• What Makes a Masterpiece? by Alwyn, Lortano, Caillagh and Merchant of Venice

    What makes a Masterpiece?

    by Alwyn, Lortano, Caillagh and Merchant of Venice


    Since its inception, the Critic's Quill has reviewed AARs and stories. Now the Critic's Quill has begun a new chapter, with a different kind of review. The Masterpiece Review series is intended to introduce new readers to classic stories which you may not have known about - and to provide in-depth analysis of significant AARs and stories. Not every Critic's Quill writer will necessarily regard every story reviewed in this series as a masterpiece. For example, an AAR could have represented an important step in the evolution of AARs, while looking unexceptional to readers who are familiar with AARs now.

    This article shows you some of the thinking behind the development of this new series. As you will see, different members of our team think in different ways about what a Masterpiece is and how appropriate this term is for writing on TWC. Critic's Quill writers do not have to follow an 'official line', we write what we think. As you will see, members of our team who comment have benefited from 'behind the scenes' discussion with highly respected writers including Hitai de Bodemloze and Radzeer, which they refer to in their comments. We do not claim to have final, definitive answers. We are (metaphorically) travelling through a vast, dark wood, aided by the light of a few flickering lamps. There are many lands yet to explore and there is much to learn.

    Masterpiece Reviews do not replace our regular reviews. We will still review AARs and Creative Writing. The subject of our first Masterpiece Review, Takeda by Robin de Bodemloze, was the subject of a regular (non-Masterpiece) review first. If you have written an AAR or story which you feel is a masterpiece, and if we publish a regular review of it, we hope that you will not be offended. It seems likely that we will publish a regular review of an AAR or story first, even if we intend to publish a Masterpiece Review later on. Masterpiece Reviews are special events, involving months of work by members of the Writers' Study and Critic's Quill staff team.

    Four members of the team offer you their thoughts on the question ‘What makes a masterpiece?’, Alwyn, Lortano, Caillagh and Merchant of Venice. If you would like some examples of stories which are likely to be seen as masterpieces, Merchant included these examples in his Christmas and Holidays Reading List:-

    I would definitely suggest Takeda by Robin de Bodemloze, Quinta Macedonia Legio by Senior Batavian Horse, Julian, the Saviour of Rome? by Knonfoda and Primus Inter Pares & The Wolf Among Dogs by Radzeer.

    Alwyn's view

    Perhaps you remember watching a movie which took you to a different place. As the closing credits rolled, you returned slowly, gradually to the here and now. You might remember another film, when you just couldn't get into it and your seat got more and more uncomfortable as time dragged on. Is there a book whose characters or defining moments lingered in your mind after the book's end? Perhaps you felt sadness, even a sense of loss, because you were no longer journeying on with the characters who you had got to know. This is a very different experience from trying to read a book we just cannot get into.

    A masterpiece immerses us in its world. A masterpiece holds our attention and stirs our emotions. Sometimes people post on creative writing and AARs to say that they have been inspired to write or that reading an AAR really makes them want to play the game. A masterpiece can immerse and inspire its readers. If you have wandered round an art gallery or a museum and suddenly, unexpectedly, been captivated by an artwork or display, then perhaps you found a masterpiece. At least, it could have been a masterpiece for you.

    Calling stories and AARs on TWC masterpieces could sound like hubris. In high school, an English Literature teacher invited each member of his class to choose a book to write about. When a student suggested one of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the teacher encouraged that student to think again. For this teacher, the Lord of the Rings lacks the literary quality which was needed to justify serious study. There are books that captivate and inspire their readers, such as stories of Middle-earth, the Discworld, Hogwarts School, Panem and Westeros. They are enjoyed by millions and yet, are they masterpieces? Popularity is not the same thing as literary merit. Do they have outstanding literary merit? Have they won literary awards? Some of them have. For example, George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones won awards and received critical acclaim. The awards given to A Game of Thrones were for the best science fiction and fantasy writing. A book can earn science-fiction and fantasy awards, even if it might not have the qualities required to earn the 'higher' literary awards, such as the Nobel Prize in Literature. In a similar way, we can recognise the best writing here, without claiming that it is on the same level as A Game of Thrones.

