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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Dude Abides … but in What Genre?

By Steven Pressfield
Published: June 29, 2016

 

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I was talking three weeks ago about the preparatory files I use before plunging in on a first draft. The first file is one I call Foolscap. Here’s the first question I ask myself in that file:

“What’s the genre?”

"She kidnapped herself, man!"

The Dude doing his Philip Marlowe thing

I’m asking, “What kind of book am I writing? Is it a Western? A Love Story? What exactly is the genre of this idea I’m working on?”

I ask this first because it’s the most critical question a writer can ask. And because, once I answer it, I’m halfway home.

At this stage (before the first word of a first draft) I may have only the vaguest notion of what my story is. Maybe I’ve got one character, a few scenes, maybe less than that. I’m groping. I’m like the blind man trying to figure out if he’s working with an elephant.

So I ask first, “What’s the genre?”

Why do I ask this? Because genres have conventions. As soon as I identify the kind of story I’m telling, I automatically have a road map, a blueprint for its shape, its trajectory, and its content.

Consider The Big Lebowski by Joel and Ethan Coen.

I have no idea how the brothers evolved their story but I’ll bet anything they started with “the Dude.” They probably even had Jeff Bridges in mind. My guess is they knew the tone of the movie; they knew it would be zany, wry, deadpan. And they knew the feeling of the scenes they wanted. But I’ll bet that, at first, they weren’t sure exactly what genre, what kind of movie it was. Then …

“OMG, it’s a Private Eye Story! It’s a Detective Movie but instead of a having a hard-bitten Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe type as our hero, we’ll have a lovable, slightly-dim stoner.”

Identifying the genre was the stroke that split the diamond. At one blow, the Coen brothers could see the whole movie.

Why? Again, because genres have conventions. A Private Eye Story has obligatory scenes. Every movie or novel in this genre makes stops at these mandatory stations. The audience would be furious if it didn’t.

Next step for the brothers? Cue up Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, Farewell My Lovely. Watch them or read them with this thought in mind: “What can we steal? What happens to Jack Nicholson, to Bogie, to Robert Mitchum? Whatever that is, we’ll make it happen to the Dude.”

See what I mean about genre?

Once we know what type of story we’re telling, we’ve got half the struggle licked.

But back to Private Eye Stories. What scenes can we count on? What scenes will be in every tale of a gumshoe-for-hire?

  1. He’ll be approached (usually by a rich person) to take on a case.
  2. Halfway through the story, he’ll be hired by another individual (usually intimately connected to the first rich person) to take on an additional case. Both assignments will involve “finding” somebody or some thing.
  3. The hero will become romantically involved with a beautiful woman, usually his client. This liaison will not go well for the hero.
  4. For sure, our detective will get beaten up. Usually more than once.

 

PHILIP MARLOWE

Moose’s skillet-sized fist hit me. A pool of inky blackness

opened at my feet and I tumbled into it …

 

  1. Our hero will have a sidekick or partner, possibly a Peter Lorre-type. This cohort will inevitably get our hero into trouble.
  2. There will be scenes of betrayal, duplicity and mistaken identity.
  3. There will be red herrings and multiple plot twists.
  4. In the end, our hero will actually solve the crime. He and no one else. He will come out on top but, alas, without the girl (and perhaps without his fee, his business, or his sanity.)

The Coen brothers knew these conventions. They understood that these were the sinew and marrow of the Detective Story genre.

So the Dude gets hired by the Rich Guy (the actual “Big Lebowski”), then hired again by his daughter Maude, played by Julianne Moore, who indeed will seduce him for her own nefarious purposes. Beat-ups? The Dude will get pummeled by goons, attacked in his bathtub by nihilists, have his White Russian drugged by Ben Gazzara, the porn gangster. His buddy John Goodman will get him into all kinds of trouble. Together they will chase down numerous red herrings, but, in the end, it will be the Dude and only the Dude who cracks the case.

 

DUDE

She kidnapped herself, man!

 

My favorite scene in The Big Lebowski is, sure enough, a genre-specific convention: the moment when the hero, in bed with the Beautiful Client, reveals his own (surprisingly profound and emphatically on-theme) backstory. Remember that moment in Chinatown? Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes is lying back on the pillow, having just made love to Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray. She asks him how he got into the private detective racket and he tells her he used to “work for the District Attorney” (meaning he was a cop) in L.A.’s Chinatown.

 

JAKE GITTES

You can’t always tell what’s going on there. I thought

I was keeping someone from being hurt and actually I

ended up making sure they were hurt.

