In the summer of 2019, when I started working with my editor, Rachelle Ramirez, one of our goals was to find a masterwork for my book. A masterwork is a well-established novel, film, or any other story that a writer can use as a template to help ground his or her work. A writer might borrow small thematic elements from this story or its entire plot structure. For example, one of my favorite novels The Legend of Bagger Vance, is a retelling of the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, but set on a golf course in Savannah, Georgia, during the great depression.
At its core, storytelling is about solving hundreds if not thousands of little problems. When do I introduce this character? How do I make my scenes informative while still being compelling? Have I made this plot point clear enough? Have I made it too obvious? These problems are seemingly endless, so having a template that has had proven success can make writing a novel a lot less frustrating. At least that’s how I feel.
Occasionally, I hear writers say, “I want my story to be completely original!” To me, that sentiment is just Resistance. Resistance, with a capital R, is a concept coined by author Steven Pressfield to describe all the negative forces, self-sabotage, procrastination, fear, arrogance, and self-doubt, that prevent us from doing our best work. I feel like the Resistance to using a masterwork is rooted in the fear that our story will end up being a cheap knock-off of someone else’s work. I think Shawn Coyne addresses this concern well in his 2014 book The Story Grid.
“Innovation is found in the way a writer handles audience expectations… the obligatory scenes and conventions of your chosen Genres.”
In other words, ignoring or defying audience expectations doesn’t make a story innovative. It’s the writer’s take on those expectations that makes it stand out. This was the mindset I adopted when I started working with my editor. I wanted to find a story that would ground my novel and make it more relatable. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much of my life feeling disconnected from the people around me, but I don’t care about being original I care about being understood.
In fact, I was starting to get worried when after working with Rachelle for 12 weeks, we still hadn’t identified a masterwork. We had considered stories in almost every genre we could think of, but nothing seemed to fit. Then, on a whim, she suggested a movie that was totally unlike anything we had looked at before. That’s when a light bulb went off, and over the next week, I wrote a 10-page “thesis paper” on how I could use this masterwork as a template for my story.
So, what movie did she suggest? Well, it’s a superhero story, and just like the conventions of that genre, I’m going to leave you with a cliffhanger. So, “tune in” to my next installment of Beyond the Book, to find out which film I used as my masterwork.