Masterworks: How and Why to Study the Greatest Writers in History

As writers, we should always be reading. We hear this advice constantly from the pros.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” — Stephen King

“For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries: to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style.” — Ben Johnson

Yes, you have to read a lot. 

But when it comes time to specifically read to help your writing, what should you focus on consuming?

At Story Grid, we focus on the Masterworks.

What is a Masterwork? The 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.

How to Evaluate if a Book is 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?

Why Study Masterworks?

This is more advice we often hear from successful writers.

“Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!” — William Faulkner

“I tell writers to keep reading, reading, reading. Read widely and deeply.”. — Anita Diament

“Read as widely and as deeply as you can. You have to be a reader before you can be a writer.” — Y.S. Lee

“Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can.” — A.L. Kennedy

Ok. We got it. 

Read widely and deeply.

But what does that actually mean in practice and why is it so beneficial?

The Benefits and Practice of Reading Widely

To read widely means to read Masterworks across all aspects of the 5-LEAF GENRE CLOVER

Stories are multi-faceted and we need to explore and understand a breath of stories in order to create a specific story.

Even if we are writing a love story set three thousand years in the future, it’s important that we have been exposed to action stories set in the third century or status stories set in modern day. Our stories will have aspects that draw from all of the CONTENT GENRES and this will ensure our stories are functioning at every level and increase your likelihood on innovating your story in a unique way.

Additionally, you will get further insight into what your writing will never be about by exposing yourself to stories you would never write.

The Benefits and Practice of Reading Deeply

Once you identify the genre you want to write in, it’s time to read deeply. 

Choose multiple Masterworks in our chosen genre and read them multiple times. This will allow us to become familiar with the expectations of readers for these types of stories — the CONVENTIONS and OBLIGATORY MOMENTS

The more that we understand the “rules” of the story we are trying to tell, the more likely we are to successfully innovate.

By reading deeply, we are becoming a master of the genre in which we are attempting to create a unique story.

How to Study Masterworks

We study the Masterworks differently depending on if it is part of our reading widely or deeply (inside the genre we are writing).

Widely: Studying Masterworks OUTSIDE Our Chosen Genre.

These are the genre masterworks we want to be familiar with, but not masters of.

Choose 3 Masterworks in each CONTENT GENRE and complete an EDITOR’S 6 CORE QUESTIONS analysis of each one. 

This will give an overview of how the master writers have accomplished innovation in their genres. It will also provide great reference material for all of our future writing.

Deeply: Studying Masterworks INSIDE Our Chosen Genre

These are the books that most greatly reflect the type of story we are trying to tell. 

Here are the steps:

  1. Choose 5 books that are closely aligned with what we want to write in the same genre (and subgenre if possible).
    1. Complete an EDITOR’S 6 CORE QUESTIONS analysis of each one.
    2. Identify the 20 Skeletal Scenes for each of the books and, for each of the scenes, complete a SCENE ANALYSIS and identify THE FIVE COMMANDMENTS OF STORYTELLING.
  2. Choose 1 Masterwork that is most closely aligned to the type of book we want to write.
    1. Complete a full STORY GRID SPREADSHEET analysis of the entire book.

Read and study widely and deeply in order to grow our understanding of story. This will give us the tools we need to innovate and tell a unique, working story.

Studying Masterworks is the key to some day writing a Masterwork of your own.

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