    A writer on TWC can get a good reputation by being friendly to other writers. Perhaps, in our competitions, people sometimes vote for their friends, so we don’t only consider the merits of the writing we vote for? Newer members hear about legendary works by older members, writing such as Takeda, Primus Inter Pares, The Nowhere Legion and I am Skantarios. Some newer members might make their own judgements about these legendary writings; others might accept uncritically the views of others about what is seen as the best writing here. On TWC, like the wider world of writing, popularity may not be the same thing as literary merit.

    AAR writing evolves, like creative writing. Hitai de Bodemloze pointed out that a story which seemed new and inspirational to readers in its time might seem ordinary years later. Perhaps one reason why this story might seem ordinary later is that other writers adopted similar styles or techniques to this story? If so, then the fact that this story inspired other writers may cause us to doubt its status as a masterpiece! In Narrative Trends in Shogun II AARtistry, Hitai pointed to the use of ‘hard narrative’ in Robin de Bodemloze’s Takeda. Hard narrative uses the setting of the game but does not rely on the campaign for characters or events. AARs such as Hitai’s The Road to Kyoto and Merchant of Venice’s Way of the Bow use hard narrative, as do AARs using other games such as McScottish’s The Sun Never Sets and m_1512’s Forgotten Tales of Germania. Remarkably, Hitai's Yōkai appears to be entirely hard narrative, at least up to this point - and m_1512's Forgotten Tales of Germania also appears to be completely hard narrative. (Forgotten Tales of Germania was moved, at the request of m_1512, from the AARs section to the Creative Writing forum, which suggests that the boundary between AARs and Creative Writing is fluid: perhaps more stories might pass from one area to another in future?) As more AARs use hard narrative - and as some AARs rely entirely on this technique - the use of hard narrative in the later chapters of Takeda could start to look ordinary. At the time, this development was sufficiently exceptional for Hitai to analyse it in the Critic’s Quill.

    What, then, is a masterpiece? As I see it, different people will have different answers. What is a masterpiece for someone else might not be a masterpiece for you. Our answer might depend on the context: what are we comparing our writing to?

    Do we compare writing on TWC to the world’s great literature? Some of us might say that a masterpiece is a work which deserves serious study in classrooms and on the pages of literary journals. Some of us might believe that to call any writing on TWC a masterpiece would be praising it too highly, implying that we believe that writing here has the same qualities as a winner of a major literary prize.

    Alternatively, we might be influenced by the historical meaning of a ‘masterpiece’. In guilds from the medieval period onwards, a member would progress through the ranks from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman, as their skills developed. To qualify as a journeyman, an apprentice would have to produce a piece of work of sufficient quality. A journeyman who produced a work demonstrating the highest level of skill – a masterpiece – would qualify as a master. The definition of a masterpiece was in the context of the skills expected in this particular guild. Experienced members of the guild would determine whether a piece of work was sufficient for advancement. In the Writers’ Study, we are more democratic than a guild; any full member can vote on which piece of writing should receive awards. But perhaps there is something in the idea of a community deciding what a masterpiece means for them, in their context?

    Do we consider the merits of a story or AAR on TWC in the context of this forum? If so, when we call something a masterpiece, we are saying that it is among the most inspiring, immersive and influential writing here. We are not claiming that our stories or AARs have the same literary merits at the latest winner of a national (or international) award for fiction. We are saying that the very best stories here are masterpieces for us, in this community of writers.

    How precise can our definition of masterpiece be? People who agree that we should evaluate writing in relation to other work on TWC may have different views about what we should look for. Should we call a piece of masterpiece if it is among the very best work of its time, even if it looks unremarkable to a new generation of readers? If so, then we need to think about the historical development of writing here and what influenced that development. Different stories are trying to achieve different things. A history-book AAR may not be trying to develop a coherent plot or to focus on character development. Do we conclude, then, that a history-book AAR cannot be a masterpiece? Or do we say that there are is a list of features which a masterpiece tends to have, but a story does not have to tick every box to qualify? I prefer the second option, as I would not want to exclude history-book AARs from being regarded as masterpieces.

