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
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.
By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 13, 2016
Here we are, getting set to plunge in on our first draft.
The Golden Gate bridge. Our story’s spine should be as simple and as strong as this.
But what do we do before that?
We said a couple of weeks ago that our first question to ourselves, pre-pre-first draft, should be:
“What’s the genre?”
Okay, great. Let’s say that we’ve done that. We know our genre. Our story, we’ve determined, is a sci-fi action-adventure. Or maybe it’s a love story. Or a Western combined with a supernatural thriller.
Good enough. We’ve got that covered.
For our answer, let’s refer back to Paul (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull”) Schrader’s excellent guidelines for pitching:
Have a strong early scene, preferably the opening, a clear but simple spine to the story, one or two killer scenes, and a clear sense of the evolution of the main character or central relationship. And an ending. Any more gets in the way.
Ah, “ … spine to the story.”
Let’s call that our second question to ourselves.
“What is our story’s spine?”
(Myself, I think of this in slightly different terms. I think of it as “Beginning, Middle, End.” “Act One, Act Two, Act Three.” “Hook, Build, Payoff.“)
No worries, it’s all the same thing. We’re asking ourselves “What’s the backbone of our story? What narrative architecture supports our tale from beginning to end?”
For our purposes now [pre-pre-first draft], this doesn’t have to be much. It can be as simple as this:
Ahab sets out after Moby Dick. Ahab chases Moby Dick around the globe. Ahab catches up with Moby Dick and fights him to the death.
Harry and Sally are best friends but not lovers. Harry and Sally begin to realize that they’re in love with each other. Harry and Sally become friends and lovers.
Why can this part of our pre-pre-first draft (our Foolscap file) be so simple? Because all we really need to assure ourselves of at this stage is, “Will this idea work as a story? Does it have a beginning, a middle and an end? Does it go somewhere? If we can write enough strong scenes adhering to this narrative spine, will a reader be hooked at the start, have her interest held through the middle, and feel satisfied emotionally and intellectually at the end?”
That’s the job of the story’s spine.
If we can answer yes to all the questions above, that’s all we need at this point.
The Terminator comes back from the Skynet machines-versus-humans future to kill Sara Conner (who will be the mother of John Conner, the brilliant rebel leader who will fight Skynet in the future). Sara Conner and Reese (a fighter sent back in time by the embattled rebels in the future) flee from the Terminator as they themselves fall in love and plant the seeds of John Conner. Sara and Reese battle the Terminator to the death and, for the moment at least, defeat him.
That’s a great spine, a strong and sturdy Act One, Act Two, Act Three. If we’ve got that much at this early stage, we are doing great.
So, to recap …
Our pre-pre first draft now has established answers to two questions. One, “What’s the genre?” And two, “What’s the story’s spine?”
That’s a lot.
We’re rolling now.
We can feel very good about ourselves because we’re working as professionals and not as amateurs. We’re laying the groundwork for what is to come—the stable, strong foundation of the edifice. We are setting ourselves up to succeed and not to fail.
Next week we’ll address Question #3 of our pre-pre first draft—a subject we’ve examined before:
“What’s the story’s theme? What is it about?”
By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 6, 2016
We were talking last week about The Big Lebowski being a film in the Private Eye genre. But what really makes Lebowski so inventive and so interesting is it’s a mixed genre. It’s a Slacker/Stoner tale (like Dazed and Confused, Go, Clerks, or any Cheech and Chong movie) conceived, structured, and executed as a Detective Story.
Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski. “Now this feller, the Dude … I think he figgered out something new.”
What does this mean for you and me as writers?
It means that mixing genres is one of the most canny and fun tricks we can pull to come up with something new and fresh and exciting.
Mix the Private Detective genre with Sci-Fi and you get Blade Runner.
Combine it with a Geezer Pic and you get The Late Show, starring Art Carney and Lily Tomlin.
Blend it with historical fiction and you get The Name of the Rose.
But let’s dig a little deeper into The Big Lebowski. The concept of the film is this:
Let’s tell a story that hits all the beats [conventions] of a Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe Private Eye Story, but instead of having a hard-bitten detective as the hero we’ll have a sweet, lovable stoner.
How does that pay off for the writers, Joel and Ethan Coen? It pays off because this simple creative twist—stoner instead of film-noir private eye—makes every character and line of dialogue feel original and inventive. Each scene gives the filmmakers an angle to make a fresh point about America, about popular culture, about how things have changed in the past generation or two.
Consider this comparison:
Here’s Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes in an obligatory moment from Chinatown—the scene we see in every Detective Story, where the private eye defends his actions against the dissatisfaction of his employer (in this case Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray).
“I like my nose. I like breathing through it.”
Okay, go home. But in case you’re interested your husband was murdered. Somebody’s dumping tons of water out of the city reservoirs when we’re supposedly in the middle of a drought. He found out, and he was killed. There’s a waterlogged drunk in the morgue—involuntary manslaughter if anybody wants to take the trouble which they don’t. It looks like half the city is trying to cover it all up, which is fine with me. But, Mrs. Mulwray … I goddam near lost my nose! And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think you’re hiding something.
That’s old-school hard-boiled Private Eye lingo. Now here’s the Dude from The Big Lebowski hitting the same beat in the back seat of a stretch limo, confronted by his pissed-off employer, the actual “Big Lebowski”:
Look, man, I’ve got certain information … uh … certain things have come to light. Uh … has it ever occurred to you, man, that instead of running around … uh … blaming me. It could be … uh, uh, uh … a lot more complex. It might not be such a … uh … simple … you know? I’ve got information, man. New shit has come to light!
” … information has come to light, man!”
Chinatown was set in 1937 (although it was actually made in 1974.) Lebowski is basically present-day, though it was released in 1998.
Has America changed in those fifty years? Are people different? Have styles-of-being evolved? I daresay we’d have to search long and hard to find a better (or more hysterical) side-by-side comparison than that depicted in these two scenes.
That’s the payoff for us writers when we combine genres. Everything old becomes new. Everything familiar becomes fresh.
Mixing genres works in all fields and almost always produces something interesting. Blend a sports car with a muscle car and you get a Corvette. Mix the same vehicle with a luxury sedan and you get a Porsche Panamera. Combine a panel truck with a car and you get a minivan.
It works just as well with swimsuits and salads and popular music.
Think about using this for your own stuff.
Genre A + Genre Z = New Genre AZ.