 

That scene, for sure, was front-of-mind for Joel and Ethan Coen when they put Jeff Bridges in the post-coital sack with Julianne Moore.

 

MAUDE

Tell me about yourself, Jeffrey.

 

DUDE

Not much to tell.

(tokes on a joint)

I was one of the authors of

the Port Huron Statement. The original … not the

compromised second draft. Did you hear of the Seattle Seven?

That was me … uh … Music business briefly … roadie for

Metallica. Speed of Sound tour. Bunch of assholes …

 

Genre conventions are not “formula.” They’re opportunities for tremendous creativity and fun and depth, as the Coen brothers proved in this and a bunch of other movies.

Before you write a word of your first draft, figure out what genre you’re working in. Then bone up on the conventions of that genre and take it from there.
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Killing Rommel

. . . Killing Rommel is both a captivating history lesson and a rousing guts-'n'-glory saga. GRADE: A-
—Entertainment Weekly
Pressfield has produced a splendid tour de force, one that brings to life the heroism, sacrifice, tragedy, frustration, fear and—yes—thrill of war. It should not be missed by military-history buffs or by anyone who wants a moving reminder of the bravery, ingenuity and sacrifice that ordinary men are capable of when given a cause they believe in.
—Washington Post
BUY THE BOOK: Hardcover | Paperback | Audio

The following excerpts are from the audiobook of Killing Rommel.

The book is read by the Tony Award-winning English actor Alfred Molina. You've seen Mr. Molina in The Da Vinci Code; he played "Doc Ok" in Spiderman 2; he was the village mayor in Chocolat. Fred has appeared in dozens of movies, including the original Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The audiobook was recorded over three days in February 2008 at Media Staff Studios in Los Angeles, directed by Claudia Howard.

Excerpt One: The Mission Briefing

Excerpt One

Our narrator, British Army Lieutenant. R. Lawrence Chapman ("Chap"), recounts his experiences during the North African campaign of WWII. The first ten chapters detail Chap's youth and military training and his service as a tank officer with the Seventh Armoured Division, the famous "Desert Rats."

As this excerpt begins, Chap has been seconded to a top-secret raiding and reconnaissance unit—the Long Range Desert Group—and has trained with them for several weeks at Faiyoum, south of Cairo. The time is mid-summer 1942; Rommel and the German Afrika Korps have routed the British Eighth Army and driven them back to the gates of Alexandria. The fate of North Africa, and possibly the outcome of the entire war, hangs in the balance. In this scene, the outfit is called together and given their mission.

An historical note: other than Chapman, Lt. Warren, Flight Lt. Higge-Evert and Sgt. Collier, all personages in this section are true historical figures, many of them legendary in the annals of British special forces.

Excerpt Two: Beginning the Raid on Rommel

Excerpt Two

The second excerpt is from Chapter 16, about halfway through the book. After an ordeal of crossing the Great Egyptian Sand Sea, the trucks and jeeps of the SAS and the Long Range Desert Group have at last worked their way into the rear of the Afrika Korps and have set up, ready to attempt their penetration of the enemy formation. Suddenly things start to go wrong...

I. "One Man's View of Combat."

Our narrator, British Army Lieutenant. R. Lawrence Chapman ("Chap"), recounts his experiences during the North African campaign of WWII. Chap is writing from London in the mid-1970's, as a civilian -- an editor and publisher -- in his fifties, recalling events of the summer of 1942. His memoir is of his time with a British special forces unit, the Long Range Desert Group.

At the time of the British retreat to El Alamein in summer '42, the Long Range Desert Group had been in business for almost two years. Its raids had destroyed and damaged hundreds of Axis aircraft on the ground and caused thousands of German and Italian troops to be pulled out of the front lines and redeployed to provide rear-area security. The LRDG had acquired a certain swashbuckling glamour. Volunteers queued by the hundreds. Getting in was no cinch however. From one batch of 700 applicants, the LRDG took only twelve. Criteria for selection were less wild and woolly than one might imagine. The group was not seeking buccaneers or assassins; what it wanted was the solid, mature sort--the type of fellow who could think for himself under pressure, work in close quarters with others, and handle extremes not only of danger but of tedium, hardship and privation. The virtues of resourcefulness, self-composure, patience, hardiness and generosity (not to mention a sense of humour) were prized as highly as those of bravery, aggressiveness, or raw martial rigor.

