Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Sharon Wildwind

Would you help me test a theory?

Get your current work in progress. Better yet get two or three WIPs or maybe include a couple of WFAFs (works finished and forgotten).

Count the number of pages. Divide by 10. Multiply that number by 7. Go to that page. Just to be on the safe side, include 5 pages before and 5 pages after.

For example, one of my books has 357 pages in it. That number divided by 10 = 35.7, which when multiplied by 7 = page 250, so the 5-page before/after range would be pages 245 to 255.

Do you have a dead kitten speech anywhere in your ten-page range?

The Death of My Kitten speech is a term coined by the American playwright, essayist, screenwriter and film director, David Mamet. Sometimes instead of kittens, it starts with “When I was young …” or “Years ago …” or “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but …”

In his book, 3 Uses of the Knife: on the Nature and Purpose of Drama, Mamet has a theory that these unneeded narrations occur regularly in plays and films at 7/10ths of the way through the production, which is usually just before or just after the beginning of the third act.

He saw this diversion appearing so consistently that it finally came to him that they were not accidental, but instead reflected either some human need, some dramatic convention, or both.

Unless a woman discovers that she is in labor or a man has a phone call from his night watchman asking if he can give the building access code to the firemen, people don’t usually leave the theater at the beginning of the third act. Similarly, engrossed readers don’t return their book to the library when they still have 3/10th of the book to read.

By that time the covenant has been made between the writer and audience to stick it out to the end, no matter what is coming next. Mamet contends that the other thing the writer and the audience share at this point is fatigue. The stakes are high, emotions invested in the characters, and a successful (read happy) ending seems impossible. What must happen will happen and both the writer and audience suspect they aren’t going to like the inevitable one bit.

At the beginning of the Roman Catholic Mass the priest begins a penitential rite with, “My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves, and to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins.” There are several versions of prayers with which the congregation responds. One of them begins with, “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault … .”

For a good bit of Western European literature/drama, religious ceremonies begat religious plays, which begat Greek and Roman drama, which eventually begat a whole bunch of things including David Mamet’s plays and the books/plays we are writing. Whether or not we subscribe to religious ceremonies, there is still an echo of all of those dramatic conventions inherent in rituals and classic drama coming down to us over thousands of years.

One Greek drama convention was the soliloquy, which strangely enough occurred about 7/10th of the way through a play. It was the point where the actor, speaking for the dramatist, confided in the audience (I paraphrase), “This is a mess, isn’t it? I CONFESS that I’m as much at a loss as you are about how it’s all going to turn out. I’m in the gods’ hands as much as you are. While I would love to give you a big, happy finish, it may not be in my power to do that. I know you’re anxious and a little nervous about the ending, but keep in mind, this is a play. It’s an artificial construct. No matter what horrible things happen to the characters in the last act, you’re safe. That’s about the best I can offer.”

The whole purpose of the soliloquy was briefly to remove the audience from the artificial story, reorient them to real life and reassure them that, pretty soon, they would be going back to that life. It’s like that infinitesimal pause at the top of the roller coaster between the slow, anticipatory climb (Acts I and II) and the heart-stopping plunge (Act III).

I suspect what has happened to that pause to degenerate it into Dead Kitten speeches is that writers have lost track of the original purpose of that 7/10ths pause and instead far too often use it as a place to insert back story that we can’t figure any other way to work in. Maybe we need to try going back to the original purpose.

Did my book have a pause in it on or about page 250? Actually, it did, right on page 250. Two characters took a several paragraph detour to discuss duty and honor, and to speculate about being a little nervous about how everything would work out. Just proves you can write classical drama without having a clue that you were doing it.
Quote for the week:
Huddie Ledbetter, also known as Leadbelly, said: You take a knife, you use it to cut bread, so you’ll have strength to work; you use it to shave, so you’ll look nice for your lover; on discovering her with another, you use it to cut out her lying heart. … So the dramatist, the blues writer in us, seizes upon the knife as both embodying and witnessing the interchange, subtly changing its purpose through the course of the drama. The knife becomes, in effect, congruent to the bass line in music.
~David Mamot, 3 Uses of the Knife: on the Nature and Purpose of Drama


Julia Buckley said...

How interesting, Sharon! I'm afraid I don't dissect my work this way as often as I should. It's so hard to be clinical about one's creation, and yet so necessary!!

Victoria Hamilton said...

This is fascinating, and I'm going right now to figure out if I've done it! I'm intrigued.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

LOL, Sharon. I was absolutely sure you were going to be wrong, and you were right. At the dead kitten point in DEATH WILL EXTEND YOUR VACATION, the book for which I've just signed a contract, Bruce has a soliloquy about how he went on driving without a license after he got sober and how guilty he feels about letting his friends Jimmy and Barbara down by driving their car without telling them. It's not long, and it reflects on something that just happened in the story--but it's there.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Ha! Just did the exercise with my YA historical suspense ms about Columbus and Diego, the protagonist of my story "The Green Cross." No dead kitten. No soliloqy. No backstory. It's all dialogue and action--even though it falls in the part that I didn't need to rewrite three times. Could I possibly be learning how to write suspense? Finally?

Anonymous said...

Julia, I think of this more as a diagnostic tool. If I've got a part that isn't going well --- like the part Elizabeth had to rewrite three times --- and it's about 7/10ths of the way to the end, I can ask myself if this is a dead kitten speech.

So, Victoria, how did it go?

Elizabeth, I be you did have something in there before the three re-writes. Of course you know how to write suspense.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Interesting - I've never heard of the phrase, or the phenomenon. I'll have to check my work!