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.
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:
- “What genre am I writing in?”
- “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.
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?
- If we know our theme, we know our hero. The hero, remember, embodies the theme.
- If we know our theme, we know our villain. The villain personifies the counter-theme.
- 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.
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.
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
ADDITIONAL READING » WARFARE: ANCIENT AND MODERN
by Kilcullen, David
by Douglas, Keith
Douglas was a poet fresh out of Oxford who served (and was killed) with the armoured forces under Montgomery, when the British finally overcame Rommel after years of being out-ranged, out-gunned and out-generaled. Douglas’ keen and jaundiced eye misses little. This isn’t the most polished book, but it is immediate and authentic as hell.
by Sun Tzu
by Rommel, Erwin
This is from the Desert Fox—before he became the Desert Fox. Rommel recounts his experiences as a young infantry officer in World War I. Studied to this day by our Army and Marines, this book gives new meaning to the phrase “balls of steel.”
by Halberstam, David
by Danelo, David
Blood Stripes is Danelo’s account of infantry actions fought by Marines in Fallujah and Husaybah in 2004, recounted from the point of view of NCOs he knew and fought alongside. Great stuff!
by Coram, Robert
Fascinating true saga of the misunderstood genius who introduced the concept of Maneuver Warfare to the contemporary armed services—and paid the price.
by McNab, Andy
Ripping, high-testosterone (and true) yarn of a British SAS patrol dropped behind the lines during the first Gulf War. Told by its leader, the most-decorated soldier in the British Army, as of his discharge in 1993.
by Crisp, Robert
A bit hard to find, but worth it if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fight tank battles in the North African desert. Terrific first-person non-fiction, about the British Seventh Armoured Division dueling Rommel and the Afrika Korps in WWII. What I love about books like these is not just the “ripping yarn” aspect or the vivid details or the sense of absolute authenticity and authority, all of which are here in spades, but the feeling you get for the man himself. Both this book and the one by Cyril Joly (Crisp and Joly were friends) let you into the minds and hearts of these tremendously admirable, flesh-and-blood humans, with their senses of humor, despair—everything.
by Galula, David
by Moorehead, Alan
Simply indispensable. Classic stuff by the Aussie war correspondent who could scribble a note on a cocktail napkin and make it fascinating. See also his African Trilogy.
by Maclean, Fitzroy
You would think, being a novelist, that I would like to read novels. But I much prefer memoirs. I love the characters of the writers, particularly when they’re not professionals. Fitzroy Maclean was stuck in the Foreign Service on the brink of WWII and wanted to go to war; the only way the government would let him was if he became a Member of Parliament. So he did. It gets better from there, including desert service with the SAS and all kinds of mad adventures in the Balkans, the Orient, Afghanistan.
by Sajer, Guy
Possibly the best book to come out of World War II. Horrific, ghastly, true-life memoir of a young German infantryman and his kamaraden as they fall back, back, back against the unstoppable tide of the Russian Army, from 1943–1945.
by von Manstein, Field Marshal Erich
Another classic. The same story as told in The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, but from the opposite end of the food chain: the supreme German brass. Von Manstein’s private confrontations with Hitler are alone worth the price of the book.
by West, Bing
by von Clausewitz, Carl
by Fick, Nathaniel
The Iraq War by a Dartmouth-educated Recon Marine who was in the first wave into Baghdad. Lean, vivid, fair-minded, by a born writer from whom we will be hearing much more.
by Gant, Jim
The “One Tribe At A Time” series on “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” launched at the end of September 2009, with an excerpt from Major Jim Gant’s paper of the same name. In the following weeks, more excerpts were pulled and discussed, with Jim’s “One Tribe At A Time” released in full about four weeks later. The discussion of Jim’s paper spread from there, and went viral among the policy and military communities in particular.
by Gant, Jim
by Bagnold, Ralph
The founder of WWII’s legendary Long Range Desert Group tells his life story, including all kinds of interesting and unexpected dimensions (his sister wrote National Velvet), including the tale of his landmark scientific paper, “The Physics of Blown Sand.”
by Lawrence, T.E.
by Hammes, Thomas X.
Am I favoring Marines? Not without cause, with this outstanding contemporary introduction to the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare, the kind of post-guerrilla conflict our troops are fighting now—and are likely to keep fighting for decades to come.
by Small Wars Foundation
by West, Bing
by Joly, Lt. Col. Cyril
You’ll have to go way back in the stacks to find this one, but again, it’s worth the trip. Vividly told and superbly detailed account of the British in North Africa, from 1940 to 1942, fighting first the Italians and then Rommel and Panzerarmee Afrika. I love these self-effacing Englishmen, who in real-life performed prodigies of courage and endurance, and yet recount the tale with understated yet passionate brilliance. Like Brazen Chariots, you read this book and wish you could shake hands with the author and say, “Thank you.”
by Ranfurly, Hermione
When Lt. The Honourable Dan Ranfurly went off to war, his wife Hermione followed. (So did Whitaker, Dan’s faithful valet.) Young Lady Ranfurly, whose only marketable skill was a fair hand at the typewriter, talked her way into various clerical and embassy jobs in Cairo and the Middle East, while her young officer husband fought in the desert, got captured by the Afrika Korps, etc. There’s not a dollop of sex in this book, yet it remains one of the great documents of romance, just because of all the hell Hermione goes through to be within a hundred miles of her beloved Dan. When at last they rush into each other’s arms for a fleeting moment on a railway platform and she writes, “Happiness is being together,” there wasn’t a dry eye in my house.