    If we are looking for a list of features in masterpieces, then what would that list contain? Does the story create an immersive world? Do the characters seem real? Does the writer make us care about what happens to the characters? Do the characters develop in response to their experiences? Do their choices and the events have motives and causes which make sense in this world? Is there variety in style, tone and pace? Does the story stir emotions? Does it make us think? Has this writing immersed, influenced and inspired its readers?

    We might conclude that there are different ways of defining a masterpiece – and perhaps different ways of being a masterpiece. Some of us might prefer not to call any writing here a masterpiece. If you have this view, you can still discuss what you see as the best writing here – and there is no need to feel pressured into calling something a masterpiece simply because other people do so. If we believe that we can call any writing on TWC a masterpiece, then perhaps we should remember that masterpieces are human creations; we should see them honestly as they are, with their human flaws and imperfections, not idolize them. Masterpieces need to be seen in the context of the time when they were written. Masterpieces tend to immerse their readers in an authentic, coherent world. Masterpieces tend to ignite emotions and ideas in us. Masterpieces inspire writers to follow in their footsteps. Masterpieces have power: they are the stories we remember, the tales we return to.

    Lortano's view

    A Masterpiece gives away its own definition by its very name. It is a piece of literature (or other works) that is considered to be a leader in its genre and a piece that many people read and recommend others to read. But most importantly, it sticks around in peoples' heads, it worms its way into the consciousness so that you can potentially be reminded of it in the most unlikely of circumstances. There's a reason why the Iliad and the Odyssey stuck around, because they stuck in the heads of the ancients.

    How then does a masterpiece accomplish such a feat. Now before anyone gets salty and suggests that I can compare a work written on a forum dedicated to a video game to the Iliad and the Odyssey, I think that all masterpieces have their share in awesome. Yes, the Iliad came first, but it lacks in several areas that people might like in works on this board. It is extremely repetitive for one, and while that does have to do with the fact that it was originally unwritten, it is still a flaw in the modern world. Yet it sticks around because of what it does do right. In the same way, a work on TWCenter is unlikely to have the grand scale of the Iliad, but will do things better than Homer ever could.

    So as the saying goes 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.' I know several people who could never get into LotR or ASoIaF, despite many people considering them masterpieces of their genres. And arguably, both of these series have flaws that would be unacceptable if one was reading a book that wasn't doing things as well. For example, ASoIaF's plot just slowed to glacial speed after Storm of Swords. My own mother has found the last few books to be heavy going because of how little actually happens. But people remember the first three books and it forces them to keep going, because damn it we want to know who Jon Snow's mother is.

    In the same way, context is ever so important in Tolkien's crowning masterpiece. His characterisation leaves a lot to be desired, his dialogue is archaic and some people even throw out 'ye' and 'thou'. But it stuck around, being one of the first major fantasy series in the modern world to sell well. His world building is outstanding and the reader feels himself being pulled into this world, even more so if you read the Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales. His flaws are noticeable but it's commercial success, combined with his world building, makes people forget that.

    It's not necessary to just limit this idea to masterpieces in literature. Who could forget Citizen Kane, a great film with the massive plot hole at the beginning where Kane says his final word to an empty room yet the people next door know all about it? We forgive it, because it's awesome otherwise. Or Final Fantasy 7, which I played recently on the PC and had some absolutely awful design choices, loathsome graphics and minigames...oh dear the minigames. But again, its forgiven because of its impact and the fact that people forget the flaws in favour of the best bits. Lets not forget, that FF7 also had an amazing twist where a certain character (Does this really need to be spoiled?) dies at the hands of Sephiroth. An actual playable character.

    Any piece of work capable of making someone scream 'NO!' when the plot twists on them deserves it's title as a masterpiece. Be it [REDACTED] death in FF7 or the Red Wedding in ASoIaF, any piece that can extract that much emotion from the reader is a great work. For another example of this, take the story telling in Professional Wrestling (I'm stretching but give me a moment to explain myself.) In 1996 Hulk Hogan rushed out into the ring and drove off some bad guys, before turning around and, in front of thousands of Hulkamaniacs, dropping a leg on the guy he'd just saved. He then raised the hands of the bad guys and formed the NWO stable. If you can find the video, the reaction of the crowd is precisely what the best twists in a masterpiece will do to the reader, stun them, shock them, anger them.

