Before they even reach for a pen, most fiction writers are sold on a lie: that great novelists are geniuses who generate masterpieces from their subconscious. According to this culture of Romanticism, writers are born, not made, and writing isn’t a skill that is learned. Believing this, many new writers start by trying to create a masterpiece. After they fail and realize that learning is a necessity, they will finally seek instruction. But they will do it so they can make another attempt at a masterpiece.
The Masterpiece Is a Mirage
A novel doesn’t qualify as a masterpiece by being engaging, beautifully written, nor anything else that can be found in its pages. The only thing that makes a story a masterpiece is that people, particularly educated people with influence, worship it. They’ll say it’s deep and profound, with interwoven symbolism and multiple layers of meaning. It’s breathtakingly original. It provides a new paradigm that forever transforms the genre. Its characters are complex and flawed and so real. It’s provocative, heartbreaking, and challenges its readers. It conveys the author’s truth with heart and soul. Did I mention it’s deep and profound?
For this worship, writers will fight several crusades and battle some windmills and yet never get their hands on the holy grail, because which works are chosen for this treatment has as much to do with privilege, marketing budgets, and the outdated values of a few snobs as it does with the quality of the work. Classics are among the most worshipped stories, but most classics are simply stories that sold well on release and happened to influence other works. When these classics are judged without the influence of hype or extra credit for being written so long ago, they often compare poorly with works today.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want approval, validation, or fame for that matter. Storytelling is largely about pleasing an audience. Those of us who genuinely don’t care about our work’s reception might as well keep our stories to ourselves. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel like you’re a master or that you’ve created a great work. But even if we want these things, we should recognize the masterpiece is a mirage: an optical phenomenon in which hot hype reflects the trendiest takes in the desert of ignorance.
What’s more, worshipping specific stories as masterpieces and specific people as creative geniuses harms us, because real people and real works can’t live up to this ideal. As long as you chase the masterpiece, you’ll be insecure about whether your work is deep, profound, and deep and profound enough. Because masterpieces are crystallized genius, the only way to believe you’ve created one is to drink your own Kool-Aid.
On the other hand, humility is a writer’s best friend. It can help us accept critical feedback, improve our skills, and soften disappointment. But in a culture that fosters beginner’s hubris, humility may have to be nurtured. Beware pretentious writing spaces that inflate some stories beyond reason, use hype in place of critical analysis, and sort writers into amateurs and geniuses. While some of us are more experienced than others, we all have more to learn, and no story is perfect.
Chasing Masterpieces Warps Our Priorities
A writer toiling to become a supermodel that’s been photoshopped takes a different approach to writing. Instead of focusing on what they’re interested in, they’ll aim for the type of story that attracts literary gushing. After all, this gushing defines what a masterpiece is.
These characteristics play a starring role in literary hype, and therefore are sought after by many writers yearning for validation.
- The story has to be a novel. A great work is a tome that will break your toes if you drop it.
- It must be dark. You know, a serious work that a serious person would write. That unflinching torture scene will really challenge and provoke readers.
- To be deep, it needs lots of backstory for each character. Every time you dump a bunch of exposition about a character’s backstory, it gets deeper.
- Characters must have an extensive collection of flaws, and all relationships must be dysfunctional. Each happy character moment gives you -1 to your masterpiece score.
- The story should be riveting, but be careful not to add any action. Action makes it plot-driven, not character-driven, a lowly genre work that will never be great.
- If it’s straightforward and easy to understand, it doesn’t have enough layers and is clearly not profound. Put in some obscure symbolic references, add framing devices, and create ambiguity everywhere.
- If you’re going to add speculative elements in there, they’d better be surreal, avant-garde, or obviously symbolic. Otherwise, you’re fired.
Let’s go over these characteristics and examine how choosing them for the sake of praise can sabotage us.
It has to be a novel.
While results vary from person to person, starting with short stories and slowly moving up in size is probably the best way to learn novel writing. Short stories force writers to focus, allow them to experiment, and give them frequent fresh starts. Slowly moving up in length gives writers a sense of how much complexity fits into a given word count, so they are less likey to outline five books thinking it’s one book.
A bigger story has more to keep track of, more room to go wrong, and requires more revision to fix when it does go wrong. A new writer might spend ten years just trying to make their first novel work, and that’s incredibly discouraging.
It must be dark.
If you love dark stories, then by all means, write one, but they have a narrower audience. They are also easier to get wrong. Mishandling sensitive topics will make a work exploitative and harmful to marginalized groups. Adding upsetting events just to shock or otherwise emotionally provoke the audience feels cheap and immature. Dark elements require more from an audience, so to make up for that, they must add something important to the story. That’s less likely to happen when a writer is adding them to make their work appear more serious.
It needs deep and flawed characters.
While we don’t recommend writing a character that is perfect and glorified at every opportunity, there’s a huge gap between that and focusing almost exclusively on character flaws. A flaw or two is generally good for a character, and if you want to focus on flaws, you certainly can. However, the cultural emphasis on flaws has led many writers to create characters that are no more than their flaws. This is still one-dimensional; it’s just a different dimension. And while it’s possible to create extremely flawed characters who are likable, it’s also much harder than making a well-balanced character likable.
As for adding backstory, sometimes that is called for. However, backstory exposition should be limited to what makes the actual scenes of the story more engaging. It can quickly overstay its welcome. When writers insert backstory to make their story feel deeper, they won’t think as critically about whether it’s doing more harm than good.
It should have action. Wait, no, it shouldn’t. Should it?
Action is the most complicated one here, because it is both sought after and reviled. People add action when they don’t want it because they think that’s the only way to make their story exciting, and people might avoid it when they like it because they think that makes their story empty entertainment. Both of these ideas are false.
