In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger asks the question: What makes a great writer? It is a question all writers have asked at some time or another.
The answers are varied, depending on whether we mean ‘great’ in the colloquial sense of popular, skilled in generic page turners, or whether we mean something deeper and more enduring.
The Great Writer
Sticking to the latter sense, a great writer, in my opinion, is one who sheds light on the human condition – who reveals some hidden or difficult-to-discern truth about ourselves, no matter what our particular circumstances.
As Dr. Seger notes, a great writer is part psychologist, part philosopher, and perhaps, part theologian, as well as being a consummate master of words.
As a philosopher the great writer poses questions such as, what is the meaning of a specific event? What is the purpose of a specific story? Do I examine the world through the lens of realism, idealism, pessimism?
As a psychologist she asks: What motivates my characters? What moves them? What do they want? What do they need – is there a difference? How far will they go to get it?
As a theologian, she asks where is the good and the evil my story. What is the nature of sin? Indeed, mixing these categories, the writer may even ask, is there such a thing as evil, good, or sin, at all?
Places in the Heart, written and directed by Robert Benton, for example, renders a theological theme with a value system rooted in a community sharing and helping each other during the Great Depression. Its psychological theme reveals a portrait of a woman overcoming her racism because her determination, and love of her children, motivates her to do anything to save her family. It espouses an optimism in life rooted in the notion that goodness and morality will prevail despite life’s challenges.
This multi-layering of motivational/belief systems makes this story, and others like it, truly memorable.
A great writer reveals our obsessions, secrets, and dreams, helping us to find the courage to live life nobly in spite our human failings and circumstances.