In this I believe the LRDG was spot on. One of the factors that has kept me until now from writing of my own experiences under fire is the uneasiness I have felt about the genre of war literature. Tales of heroes, the nobility of sacrifice and so forth have always left me cold. They run counter to my experience. From what I've seen, the operations of war are constituted less of glorious attacks and valiant defences and more of an ongoing succession of mundane and often excruciating balls-ups. The patrol of which I write, typical of so many, achieved little heroic beyond its own survival, save at the very end, and then less by military or tactical brilliance than by luck and its protagonists' stubborn, even mulish refusal to quit. Those actions of its men which may legitimately claim the name of gallantry came about largely from attempts at self-extrication from peril, most of which trouble we got into ourselves by our own overzealousness, and the main of which were performed either in the heat of instinct or the frenzy of blood terror. The men who performed these heroics often could not recall them in the aftermath. Let me say this about courage in combat. In my experience valour in action counts for far less than simply performing one's commonplace task without cocking it up. This is by no means as simple as it sounds. In many ways it's the most difficult thing in the world. Certainly for every glorious death memorialised in despatches, one could count twenty others that were the product of fatigue, confusion, inattention, over- or underassertion of authority, panic, timidity, hesitation, honest errors or miscalculations, mishaps and accidents, collisions, mechanical breakdowns, lost or forgotten spare parts, intelligence deficiencies, mistranslated codes, late or inadequate medical care, not to say bollocksed-up orders (or the failure to grasp and implement proper orders), misdirected fire from one's own troops or allies, and general all-around muddling, sometimes the fault of the dead trooper himself. The role of the officer in my experience is nothing grander than to stand sentinel over himself and his men, towards the end of keeping them from forgetting who they are and what their objective is, how to get there, and what equipment they're supposed to have when they arrive. Oh, and getting back. That's the tricky part. Such success as the Long Range Desert Group enjoyed may be credited in no small measure to the superior leadership of Colonel Ralph Bagnold and Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Prendergast, its founder and follow-on OC, for whom the applications of preparation and thoroughness far surpassed those of courage and intrepidity.

Autumn, 1942. Hitler's legions have swept across Europe; France has fallen; Churchill and the English are isolated on their island. In North Africa, Rommel and his Panzers have routed the British Eighth Army and stand poised to overrun Egypt, Suez, and the oilfields of the Middle East. With the outcome of the war hanging in the balance, the British hatch a desperate plan -- send a small, highly mobile, and heavily armed force behind German lines to strike the blow that will stop the Afrika Korps in its tracks.

Narrated from the point of view of a young lieutenant, Killing Rommel brings to life the flair, agility, and daring of this extraordinary secret unit, the Long Range Desert Group. Stealthy and lethal as the scorpion that serves as their insignia, they live by their motto—Non Vi Sed Arte (Not by Strength, by Guile)—as they gather intelligence, set up ambushes, and execute raids. Killing Rommel chronicles the tactics, weaponry, and specialized skills needed for combat under extreme desert conditions. And it captures the camaraderie of this "band of brothers" as they perform the acts of courage and cunning crucial to the Allies' victory in North Africa.

Killing Rommel powerfully renders the drama and intensity of warfare, the bonds of men in close combat, and the surprising human emotions and frailties that come into play on the battlefield. A vivid and authoritative depiction of the desert war, Killing Rommel brilliantly dramatizes an aspect of World War II that hasn't been in the limelight since Patton.

"Pressfield has produced a splendid tour de force, one that brings to life the heroism, sacrifice, tragedy, frustration, fear and—yes—thrill of war. It should not be missed by military-history buffs or by anyone who wants a moving reminder of the bravery, ingenuity and sacrifice that ordinary men are capable of when given a cause they believe in."
—Washington Post
"If you're ancient enough to have watched "The Rat Patrol", the TV series from the 60s (guilty as charged), you know about the Long Range Desert Group. These brave lads were charged with getting behind enemy lines in North Africa to track down Germany's Field Rommel. Despite the titillating title, killing the elusive Desert Fox wasn't so easy. Steven Pressfield's well-written fiction memoir (by a literate British lieutenant named Chapman) is surprisingly contemplative, more a coming-of-age tale than a thriller. But gearheads will love every vehicular snafu, and the one pulse-racing battle sequence—when Chapman's patrol is shot up during a surprise encounter with the enemy—is worth the wait."
—USA Today
"A rookie English soldier in World War II joins the elite Long Range Desert Group in North Africa for a clandestine operation to try to assassinate the legendary leader of Axis forces, Erwin 'The Desert Fox' Rommel. Movie Pitch: Band of Brothers meets Lawrence of Arabia. Lowdown: the Brutality of modern warfare and the bravery of troops on both sides of the conflict seep through every page. Killing Rommel is both a captivating history lesson and a rousing guts-'n'-glory saga. GRADE: A-"
—Entertainment Weekly
"This is a first-class war adventure…"
—Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice

