Week 3 – Playing CLOSAT

“Novice writers often feel that nothing worth writing about has really happened to them. This leaves them feeling inadequate to develop story ideas, plots, or story structures. The temptation is to emulate the style of an admired writer or director, and to work from the outside inward. I believe, however, that once you reach your teens you have already seen at least a minor version of almost everything that life can offer. Directly or indirectly you have experienced victory, defeat, love, hate, being thrown out of Eden, death—everything.”

Michael Rabiger

In last week’s compilation Michael Rabiger and his book >Developing Story Ideas< did not appear, simply because I wanted to dedicate a whole chapter to him this week. First and foremost I want to talk about CLOSAT, a game to find story ideas, best played in small groups with index cards. As we proceed we will pimp it up a little bit and we will also play the game a little bit differently.

So what does CLOSAT stand for?

  • C = description of Characters who could be used in a story.
  • L = interesting and visual Location.
  • O = curious or evocative Object.
  • S = loaded or revealing Situation.
  • A = unusual or revealing Act.
  • T = any Theme that intrigues you or that you see embodied in life.

From here Michael Rabiger is getting more into detail concerning the six letters, he is also giving some examples:

Uncle James (C) – Has half an index finger. Holds his vodka bottle with pride and is rejuvenated by the first sip. Walks with a slight stagger. Most people know him. Some wave. Couldn’t care less about others’ perceptions of him. Has insightful conversations and is reliable for a good laugh. A tattered survivor living mostly in the streets. Needs a hug on occasion. Lonely eyes.

Somebody’s Black Glove (O)Black leather, dulled from harsh conditions, lying lonely in the gutter. Thumb and forefinger worn so low that barely a translucent skin has survived. Charcoal ashes coat the crevices between the fingers; the smell of peanut butter emanates from the whole glove.

The Uncrowded Restaurant (L) – The walls are all painted a very light pink. There is only one huge window, which shows all the cabs driving on Third Avenue. Long, thin mirrors cover the other wall. The waiters, all wearing black vests and white shirts, sit at the table nearest the kitchen. They look bored. The sound of the street is all that can be heard.

His starting point for the game are personal journal observations that are then translated into the six categories. But in the end this is not needed. You can actually start from scratch. I’ve been playing this game many times in groups from 2-6 with teachers from all over Europe. I think there are many ways you can actually play it. And even more: Instead of just ending up with a story idea it can even lead you to a three to four page exposé depending on how far you wanna go.

Before we proceed let us first pimp up CLOSAT a little bit, let’s bring in an extra card:

  • J = Joker

This card can give your story idea process a surprising twist, a new angle / perspective, a new layer. Especially when you are stuck. I normally ad at least three Joker cards:

  • At the same time, somewhere else …
  • Things are not as they seem!
  • 10 days / months / years before

So how do we play the game?

Each player gets 12 index cards. Front side: Write the corresponding CLOSAT letter in the centre and your initials in one corner of the card.

  • Three cards with a C
  • Two cards with a L
  • Two cards with an O
  • Two cards with a S
  • Two cards with an A
  • One card with a T

On the back side you now write your description. Maximum three to four lines. Be precise! Not too little and not too much, but enough to get your imagination started. As you’ve seen above – e.g. the Uncle James (C) card – Rabiger’s descriptions are very “elaborated”. For me this is too much. It’s not helping me in my creative process. Furthermore the information given is often needless while other for me important things – to visualize The Uncrowded Restaurant (L) – are missing:

  • What is the interior design of the restaurant? Old style, hipster, modern, pizzeria …?
  • Social profile: Low class or upper class customers?
  • Age structure: Retired people from the neighborhood, business people, youngsters …?
  • How is the light inside? During the day, at night?

I find it helpful that especially for the characters you already bring in some possible drama or even conflict. E.g. “A catholic priest – 43 asian – thinking about leaving church – he has an affair with a married woman.” You can use the whole information right from the start or only later, little by little when wanted. It is up to you.

So let’s proceed. In a group of four we now should have 48 cards. Plus three Joker cards makes together 51 cards. From here there are different ways to play the game. First you have to decide whether you wanna put all shuffled cards together in one big pile, a hat, a box or whether you keep them separated, the seven piles of cards lying on a table next to each other: C – L – O – S – A – T – J

Rabiger recommends to start with two or three cards from the Character pile and one or two each from the Location and Object piles. His process is always the same:

  • A selection of cards is made. He often starts with only Character, Object and Location.
  • They are put on the table next to each other.
  • Some time (often 10 minutes) is given to come up with a story.
  • The story is presented.
  • Then the game starts all over again.

I normally play the game with my participants with no preparation time at all. We play it in two different ways:

  1. We have only one pile with all the cards – apart from the Joker cards. The one on top is taken and if you like it, if you connect with it, put on the table. If not put it back into the pile (at the bottom). A soon as you have at least two or three cards try to come up with a story sprout. Sometimes I leave a card on the table – I put the card aside a little – although I don’t really see the connection, the idea at the moment. But I see the potential of the card – that’s why I keep it for now … and come back to it later.
  2. The seven piles of cards are lying on the table next to each other, as mentioned above: C – L – O – S – A – T – J. When it’s you turn you can decide which card from which pile you wanna draw. You can also use a die: Instead of the numbers put the six letters CLOSAT on it.

This applies to both versions: The more cards you have on the table, the more complex the story idea is getting, the more possibilities you have to adapt, to rearrange or even change the story. But sometimes it just helps you to give more depths to the characters, the actions, the background story. The person who is drawing a new card is immediately trying to integrate it into the story idea. Everything is work in progress. The more cards you have – arrange them from left to right – the more they can give you the idea of a timeline.

The pile with the Joker cards should always be separated. After you’ve been playing the game for some time – there should be at least 10 cards on the table – it’s up to you whether you wanna use it or not.

So what is the game’s value? According to Rabiger you’ll learn:

  • To see your intuition at work and to trust its abilities.
  • How to sketch fast. Sketching is valuable to writers as well as to graphic artists.
  • That every story comes with problems that invite solving.
  • That each story suggests its own form, and that this can be usefully discussed.
  • That each story can be extended.

Enjoy the game!

The films of this week are mostly about the process of filmmaking. How difficult it can be, but also how easy. Not much is needed in the end. And Angela Schanelec is a German director, who is also working mainly with non-actors. Locations play an important role in her films.

Your turn!

Play the CLOSAT game. Record all the sessions audio-wise with your mobile or an audio recorder.

Films to watch

Shane Carruth

  • Upstream Color (2013) IMDB

Peter Delpeut

  • The Forbidden Quest (1993) IMDB

Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe

  • Lost in La Mancha (2002) IMDB

Derek Jarman

  • The Garden (1990) IMDB

Chris Marker

  • La jetée (1962) IMDB

Geoff Murphy

  • The Quiet Earth (1985) IMDB

Mami Sunada

  • The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013) IMDB

Lars von Trier

  • The Five Obstructions (2003) IMDB

Agnes Varda

  • The Gleaners & I (2000) IMDB

Peter Wintonick

  • Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (2000) IMDB