womanizer, that irritated the Islamists
Nawal el Saadawi: Discussing clitorectomies, standing up for women's rights, questioning the way men practice religion in Egypt
Sahar Khalifeh and Marwan Bargouti: Irritated Israel by defending Palestine
Tahar ben Jalloun: Irritated the Moroccan monarchy by telling the truth about the jails
Orhan Pamuk: Angered the Saudis by writing about aesthetic Islam
Harold Pinter: Criticized American and British Foreign Policy
Nabakov: Humiliated everyone by writing about child molestation, and forbidden sex but four American publishers refused his work because it was too linguistically complex
D.H.Lawrence: Banned by England and America for being too sexually explicit
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Forbidden sexual fantasies
Gao Xi Jiang: Banished from China and forced to censor his own books
Anchee Min: Spoke against Mao and Madame Mao
Dan Brown: Angered the Vatican and the Christian Right
James Joyce: Censored by everyone until they decided he was a genius. Nowadays Ulysses would never be accepted by a New York publisher because it is too intellectual.
Salman Rushdie: Everyone is still trying to kill him for apostasy.
Research biography, read book carefully, be able to defend author and submit an outline to correct complaints

Defenders: How did it feel to write this book? How did you research it, plummet or rape yourself, your world and your imagination? Who is your imaginary reader? Why did you write this book? How long did it take? How conscious were you of aesthetic considerations such as story, structure, narrative style, characterization, voice, description, linguistic style? What is the relationship between fiction and non-fiction? Did you knowingly write to irritate authorities, to get attention or because this is how you felt? Did you ever consider a more benign way of saying the same thing? How do your political, religious and sexual views differ from your narrator? Do you want to die for this book? What is more important to you:this book or your life?

Saudi Arabia
Iran under the mullahs
China under Mao's Regime
Soviet Union
Egypt, but particularly the Islamic militants such as Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman or Anwar Sadat
Moroccan Monarchy, especially Hassan II
Nazi Germany
America, Christian Right
American Military
but also New York anti-intellectual literary agents
The Vatican

Research country's POV and what they hate most in the book.

Prosecutors: Why are you so threatened by these words? Are your ideas so weak that they cannot stand exposure to different ideas? Don't you trust your flock and citizenry? What is the relationship between words and weapons? Fiction and non-fiction? Propaganda and self-expression?

Theme: Each book is a plump, juicy, forbidden fruit, often censored somewhere at some time by someone, occasionally causing death and destruction. How can a book terrorize? Why do humans censor literature? What aspects of religion, sex, state or science can turn into snakes slithering out of Pandora's Box? The following books have been banned at one time or another in China, The Soviet Union, Israel, Europe, Islamic countries, and even parts of America.

Irritating Questions

Exactly how does censored literature promote cross-cultural understanding? Wouldn't these issues just inflame people? Or must they always be introduced with the assumption that even nonfiction is fragmented and fabricated, exaggerated and manipulated to reveal the angst in the psyche and what lies under civilized behavior. So how do with deal with this material? The same way psychologists should do:with humor, compassion and tolerance. It is also exciting and cathartic to experience things vicariously that we would never permit ourselves to enjoy in daily life.

How many authors, like Dan Brown, deliberately write about sensitive, controversial material, or actually try to get censored in order to get free publicity to enhance sales?

Would some of these books never get the exposure and popularity if they weren't censored?

Note how cultural expectations and differences determine what taboos each culture has.

What is most offensive to you now:something that is politically incorrect, racist, sexist? Pornographic?

Or something that makes Islamic militants brave, intelligent and human?

Or something that is so intellectual you can't understand it without an excellent dictionary and a good education?

Or a book that loses focus regarding the narrative thrust and doesn't make the story clear?

Or a book with no story?

Or a book where the ending is depressing and dismal?

There are times when you must conform to market demands in order to write for money, but always know what is in your heart, and when the work has become bigger than you. You can't take the money to your grave, but great work will outlive you.

If you are a novelist, write your novel the way you like, using any language, structure, or sequencing that appeals to you, inserting PowerPoints like Jennifer Egan or unusual fonts and graphics like Jonathan Safran-Foer. Do whatever you want. Then find the story and a way to "cook it" through dramatic structure so you can write a loose film adaptation. Edit this screenplay for the people who want to buy it. Do what they say so you will make lots of money to invest in another "creative" novel of your choice which probably won't make money. Unless you are the director of the film, you must compromise; otherwise your screenplay will neither be sold nor produced.

Another idea is to get your story, major characters, and dramatic structure before you write the novel, play with narrative sequencing as you write your first screenplay draft, continue to research your novel for more depth in characters and narrative voice, then write the novel the way you want linguistically but still adhering to the framework you devised in the screenplay. When you have finished the novel, go back to draft the screenplay and again, rewrite it to please producers and agents but don't let anyone mess with your novel.