    Caillagh's view

    I have a lot of sympathy with Hitai de Bodemloze, who said that literary merit was the most important thing for him in deciding whether a piece was a masterpiece or not. And I have even more sympathy with his view that the wider context (in all sorts of ways) should also be considered. I think Lortano's phrase (above) "masterpieces of their genres" is revealing.

    What all of these things say to me is that, in fact, what constitutes a masterpiece is entirely contextual. Nobody would consider "literary merit" to be a requirement for all masterpieces: what about sculptures, paintings, music? So I think first of all we need to be clear what we're describing. I think (correct me if I'm wrong) we're really talking about AARs here, rather than also including everything in the Creative Writing section of the forum. Which is handy, because even just considering AARs includes quite a few different kinds of writing.

    Having said that, I do still agree with Hitai that literary merit is important for AARs. A certain level of literary merit is necessary for the reader to be able to understand what the author wants them to understand. A greater level is required for the reader engagement described by Radzeer – and I agree with him that reader engagement is necessary for an AAR to be considered a masterpiece. Of at least some readers, anyway. As Lortano says, there isn't usually unanimity about these things. Some people will find the history-book style of AAR engaging, while others will struggle with it. Some people will be hooked by a more character-driven style, while for others it will lack the broader scale that interests them. So although I think reader engagement is necessary, I don't think engagement of ALL readers is necessary – but the standard of writing has to be high enough that people could be engaged by and immersed in the story, if it was a kind of story they liked.

    I'm not so sure, though, that I think the bits of writing outside the AAR (as referred to by Radzeer – helping other people with advice, responding to feedback and so on) make any difference to whether the AAR itself is a masterpiece. I think all those things are important and valuable – and they certainly affect whether or not I keep reading an AAR – but I think I'd separate them from the AAR in itself.

    I think I probably agree with Lortano about the definition of a masterpiece. (I particularly like the idea that masterpieces stick in your mind. I'm not sure that's necessarily true for all categories of masterpiece, but I think it's true of many.) Provided we're careful not to set the bar too high, that is. I think we need to bear in mind the historical definition of “masterpiece” mentioned by Alwyn; it used to be the piece of work you did to qualify as a master of your craft. You had to be good, yes, but you didn't have to be the best of the best. At least at the height of the guild system, you had to be a master of your craft before you could set up your own shop, so there were clearly plenty of people who could qualify as (for instance) master carpenters. I'm not sure exactly how far it's right to go towards that attitude, but it seems to me that if we're deciding which AARs are masterpieces – particularly in the context of deciding which AARs are worthy of a masterpiece review – we need to have quite a wide, flexible definition of “masterpiece”. I think it would be wrong to forbid ourselves from including AARs that have influenced later AARs (even if they don't seem quite so great now as they once did), or AARs that represent the best output of a particular, well-known, author (even if they aren't quite as well written as some other AARs), or AARs that just stick in your mind.

    So… maybe there's a list of criteria. (I don't think I know what all the criteria are, but I know some of them.) Some of the criteria are absolute requirements for an AAR to be considered a masterpiece, even if we have a flexible definition. I'd put “enough literary merit to be capable of engaging a reader” in that category. And then there are lots of criteria which are not absolute requirements. Things like “good, convincing characterisation” or “immerses the reader in the world of the AAR” would go in this category. If an AAR has lots of these (as well as the absolute requirements), it's probably a masterpiece; if it has none, it probably isn't (although it might just be a whole new type of AAR and qualify as a masterpiece because of that – you never know!)

