Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Nobody Knows Nothing, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 24, 2014

We were talking last week about how hard it is to evaluate material, particularly your own.

Not even Quentin Tarantino knows everything.

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?

Instinct.

Feel.

Gut response.

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?

Nobody knows.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

8 Responses to “Nobody Knows Nothing, Part Two”

  1. September 24, 2014 at 6:39 am

    “Story structure” facilitates communication between writer and reader. Structure may or may not be written into our DNA, but it’s at least embedded in our culture.

    It’s also a tool for an artist attempting to bring order to the chaos of creation.

    “Cloud Atlas”, or the work of Tarantino, may transcend traditional structure, but those artists offer us some way to access their content.

    Monsieur Eiffel understood engineering.

  2. September 24, 2014 at 7:03 am

    It’s relatively easy to say, “this story doesn’t work.” It is much harder to say why.

    You gut instincts are formed; you weren’t born knowing how to write, or how to improve stories.

    Most people end up writing something near what they like to read, which is why, “write what you want to read, and can’t find” is my mantra.

    Otherwise, I’d get my stories much faster by reading someone who writes what I want, exactly.

    When you read things you like, you absorb their structure because you like the results. But when the impulse to write results in your first novel, and what you’ve written isn’t as close to what you like to read as you thought the story in your head was, you head for the craft and find out how to make it so.

    That self-analysis can be speeded up if you find the right teacher or the right book.

    And, in your writing, if you find the right structure.

    It’s like juggling: it takes practice. Or rather, it IS juggling.

    • September 24, 2014 at 4:06 pm

      Great way to put it! Writing is juggling.

  3. September 24, 2014 at 7:13 am

    I now tend to look at things from the relationship of LOGIC vs EMOTION. Logic is the organizing element, the procedure that has been shown to work throughout the ages. Emotion is the raw rule-breaking power, the wildcard, the intangible aspect that grabs us and we can’t explain why.

    All our work should be charged with emotion because that’s what attracts others to our cause. But in order to make our work last it must contain a backbone of logic to it. My own opinion is that emotion(unplanned energy) is always the starting point, and is more important.

    To build a skyscraper it takes Emotion to attract others to your cause, because it takes hundreds of engineers and workers to lay the beams and bricks. BUT it requires logic and physics to make sure the building is still standing 10 years from now.

  4. Mary Doyle
    September 24, 2014 at 7:22 am

    I think the flip side of “nobody knows nothing” is that “everybody knows more than they realize,” referring to that all-important instinct that artists have about the work. I learned a lot from reading McKee’s “Story.” It helped me identify where I was getting off track, but I was also reassured that I was “on track” in a lot of ways, that following my gut response is something I can trust.

  5. Christine
    September 24, 2014 at 10:28 am

    “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded.
    Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed. ”
    – L. Cohen

  6. Sonja
    September 24, 2014 at 10:58 am

    Good stuff as usual.

    I think any art takes a giant leap of faith, and love for the project. How else could we sit behind the keyboard and pound our heads against it, day in and day out? That being said, my story also needs structure or I’m wildly writing myself into dead-end alleys. (I’m a plotter/outliner all the way).

    To echo Alicia’s comment: I write because I love stories, but my particular story is the one I haven’t found yet that I’d love to read…And the beauty of creation is also what keeps me going.

    Of note: my favorite books that rocked my world: The Help, by Stockett (I cried at the end), The Racketeer by Grisham (amazing hook) and Gone Girl by Flynn (what a twist!). These books humble me and inspire me.

  7. September 25, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Hugh Howey gives The War of Art a great push on his website. He also posted this http://www.hughhowey.com/a-squid-a-pebble-or-a-policeman/ which is exactly what you are saying Steve. Hope you enjoy.

    Gary Dennis