By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 24, 2014
We were talking last week about how hard it is to evaluate material, particularly your own.
How do you tell if your new novel, your start-up, your Cuban-Chinese restaurant is any good? Who can tell you? Whose judgment can you trust?
In the literary/movie field, entire industries have evolved to respond to this need. Robert McKee (full disclosure: my friend) has established himself, among others, as the guru of Story Structure. A vocabulary, from Bob and other analysts, has spread through every studio and production company. “Inciting Incident,” “Second Act Turning Point,” “All Is Lost moment” are phrases that every script reader and development exec knows by heart.
Why? Because they help bring order out of chaos. They shed light on the mysteries of story. Is this book/screenplay working? Why? If something’s wrong, what is it? And how do we fix it?
Story analysis is the industry’s attempt at a diagnostic instrument. Is it art? Is it science? Is it bullshit?
Should you, the writer, study this stuff? Should you craft your stories to suit the guidelines and principles of “story structure?” Will the exercise inhibit you? Will it make you self-conscious, over-analytical? Will it reduce your work to formula?
Should you remain ignorant?
Are you a genius?
Does your gift set you beyond the need to know the principles of your craft?
Here’s my answer in two questions:
1. Who has bent the rules more successfully over the past twenty years than Quentin Tatantino?
2. Who understands the rules better than Quentin Tarantino?
I’m a believer in knowing the rules. You have to be familiar with the vocabulary. You have to understand the conventions of the genre you’re working in, even if (particularly if) it’s a genre that you yourself have just invented.
And yet …
And yet, at the same time, I confess that when I evaluate my own stuff, I’m going by instinct at least 80% of the time. I ask myself, “Is this working?” And I try to answer. Based on what?
Not all the time. But a lot of the time.
And yet, and yet …
And yet we have to keep in mind, always, that Nobody Knows Nothing. Including us.
Science helps. The principles are critical. But in the end the task we’ve set ourselves is aesthetic. We’re seeking to render a subjective judgment. We’re looking at the Eiffel Tower and asking, “Is this beautiful?” We’re watching There’s Something About Mary and inquiring, “Is this funny?”
Who will be the next supermodel? What will be the colors for Fall? Will Transformers VI put asses in the seats?