    Then there are the awkward things; the things that are deal-breakers for some people but not for others. Endings were mentioned when we discussed masterpieces, and it's obvious just from that little bit of discussion that different people feel very differently about how important endings are. For me, a book that has a bad ending is not a good book, even if the rest of it is good; the good part has built up my expectations, has led me to believe the author knows what he's doing and where he's taking me – and then when the ending fails, I discover the author had no idea where we were going, and I'm lost in the middle of nowhere without a map. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and that's a big part of how I remember that book. For other people, this is much less of an issue. So I think another reason we should have a flexible attitude to the definition of a masterpiece is that there will always be disagreement about bits of it.

    As a (probably unhelpful) aside, several years ago, one of my friends and I tried to produce a list of masterpieces out of books written in English. We couldn't do it, because there were far too many things that could be considered to qualify, and we couldn't come up with really convincing reasons for saying “X is a masterpiece, but Y isn't”, unless “I don't like Y” counted as a convincing reason. We decided it didn't – mostly because there were things we disagreed about. In the end, we started producing a list of works in the English language that we felt were so indispensable everybody ought to read them. That worked better – it's much easier to say “Well, no, that book's not absolutely indispensable because [reason]” than it is to say “Y isn't a masterpiece because [reason]”. (It was a short list, as you might expect.)

    Anyway, I think what I'm arguing for is a broad, flexible definition of “masterpiece”. One where excellent writing (in all its different forms), and originality, and influencing later AARs are all things that are taken into consideration.

    Merchant’s view

    A masterpiece is a literary paradox, an almost unresolvable one. The term is a conflict between popularity and literary critique and is thrown around as a term to describe something we really like. Your mother’s latest Sunday roast wasn’t really a culinary masterpiece was it, you just said that so you could get seconds. But while complimenting one’s mother doesn’t cause too many problems (I’d argue it prevents many), the term literary masterpiece can be a headache to readers of fiction. It can be a point of serious contention, an idea which has likely broken up marriages, ruined friendships and driven readers and intellectuals insane. Ok, I might be going a bit over the top but you get what I mean.

    At the heart of the term lies in the question whether popularity and good writing are intrinsically linked. I’d argue no, but I would also suggest to some extent they are, in most cases anyway. But if they aren’t, than why are certain books more popular than others? If they are, why are books full of great prose and writing discarded by readers? Ultimately, I fear this might devolve into some ramblings about popularity and good writing but I will try and keep it on the subject.

    Popularity is the state of being liked, admired or supported by a large group of people (and to an extent all organisms. For instance some people are popular amongst cats though often, unfortunately, unpopular with humans.). Causes of popularity have likely been dissected many times so I won’t pretend like I have any new ideas. Or any good ideas. Or any useful ideas.

    The popularity of a book or text is sometimes as mysterious as the popularity of some people. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious and often infuriating. It has usually got something to do with looks, hence why attractive people occupy the upper echelons of a school’s social hierarchy and why people who use the term echelon don’t. But can this affect a book’s popularity? It can affect a film or a play, with higher budget costumes, CGI and better looking actors often playing a part in the success of some rather mediocre films. In real life, a book cover is sometimes factor on whether you read a blurb or not, I won’t pretend like it hasn’t been for me. In both real life and on TWC, a title plays a role in piquing the interest of potential readers and I consider that to be part of the text’s ‘looks’. On here, some AARs may be impacted by a lack of screenshots or poor screenshots or screenshots of games whose graphics haven’t aged well. Furthermore, ‘walls of text’ and poorly arranged opening posts can influence if someone reads it or not. I would think most readers in such a situation would aim to improve the aspects of the AAR or CW that they dislike but it isn’t their job.

    However, is attractiveness the job of the composer of the text or not? I know that is kind of like saying a person should make themselves attractive so other people like them better and they will be more popular (Oh wait, society already does that), but I am divided on the issue in regards to texts and AARs. I believe that small rearrangements of text and a correct font and a nice, organised OP are the job of the AARtist, these are relatively small tasks anyway. Furthermore, I think a certain level of obligation is held by the AARtist in regards to screenshots if they have chosen to include them. Screenshots are like an extension of the prose. So this also falls under literary merit but for now the discussion is how they contribute to the attractiveness of the piece. You don’t choose bad prose so why choose bad screenshots. However, other factors come into play and this isn’t meant to be an article on improving screenshots. It is hard to ignore, though, the effect they have on popularity.