Part 1: Story Specifics: Find the food: Kill an animal, cut a plant or dig up a root. How a story differs from structure. Where to find stories and how to use them

Definition and ingredients of a good story

Research your world

Level of reality -documentary, naturalistic, realistic, romantic, fantasy, sci fi, surreal

Chapter Three: Find an animal lying there. Is it a used corpse filled with rotting maggots? Freshly killed? Ripe for the picking



Dos and Don'ts of Destiny

Chapter Four: Kill an Animal

Mangle Reality

Take a slice of it and let it bleed

Violence and Storytelling

Chapter Five: Cut a Tree

From the News

Friends and Family

Plagiarism, Paraphrasing and Public Domain

Chapter Six: Dig up a Root

Memoir and memories

Time past, present, future, and superimposed

Personal versus Dramatic Writing

Recombinant Storytelling

Part 2: Character Creation and Development: Arranging the fruits, veggies and meat, tofu or beans






Objects, musical instruments, animals

Chapter Seven: Food Pyramid and Character Priorities

Chapter Eight: Protein-the main meat, amino acids, making muscle-is muscle the objective or throughline?


Chapter Nine: Carbohydrates-society-powers that be-antagonists?

Grains, rice, pasta, starches or glycogen. The fuel for action

Chapter Ten: Fats-love interests? Comic relief

Chapter Eleven: Vitamins and Minerals-Catalysts and Coagulants

Chapter Twelve: Nutritional Balance

Character Orchestration

Part Three: Dramatic Structure, the organization of conflict between characters in their world. Cook or cut it: Simmer, sauté, bake or boil or serve raw and bleeding. The mountain versus the circle, but what about Boolean layers, caravan tales, and other paradigms influenced by twentieth century physics and how world cultures experience time and space differently.

World of Time: Plot Points and the Central Dramatic Question-Catalyst, Commitment, Confrontation, Chaos, Crisis, Climax, Conclusion

World of Space: Campbell Paradigm, Ordinary and Special Worlds, Bore-dinary and Extraordinary

Adobe Layers

Other Paradigms of time and space

Recursive, Tandem-Competitive-two things cooking at the same time maybe in different ways

Chapter Thirteen: Steam-the Aristotelian pressure cooker

Chapter Fourteen: Fry-- fat and sizzling the American way. Greasy plot points-how to make a plot point crispy.

Chapter Fifteen: Saute-Jumpy, quick, internet, alternative structures

Chinese stir fry Nutritious food quickly cooked and eaten-choices - hypertext

Chapter Sixteen: Boil-low calorie but fast-TV drama-bland but boiling

Chapter Seventeen: Broil-crispy on the outside, succulent inside-Ordinary World and Special World

Indian tandoori

Chapter Eighteen: Bake-it takes a long time. Indigenous storytelling. Baking bread with dung in caravan tales


Part 4: Narrative Style and Sequencing: Sauces and Seasoning. Sequencing in Time and Space-How to arrange the food on the table How you color your story. Point of View

Chapter Nineteen: Voice

Point of View

Chapter Twenty: Time, When to serve, how long each course, Rhythm

Chapter Twenty-One: Space-locations, close-up or wide-angle or aerial

Chapter Twenty-Two: Dynamics-soft, hard. Shrimp versus lamb

Varying the scene order

Lyrical versus Percussive

Chapter Twenty-Three: Transitions-Order of presentation.

In-between scenes-lovemaking, a cigarette, a crime

Aural Links

Visual Links

Chapter Twenty-Four: Theme-author's attitude towards material
Levels of Didacticism

The Teacher

The Mother

The Entertainer


Part 5: Style, Substance and Spectacle
Language-Let's eat the dinner

Develop your taste buds with jokes, puns, figures of speech, rhythm, rhyme, tone color

Chapter Twenty-Five: Forks or fingers? Bite-size or big size? Greedy, famished or polite

Vocabulary, word choice-sentences, paragraphs and word fragments, poetry, or dialogue and action in a screenplay

Screenwriting Format

Ulysses and Rushdie or Dan Brown? Forbidden Fruits

Chapter Twenty-Six: Tasting. Sensory description. Smell, taste, hear, see, feel the food. Different tastes for different folks. Global literature

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Chewing, Swallowing and Spitting
How to make the most of your chosen style with word games, imaginative exercises, and free writing.

Feast or Famine

Overwriting and Underwriting

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Digestion Or Indigestion
Are you providing nourishment or purposely food poisoning your audience? How to make your work digestible

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Elimination
How to purify, prune, and polish your final draft, keeping what you don't need or want for other projects.

Chapter Thirty: Metabolism, Catabolism and Anabolism
How to make the connections between genre, audience, and marketing.


Writing schedules

Professor. Keefer's Walk and Wonder