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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

A Man With a Code

By Steven Pressfield
Published: July 20, 2016

 

Call this post “Dudeology #3,” as we continue our exploration of The Big Lebowski, with an eye specifically to the writing of first drafts.

A Dude with a Code

A Dude with a Code

We were talking in a couple of previous posts about the preparatory questions a writer asks himself or herself before the first word of a first draft goes onto paper. For me, the first two are:

  1. “What genre am I writing in?”
  2. “What’s the story’s spine, i.e. its ‘narrative highway’ from Act One through Act Two to Act Three?”

The third question for me is, “What’s the theme? What is my story about?

Which brings us back to the Dude.

I have no idea what Lebowski’s creators, Joel and Ethan Coen, would say their theme is. My own take may be wildly different from theirs. But here’s my shot:

 

Never underestimate a man with a code.

 

The Dude, though it might not seem like it on first viewing, is a man with a code. A code of honor. In that, he’s just like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade or Jake Gittes (since Lebowski’s genre-DNA is, way more than fifty percent, that of a Private Eye Story.)

Here’s Raymond Chandler on the subject from The Simple Art of Murder (1944):

 

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”

 

I know The Big Lebowski is hysterically funny, and the Dude is one of the outstanding comic creations of the past couple of decades. But comedies, more even than more “serious” fare, must be seated in solid dramatic soil.

Consider the Dude’s character as a man with a code.

The Dude is kind. He’s capable of empathy for others (his demented landlord, the kidnapped Bunny, Maude the troubled daughter, even the Big Lebowski himself). He believes in justice. Someone stole his carpet; he wants it returned intact. (“It tied the whole room together, man!”) He lost the money entrusted to him; he feels an obligation to get it back. Despite his buddy John Goodman’s non-stop provocations to act unscrupulously (“A toe? I can get you a toe, Dude!”), the Dude remains honorable and relentless. He’s on the case. And his code is what sees him through to the end.

Even the Dude’s past, like Bogie’s in Casablanca, is replete with hints to his integrity.

 

DUDE

I was one of the authors of the Port Huron statement. The first draft … not the compromised second. Remember the Seattle Seven? That was me.

 

Okay. How does this help you and me as we embark on the first draft of our new novel/screenplay/videogame/whatever?

  1. If we know our theme, we know our hero. The hero, remember, embodies the theme.
  2. If we know our theme, we know our villain. The villain personifies the counter-theme.
  3. If we know our theme, we know (roughly) our climax. In the climax, recall, hero and villain clash over the issue of the theme.

Consider, on this subject, our hero’s name.

“The Dude” is not just Jeffrey Lebowski’s moniker, it’s his identity as the filmmakers intend it. “Dude” is the generic term for a male in a certain American culture. We greet friends with “Hey, dude!” “Dude” is the equivalent of “guy” or “man.”

In other words, the Dude is Everyman.

He’s you or me.

Which brings us back to the idea of a Man With A Code.

In many ways, this conception is the pre-eminent theme in American books and movies. The archetypal American hero from George Washington to Davy Crockett to Atticus Finch is a man with a code.

Pick a hero in any Western.

In any cop story or detective story.

Even in a gangster saga (perhaps most of all in a gangster saga.)

They will always be men (or women) with a code.

Isn’t this idea, in fact, the central identity (or self-identity) of the United States? Isn’t that how we see ourselves, as individuals and as a nation?

Yeah, we may be fat and lazy. We may pursue our creature comforts a little too zealously. We may be shallow, we may be ill-informed; we may have our priorities all screwed up.

But down deep we believe in right and wrong and if you push us far enough, we’ll actually act on these beliefs.

That’s the Dude.

That’s our hero.

That’s us.

The Coen brothers played this idea back to us in a zany, stoned (“Look out, man! There’s a beverage here!”) vodka-Kahlua-and-cream way. But the underlying theme was dead serious and the story was as red-white-and-blue as Bogie and Bacall and as American as apple pie.

 


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What It Takes

What It Takes

How To Pitch: You Had Me At Hello

By Callie Oettinger | Published: July 22, 2016

Jerry Maguire“Hello,” worked for Jerry Maguire, helping him win back his girl.

For pitching, if someone says, “You had me at hello,” it means you’ve won a place in the trashcan instead of in that person’s heart.

The pitch below is an example of a recent “Hello/Hi” pitch sent to Steve. It’s followed by a mark-up pointing out areas to avoid if you find yourself making similar pitches one of these days.

Hi,

My name is Xxx Xxx and I am the social media manager of Xxx Competition. Established in 2012, we are one of the fastest growing Xxx competitions and I am getting in touch to see if you would like to join us in some cross-promotion over the summer/autumn.

2016 is a big year for us, as we have already announced the 1st winner of the new Xxx, Xxx Xxx’s ‘Xxx’, and as the film goes into production we are busy expanding our Judging panel for our new Xxx category. Leading lights of the TV industry join our existing Feature and Short Script Judges, Xxx, Xxx, and 22 other Oscar, Emmy, Cannes, and BAFTA winners, to make up the most distinguished panel of judges of any screenwriting contest in the world.

Our competition is all about launching new writing careers. Xxx is unique in that our objective is to get winning scripts into the hands of those who can get them produced. Proof of our commitment can be seen in our alumni successes. Xxx was a winner with ‘Xxx’, which was produced as a feature starring Xxx. This year, Xxx, a 2013 winner went on to win this year’s Xxx.

We want to create more winners, and to do that, we want to reach out to as many new screenwriters and filmmakers as possible. We’d like to talk to your followers and tell our followers about you.

We’re open to any cross-promotion ideas and we can offer discounted competition entry rates, Facebook mentions & Twitter tweets, Instagram contests, original articles, and email blasts. We would be happy to reciprocate by promoting your announcements and events, so do get in contact if you feel like there could be an opportunity for us to work together.

Thanks for taking the time to read this email. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best,

Here’s the mark-up:
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What It Takes

What It Takes

Would you read the next sentence?

By Shawn Coyne | Published: July 15, 2016

10. There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.

9. Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.

8. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

7. They shoot the white girl first.

6. I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.

5. Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.

4. The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.

3. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

2. Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.

1. Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. —


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