    Time plays a part in the popularity of texts. In the real world, genre’s shift in popularity from decade to decade and the popularity of some books and movies often stand on the shoulders of giants, previously popular books providing an already pre-positioned audience to that sort of book. On TWC, time is represented best by the different games of TWC. A Shogun 1 AAR may achieve less popularity than a Shogun 2 AAR because there is a bigger audience playing Shogun 2 and therefore invested in it. Over time AARs for some games are less visited than those of newer games, partly because over the years the audience shifts from those who started playing Rome II to those who started on Attila. Time changes what content is topical and interesting and so, influences what readers are looking for in the book. For instance, To Kill a Mockingbird was written in the late 50s at the time of Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement and was set about twenty years before. In the 50s it was a groundbreaking book about issues not thoroughly addressed in the literary world. Now, while it might still have the same power, if that book was published it would, I believe, achieve less popularity because it would simply be a book about the past and past issues (although still relevant to problems in America) then one written about issues of today (like terrorism perhaps).

    Lastly, popularity is as fickle as anything. Someone with influence, like a celebrity, views the text, likes it and recommends it. Their large influence means that more people will read it than someone without much influence. The book or movie spreads like wildfire as more people recommend it to friends and family, acting as salesmen for the text. But lady luck is kind to some and cruel to others and a book can so easily be ignored for another, for no reason at all. I feel that TWC doesn’t suffer too much from this due to the low level of supply of pieces compared to in the real world where a book can be buried under the thousands of other books published that week or day. However, I can recall cases where AARs have achieved low readerships compared to other AARs for no reason whatsoever.

    With the workings of popularity explored, it is time to look into the term ‘literary merit’. What is literary merit? And more importantly, who has the right to define what has literary merit and what doesn’t? Literary merit is of course the quality that a certain text has. But then what is quality? I feel delving in to defining quality and what quality will send us down a path we won’t ever be able to come back from but I believe asking that question will help explain the trouble with literary merit. What is quality? Think about it? Define quality. It’s hard because it’s almost intuitive to us. Literary merit is a bit easier however and can be more easily described by breaking it down into components. The components of literary merit, I believe, are voice, language and content. I will now try and explain how these give a piece of writing ‘literary merit’.

    Voice is the particular style of the author. It is what makes it recognisable to readers. A lot of advice towards newer writers that I have read and seen has been about finding one’s own voice, one’s own distinctive style and language. It is difficult for newer and younger writers especially and only seems to come about after constant writing and editing and reading of one’s own work. Voice is like being consistently good. Not about some fluke piece which reads nothing like any of your other works but rather a combined similar feeling to all of one’s works. Why is voice important to literary merit? Because a consistent voice ensures the text is the same throughout, that the style of the writing and prose does not fluctuate wildly with each new chapter. That the writing of each new chapter doesn’t feel like a different writer wrote it. Voice is important because I feel it adds authenticity and credibility to one’s work. It is no longer an imitation but an original work that shares similar traits in its writing with the author’s other texts. In AARs, this could be understood as, instead of a similar voice over multiple texts, a similar voice over the course of the AAR, which can span for many chapters. In other words, the level of writing stays consistently good and similar in style.