First, what makes a story riveting isn’t action or violence, it’s tension. You can use action to raise tension, but there are many other means of doing so. That means you can craft a high-tension, riveting story without any fight scenes or explosions. However, those things are also not mutually exclusive with compelling characters and important messages. You should write action if you enjoy writing it and it fits your other goals for the story.
It must require deciphering.
Have you ever taken a literature class where you had to figure out what the hell the writer’s intent was or what the deep underlying theme of the work was? Literary fans love this because it gives them more to analyze and makes them feel like they’re part of an exclusive club that knows the true meaning of a masterpiece. But it also gives writers a perverse incentive.
Making the audience puzzle out the story’s message or inserting things to uncover on a second read isn’t a sign of skill – just the opposite. Readers always catch on to less than we think. If we’re deliberately obscure, they’ll be confused rather than intrigued. Even if we want some aspect of the story to be ambiguous, we need to make it clearly ambiguous. Otherwise, it will look like a mistake.
And no speculative fiction!
Since this is a speculative fiction blog, I doubt I need to convince you why this is wrongheaded. But suffice to say, trying to write a speculative fiction masterpiece means toiling to please people who will dismiss you out of hand. Some speculative writers are on a mission to get literary approval, and I wish them well, but I believe most of us will be happier if we reject the culture that rejects us.
Setting aside the problems with over-applying each of these characteristics, trying to write something you aren’t interested in will probably weaken your story. Writing what you’re passionate about will give you energy, motivate you to finish, and encourage you to add interesting details. Fighting uphill against your desires can lead you to create a story at war with itself. It might start as one thing and end as another. It might take long breaks from the central plot to indulge in material the story wasn’t designed for.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re an established author and your agent tells you that dark stories are in demand right now, catering to that is a valid choice. But demand changes quickly. In most cases, catering to the requirements of an agent or publisher will make less difference to your story than following your passion.
One Story Can’t Be Everything
Writing a masterpiece means pursuing a fantasy of perfection. A masterpiece in progress isn’t allowed to be a fun romp, a sweet little romance, or an intriguing whodunit. It has to be all of those things, plus anything else the writer likes in a story, with everything anyone on the internet says is a must-have for great stories thrown in.
Imagine you’ve just finished an outline. You think it’s in pretty good shape, but you’re still really unsure of yourself. Then you visit one of your favorite writing blogs, and the latest article says that every great story has an emotional reversal during each scene. Oh no, your story doesn’t have that. If you don’t revise your outline, you’ll look like an amateur. Then, you struggle to revise each scene. How does an emotional reversal fit into a scene where the character talks to a shopkeeper about the crime they witnessed? Maybe the shopkeeper can also bring up the protagonist’s dead mom and make them feel bad?
Then, this other website says you need a complication in each scene; you’d better add that too. The hero’s goals have to change during the course of the story, or they haven’t experienced real growth. So you insert another goal. The story needs a reveal. The climax must include a moment of truth. One advice giver says you need a hook, another says you need a problem, so you add them both without knowing they’re the same thing.
Next, you read a story that is beautifully mysterious. You want that atmosphere for your own story. You just got an exciting idea for something cool in your world. That has to go in, or your story won’t be complete. You read a blog post about the heroine’s journey and fell in love with the formula. No problem, you’ll go through your outline and make it fit the heroine’s journey.
Of course, your story has to be epic, covering a conflict that embroils many cultures over the whole world. Five or ten viewpoints ought to do the trick. And it needs to be part of a long and complex history, so the world feels larger than life. After you write a 100-page world primer, you’ll need to work all of that history into your story. Otherwise, your readers won’t understand anything that’s happening.
Once your outline is contorted to follow every piece of advice to the letter, is as big and complex as your wildest dreams, and embodies everything new and shiny, it’ll be a mess. As we’ve discussed time and time again, there’s a limit to how much complexity a story can handle. Plus, each new requirement constrains the story, making it that much harder to tell. These constraints are the reason that sequels are rarely as good as the first story in a series. Finally, some story choices don’t work together. You can’t make your magic mysterious and also have magic appear everywhere.
No one story can fulfill you. A story can be anything you want to write, but it can’t be everything you want out of writing. When you work on a story, remember that it’s simply one work in a long writing career. Focus on a few specific things you’d like to accomplish with it. Give it a specific atmosphere and tone, choose one central message to convey, and pick the most important character. Does that mean it’s missing the cool ghost tavern you wanted? Make your next story about that ghost tavern. If it’s not perfect, that’s okay; apply what you learned to the next work.
Once you’ve added something to your story, you might get attached to it. After you’ve added enough things to create a tangled web, you’ll have to kill your darlings to make the story work again. Save the darlings by narrowing your focus and making them central to the story to start with. Then, resist exciting new ideas. If you discover that your passion lies in a different direction than you thought, you’ll need to rethink the whole thing.
As for writing advice, naturally I’m not going to tell you to simply ignore it. However, at Mythcreants we try our best to build a foundational understanding of storytelling so you can make your own choices. Ask yourself what the purpose of a new requirement is. Is it to build tension? There’s lots of ways to do that. Is it to develop characters? There’s more than one route to that as well. If you don’t fully understand the advice, you probably won’t even do what the blogger intended, much less make your story better.
If you’ve spent years working on a masterpiece, try writing something new and simple. Does your writer’s block disappear? Do you feel less pressure to make it perfect? Do you enjoy writing it more? Did you actually get it done? Is it better than the masterpiece you’ve been hell-bent on finishing? We all love our masterpieces, but the cost is too high.
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