In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, story consultant Linda Seger asks the question: What makes a great writer? It’s a question we’ve all wondered about at some time or another.
The answer largely depends on what we mean by ‘great’. Do we mean in the colloquial sense of popularity? Or do we mean something deeper and more enduring.
Sticking to the latter sense, a great writer, in my opinion, is one who sheds light on the human condition – someone who reveals a hidden truth about ourselves, but does so in a gripping and entertaining way.
Dr. Seger notes that a great writer is part psychologist, part philosopher, and perhaps, part theologian, as well as being a consummate wordsmith.
As the philosopher the writer asks: Do I examine the world through the lens of realism, idealism, pessimism?
The psychologist might ask: What motivates my characters? Moves them? What do they want? What do they need – is there a difference? How far will they go to get it?
“A great writer endures through the ages because he or she writes about human frailty and nobility across the cultural and temporal devide.”
The theologian asks, where is the good and the evil my story? What is the nature of sin? Indeed, 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.
Great writers speaks to our times and beyond. They reveal our obsessions, secrets, and dreams, helping us to find the courage to live life nobly in spite of our failings.