    Language is arguably the biggest factor. Voice is all about a consistently good use and similar use of language and prose throughout a text. Defining good language is hard, very hard. It is easy to tell between bad prose and good prose, but to distinguish between good prose and great prose or even to distinguish between great prose and masterful prose proves a lot more difficult. Some may argue it is all about the technical side of prose, the author’s use of language techniques such as metaphors, similes etc and others may argue it is about the feel of the prose, an even more abstract idea. I digress that it is about neither but rather about both. Language techniques are used to shape the feel of the prose, are used to create a visual representation of the words in the reader’s mind but a ‘by the book’ type, almost clinical, application of them leads to writing that feels like it is a Frankenstein monster, all these independently good words and phrases mashed up together and horrid when looked upon as a whole. Yet an abstract use of language, one that relies on purely the feeling of the prose can get blown away by its lightness and its focus on pure feeling, in the same way that an overuse of techniques can get bogged down in trying to sound literary and professional. Both have the same goal: that is to invoke the best image of what is happening in the story from the reader’s imagination. I’m not going to try and define masterful prose, that is for experienced writers much more qualified than me to debate about, but I will say that the ultimate goal of language and prose is to convey to the reader what is happening in the scene in the most understandable way but also engaging way. Abstract prose, while pretty, does nothing to the story if it can’t invoke the image in the reader’s mind. Pretty prose must convey to the reader how pretty the scenery is or the character or the dialogue and its primary goal is to make the reader understand how pretty it is, just how amazing it is. Great prose should convey the details of the scene and what is happening in a way in which the reader understands but also in which the best image is crafted in the reader’s mind. This is also perfectly applicable to AARs, both narrative and history book style alike.

    Last is content. Prose can be pretty and make the text digestible and easy to read but prose is simply the medium for the content, for the themes and morals the author is trying to convey. When I talk of content I don’t specifically refer to the plot and character and composition of the book but also the themes and symbols and motifs. However, all of those things matter for a masterpiece. Plot is essential for a very good piece of writing. But a good plot doesn’t necessarily entail a Game of Thrones-esque spider web of different plot lines and plot twists but rather a plot that is believable, engaging and, while it doesn’t have to be constantly unreliable, unreliable to the extent that the reader is left not knowing what will happen next in certain parts of the text. Some texts, in the goal of being literary and making a point, disregard the plot. The plot should never be forgotten or looked over. Characters also have to be believable and interesting and varied. Read any of the CQ articles on what makes good characters for more information. Furthermore, what I like to call the composition or the small-scale plots of the text have to be well written, devised and interesting. These are how the chapters play out, the dialogue between characters, the different scenes, monologues, fights and action scenes etc. All these things are important in making the book interesting and creating a good medium to carry through the themes of the book. Themes are often discussed in English Class and for those who have escaped school and university and never want to talk about technique analysis or themes this is your unlucky day. The underlying themes of the book, why war is bad, the importance of love, the failure of the American dream (huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald here), are, I believe, what has created the literary world we know today. Stories can be for fun and can be comical or just scary but without books that posed questions on human morality or ethics or humanity itself, we wouldn’t have the amazing world of books and movies and plays we have today. And I think that the themes of a text are one of the most important aspects of literary merit. If a text can’t make the reader think than it might be fun to read but why does it deserve to be called great or masterful? The themes of a text make the reader think are the biggest step in attaining the quality of being a masterpiece.

    Now we have discussed what literary merit and popularity are, it is time to connect back together, if at all possible, and re-ask the question; what makes a masterpiece?

    So a masterpiece is a piece which is both popular and which has exemplary literary merit?

    One more step back. Let us re-examine the link between popularity and literary merit. We as a species have learnt to crave, to seek out, to make things which display quality, that is they have quality. This varies greatly from object to object. A toaster has quality if evenly toasted bread pops out of it. A piece of paper has quality if it is smooth and feels good to write on. A wall has quality if it doesn’t fall down and provides shelter etc. For purposes of this discussion, quality will be focused on the ability of said object to fulfil its goal or aim. For purposes of this discussion, literature has the goal to entertain and to prove thought and discussion. Therefore, for purposes of this discussion (I’m using this term because I lack the ability and am scared of making any generalising definitions or theories about such controversial matters), an object of literature has quality if it both entertains and provokes thought and discussion. And so therefore, because we seek out objects of quality, most of us, subconsciously and consciously will be seeking out texts which have quality. And hence as most of us are doing this, texts with quality (i.e. literary merit) will be popular. Simple? Sadly not.

