First the Words

Ask Rafael Lima, award-winning author, what the secret to his success has been, and he just might respond with a joke. So there's this priest holding services at church, when a flood crashes through. Someone in a station wagon drives up to offer help. Thank you, says the priest, but God will protect me. Then a Good Samaritan in a canoe paddles by. Again the priest says, God will protect me. A helicopter soon hovers overhead. God will protect me, the priest screams above the roar of the propellers. So the drowned priest walks through the pearly gates, somewhat annoyed, wringing the water out of his collar, and he tells God: I thought you were gonna protect me. To which God responds, I sent you a station wagon, a canoe, and a helicopter, for chrissakes! What do you want from me?

Lima gets more than a chuckle from this little gem. "It exemplifies the whole art of dramatic storytelling," he says. It's got conflict: We want to find out whether God will save the stubborn priest. And it's got three acts that build to a resolution. Hamlet it ain't, but Lima explains that the old priest-drowning-in-the-flood joke has all the basic ingredients of a good story: a guy with a problem and a punch line that rings with a rim shot.

That's the sort of quirky wisdom Lima and a host of other accomplished writers will share at a series of workshops being sponsored by the University of Miami this weekend. The Dramatic Writing Workshops, one of the attractions of the school's first Communication Week, will cover techniques for composing plays, novels, short stories, literary nonfiction, and scripts for both the big and small screens. Those with sturdy egos can bring in short samples of their work for critiquing. "Anyone can attend," says Lima, who has won three Drama Critics Circle Awards for his plays, "from the 80-year-old retiree who always wanted to write a novel but has never been encouraged, to the 18-year-old kid who wants to make a movie but doesn't know how to start."

The heaviest hitter at the workshops will be Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee. Other lecturers include David Isaacs, an Emmy Award-winning sitcom writer; Paul Lazarus, who has produced six major movies; Fred D'Aguiar, past winner of the Whitbread Prize for Fiction; and Evelyn Mayerson, a novelist and playwright who teaches creative writing at UM.

Aspiring scribes might be wondering whether they can really learn to write the Great American Novel, or even the Movie of the Week, at literary jam sessions like UM's -- or is that a gift that you're born with? "Talent helps," Lima says, "but writing well is about learning the craft." For Lima, weaving a compelling story depends on emphasizing characters struggling toward goals. "Conflict, conflict, and more conflict," he notes. "That's the basis of all good dramatic writing.... In Moby Dick they want to kill the whale. In The Usual Suspects the good guys and bad guys want to kill each other. In The Piano they want that piano."

For David Isaacs, who has written episodes of The Simpsons and Frasier, character is the most powerful tool of the storyteller. The key to creating believable ones is to imagine them richly beforehand, letting the story unfold around their personalities. "Give them three dimensions," he instructs. "Give them a full background, a physical, psychological ,and sociological structure.... Steep yourself in them, and make them real people."

In addition to learning about the mechanics of spinning a good yarn, amateur writers also can pick up practical tips on breaking into the business. How do you find an agent? How do you get screenplays and manuscripts noticed by producers and publishers? The pros will explain not only how to write the story but also how to sell it. Isaacs, though, points out that the most valuable lesson that budding Hemingways will learn is that they can't become great writers by sitting through workshops. "Practice is more important than anything else," he says. "The only way to learn this stuff is by trial and error at home. The more you write, the better you get."

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Alex Salinas