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What is a Masterwork? Definition and Examples in Books and Films

Before we look at a Masterwork, let’s start by defining a story “that works.” A story that works is one that abides by reader expectations for the genre, the CONVENTIONS and OBLIGATORY MOMENTS. These are stories that sell. 

Masterwork Definition

Masterworks are stories that abide by reader expectations for the GENRE, but they go further. These are stories readers come back to again and again because they get it right. They’re at the top of their particular genre and they endure. In other words, these are stories that sell and keep selling. 

Masterworks serve as mentors to help us see how writers have solved the perennial problems we face when we set out to write a story that works and lasts.

What is a Masterwork? Definition and Examples in Books and Films

How to Evaluate a Masterwork

You can choose a story that’s been around for a while and that we know has already endured, but how do you evaluate a contemporary story for Masterwork status? By looking for the skillful execution of the four macro story components.

  • The life-and-death Action component generates excitement by posing and answering the question, will the protagonist(s) survive? Readers care about this because it helps them to answer the question for themselves. How can I meet my own physiological needs? 
  • The transformational Worldview component generates sympathy by asking and answering the question, will the protagonist(s) generate the cognitive power to thrive and attain their goals? Readers care about this because it helps them answer the question for themselves. How can I successfully pursue goals beyond mere survival? 
  • The transcendent Heroic Journey 2.0 component generates catharsis by posing and answering the question, will the protagonist(s) discover the complex truth about themselves as agents embedded inside a paradoxical universe that is both ordered and chaotic and choose to go on? Readers care about this because it helps them answer the question for themselves. How can I derive meaning and “go on” given life’s uncertainty? 
  • The “Interstitial Genre” component (War, Horror, Crime, Thriller, Love, Performance, Western/Eastern, Society, Status, Morality) generates the genre’s core emotion (e.g., intrigue, fear, romance) by posing and answering the question, will the protagonist(s) be able to meet the need aligned with the genre as the means to engage with Jung’s individuation process? Readers care about this because it helps them answer the question for themselves. How will I meet my basic human needs?

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