    Because then we add in social structures and marketing and how we find books and our access to texts with literary merit and so on until it becomes quite horribly complex. In short, on a fundamental level, literary merit and popularity are intrinsically linked. In the real world, they can be but can also not be. Therefore, we arrive at the fact that a masterpiece is decided primarily by its literary merit but is also subject to its popularity. A masterpiece is made by the literary merit it contains but the concept of a masterpiece is not a purely technical one. It is a term used to describe the larger amount of quality that one object contains compared to another. Therefore, a masterpiece must be viewed by critics and the public alike as having an incredibly large amount of quality. And therefore it will prove popular. But remember, popularity is not just based on literary merit, it is an effect of literary merit but also of good marketing, attractiveness and other social factors. In conclusion, a masterpiece should be both popular and have exemplary literary merit but a text containing only one, I feel, falls short of the mark.

    Not a conclusion

    This is not a conclusion, because a conclusion would provide a definite answer to the question of what makes a masterpiece. Lortano, Caillagh, Merchant and I seem to agree on some things: we should think masterpieces and significant works in their context. Masterpieces are, at least in part, known by their impact on us. The same writing can impact on different people in different ways. If a story has a powerful impact on a broad range of readers – if it becomes popular - and if it has literary merit, then it could be a masterpiece. Literary merit is important. The use of language, the themes, symbols and plot all matter.

    What would be a masterpiece for an AAR could be different from what might make a story in the Creative Writing section a masterpiece. We might make lists of criteria, but we probably would not insist on a story meeting all of those criteria to be a masterpiece - and our lists might differ. We have no answer, but we have some good ideas.

    Thank you for reading; you are warmly invited to join in the discussion by commenting on this article. What makes a masterpiece for you? Which stories and AARs on TWC do you see as masterpieces or significant works?

    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Hitai de Bodemloze's Avatar
      Hitai de Bodemloze -
      Not had time to fully read this over, but I feel perhaps my theory on narrative styles is a little misunderstood. A lapse into hard narrative rarely exists, because soft narrative is defined in part by the balance between gameplay-inspired writing and imaginative writing, so when one 'lapses into hard narrative', one in generally just writing soft narrative. If you look at the latter parts of Takeda, and in their entirety Wings of Destiny, Yokai, Tales of Germania and arguably The Nowhere Legion, there is no relation to campaign gameplay whatsoever. Takeda is also debatable since many of the characters presumably had their roots in the campaign, as opposed to being entirely invented by the author - although I would argue the extent to which the story deviated from the gameplay could justify it. Road to Kyoto for example, despite having chapters not based on actual gameplay, still followed a general story arc dictated by the game - which is a defining feature of soft narrative and not uncommon at all. Perhaps Way of the Bow is a little different - I know vast portions bear no relation to the campaign, but I'm not sure to what extent Merch has abandoned the game completely.

      The line between soft and hard narrative, at least in my eyes, can be difficult to see sometimes (and often requires a statement on behalf of the author), similar to the issue of when an AAR stops being an AAR and the line between hard narrative and what we call 'creative writing' here. Then again, the lines are always blurred when trying to categorize AARs, especially as styles are evolving all the time. I always wanted to expand more upon my theory, but I didn't get chance. Maybe in the future. Also, my own thoughts are just thoughts and not authoritative. I'm still a little surprised at how willing people are to accept my definitions, even if my goal was to standardize how we define AARs from one another. Although I personally disagree with the usage in this instance, that doesn't really mean I'm right - we are all critics and theorists, all entitled to our own views.
    1. Shankbot de Bodemloze's Avatar
      Shankbot de Bodemloze -
      An interesting article, it was good to see varying thoughts on the subject. I'm amazed at how much you were all able to write!

      Theory and categorisation go over my head, there are simply AARs I like, and AARs I don't - my mind obviously has some criteria when it decides this, but I'm not sure I even know what all those criteria are. I would, however, say I don't have to enjoy an AAR for me to view it as a masterpiece - indeed there are some AARs which I will readily admit often fall into the 'masterpiece' category that I did not personally enjoy. I think, when talking about AARs on TWC, a masterpiece is an AAR that had made an impact on the AAR community.
    1. Ajpav's Avatar
      Ajpav -
      And this is why I love these forums so much - so many of the members of the community go waaaay above and beyond in their work - which then allows us to collectively raise our standards and challenge each other in creating some true gems when it comes to the various products we produce.

      Looking forward to more!

      Cheers gents!