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How do you define a masterwork of fiction?

Is it the literature taught in high school English class? Shakespeare? Dickens?

Is it the literature that tops the charts? Harry Potter? The DaVinci Code?

I am convinced that a masterwork is a story that endures the ravages of time and regardless of Booker’s thesis that there are only a handful of plots (Booker, C. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories) it is a tale told with a fresh eye, contextually available to the reader.

Truthfully, I have had difficulty distinguishing masterworks from the more mundane. For example, regardless of the compelling prose around an important historic event, I struggled to finish A Tale of Two Cities, at age 16.

But I am getting better at identifying masterfully crafted scenes, and in doing so, perhaps I’ve found a tool that helps me identify how some books excel and others fail.

Recently, I picked up two current (well – less than 20 years old) novels. Popular thrillers, one worked better and I wanted to know why. Each began with a great inciting incident, but the more popular tome abided unambiguously with the obligatory scenes of the thriller genre and the beats within each scene were well paced. Despite a wonderful premise in the less admired work, I had trouble finding the narrative staples readers expect. They existed – hence the book could be categorized as a “thriller” – but they were easy to miss.

It was an Ah-Ha moment.

Writing is a creative endeavor, but apprenticing with the masters is equally valuable. As an aspiring author, I was instructed to be a voracious consumer of the written word. To some extent that mantra holds, but I would add a caveat.

If you want to write, read not only for joy, but to understand why a novel or a scene touched your heart. Understand the ‘first principles’ of your genre.

My 'go-to' as I explore these concepts is Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. What's yours?

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