"Author Steven Pressfield has forged a considerable reputation as a historical novelist, focusing on the more ancient civilizations. His 1998 novel, Gates of Fire, about the 300 Spartans who defended Thermopylae against an overwhelming number of Xerxes' troops in 480 B.C., helped inspire a whole new wave of interest in that heroic encounter. Now he turns his sights on the desert war of World War II and the formidable talents of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the so-called 'Desert Fox.'

"Pressfield has never been shy about sharing his vast knowledge of ancient weaponry and now, moving to the era of World War II, he hasn't lost a step or a spear. And yet he's smart enough not to allow didactics to get in the way of good drama. While the weapons have changed greatly, the men in the trenches haven't, and few writers handle the intense camaraderie of fighting men better than Pressfield. The desert itself emerges as a character, as in this passage where Chap muses on its timelessness and his relationship to it. 'I am an ordinary Englishmen, barely out of my university years. Yet here I sit, in the vastness of the African night, surrounded by mates who could have stepped from Caesar's legions or Alexander's phalanx.'

"As you ride in the tanks with the men toward the conclusion of the novel, you come to realize that what happens to Rommel doesn't really matter. The German commander is respected on both sides for his gentlemanly behavior toward troops. He refuses to execute POWs or Jews, earning the wrath of Hitler and sealing his own fate. No, it's what happens to the men we've come to know through Pressfield's masterly characterizations that has become so vital."
—Bookpage
"After five novels about conflict in ancient times (Gates of Fire, etc.), Pressfield effortlessly gives fresh life to wartime romance and the rigors of combat in a superior WWII thriller. Framed as the memoir of a British officer, the book is based on an actual British plot to assassinate the 'Desert Fox,' German field marshal Erwin Rommel, during late 1942 and early 1943 in North Africa. The author painstakingly sets the stage for later fireworks by charting the prewar career of R. Lawrence 'Chap' Chapman, especially his relationship with the brilliant but doomed Zachary Stein, Chap's tutor and mentor at Oxford. Chap also falls in love with sexy Rose McCall, whose brains and brass later get her posted to naval intelligence in Egypt. As a young lieutenant, Chap joins the team assembled to go after Rommel. Pressfield expertly juxtaposes the personal with the historical, with authentic battle descriptions. Crisp writing carries readers through success, failure and a final face-to-face encounter with Rommel that's no less exciting for knowing the outcome."
—Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review)
"Based on real-life events, Pressfield's moving novel concerns the daring British and Commonwealth soldiers who challenged German General Erwin Rommel's desert forces. The story is narrated by R. Lawrence 'Chap' Chapman, a minor player in the dramatic African action of World War II. As a very young British officer, barely out of his teens, the Oxford-educated Chapman was assigned to the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a glamorous and much sought-after posting in an outfit prizing resourcefulness and improvisation, qualities essential to surviving LRDG's ridiculously dangerous assignments. Rommel's forces in 1942 dominated Northern Africa west of Egypt. The brilliant general had the willing participation of his troops, who were in awe both of his tactics and of his almost knightly approach to warfare. His success in Africa was a major obstacle to the Allied Forces who saw the coastline there as the first step to an invasion of Southern Europe. Even more dangerous, were he to take Egypt from the Brits, he would hand the Arabian oil fields to the fuel-starved Axis armies. To save Egypt, the oil fields and prevent an invasion, the Brits, under future Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, send the units of the LRDG, including the very green Chapman, on a wild mission to kill Rommel and, with him, the German esprit de guerre. The story Pressfield (The Afghan Campaign, 2007, etc.) tells is so rich in details ... and, given the conceit of a modest man telling the whopping story, it is sometimes slow going. But it's absolutely worth sticking with for the high-definition picture of a low tech (trucks get repaired in the middle of the dunes) but vicious war, and for the breathtaking gallantry of unpretentious young men and General Rommel. There is, as a lagniappe thrown in at the end, one of the best apologies ever written on behalf of novels as a necessary art form. Brilliant, but not for the Tom Clancy set."
—Kirkus Review

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Killing Rommel
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