Call this post “Dudeology #3,” as we continue our exploration of The Big Lebowski, with an eye specifically to the writing of first drafts.

A Dude with a Code

A Dude with a Code

We were talking in a couple of previous posts about the preparatory questions a writer asks himself or herself before the first word of a first draft goes onto paper. For me, the first two are:

  1. “What genre am I writing in?”
  2. “What’s the story’s spine, i.e. its ‘narrative highway’ from Act One through Act Two to Act Three?”

The third question for me is, “What’s the theme? What is my story about?

Which brings us back to the Dude.

I have no idea what Lebowski’s creators, Joel and Ethan Coen, would say their theme is. My own take may be wildly different from theirs. But here’s my shot:


Never underestimate a man with a code.


The Dude, though it might not seem like it on first viewing, is a man with a code. A code of honor. In that, he’s just like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade or Jake Gittes (since Lebowski’s genre-DNA is, way more than fifty percent, that of a Private Eye Story.)

Here’s Raymond Chandler on the subject from The Simple Art of Murder (1944):


“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”


I know The Big Lebowski is hysterically funny, and the Dude is one of the outstanding comic creations of the past couple of decades. But comedies, more even than more “serious” fare, must be seated in solid dramatic soil.

Consider the Dude’s character as a man with a code.

The Dude is kind. He’s capable of empathy for others (his demented landlord, the kidnapped Bunny, Maude the troubled daughter, even the Big Lebowski himself). He believes in justice. Someone stole his carpet; he wants it returned intact. (“It tied the whole room together, man!”) He lost the money entrusted to him; he feels an obligation to get it back. Despite his buddy John Goodman’s non-stop provocations to act unscrupulously (“A toe? I can get you a toe, Dude!”), the Dude remains honorable and relentless. He’s on the case. And his code is what sees him through to the end.

Even the Dude’s past, like Bogie’s in Casablanca, is replete with hints to his integrity.



I was one of the authors of the Port Huron statement. The first draft … not the compromised second. Remember the Seattle Seven? That was me.


Okay. How does this help you and me as we embark on the first draft of our new novel/screenplay/videogame/whatever?

  1. If we know our theme, we know our hero. The hero, remember, embodies the theme.
  2. If we know our theme, we know our villain. The villain personifies the counter-theme.
  3. If we know our theme, we know (roughly) our climax. In the climax, recall, hero and villain clash over the issue of the theme.

Consider, on this subject, our hero’s name.

“The Dude” is not just Jeffrey Lebowski’s moniker, it’s his identity as the filmmakers intend it. “Dude” is the generic term for a male in a certain American culture. We greet friends with “Hey, dude!” “Dude” is the equivalent of “guy” or “man.”

In other words, the Dude is Everyman.

He’s you or me.

Which brings us back to the idea of a Man With A Code.

In many ways, this conception is the pre-eminent theme in American books and movies. The archetypal American hero from George Washington to Davy Crockett to Atticus Finch is a man with a code.

Pick a hero in any Western.

In any cop story or detective story.

Even in a gangster saga (perhaps most of all in a gangster saga.)

They will always be men (or women) with a code.

Isn’t this idea, in fact, the central identity (or self-identity) of the United States? Isn’t that how we see ourselves, as individuals and as a nation?

Yeah, we may be fat and lazy. We may pursue our creature comforts a little too zealously. We may be shallow, we may be ill-informed; we may have our priorities all screwed up.

But down deep we believe in right and wrong and if you push us far enough, we’ll actually act on these beliefs.

That’s the Dude.

That’s our hero.

That’s us.

The Coen brothers played this idea back to us in a zany, stoned (“Look out, man! There’s a beverage here!”) vodka-Kahlua-and-cream way. But the underlying theme was dead serious and the story was as red-white-and-blue as Bogie and Bacall and as American as apple pie.
















Read this one first.
It identifies the enemy—what I call Resistance with a capital “R,” i.e. fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, all the forms of self-sabotage—that stop us from doing our work and realizing our dreams.
Start here.
Everything else proceeds from this.



  1. Michael Beverly on July 20, 2016 at 7:10 am

    Perhaps the greatest television series ever created was The Wire.
    Perhaps the favorite character (mine for sure) was Omar, his career: “I rip and run.”
    He stole from drug dealers for a living.

    His best line: “A man got to have a code.”

    The Hound (a similar type character) in Game of Thrones says nearly the exact same line to Arya when she says to him, “You’re fine with murdering little boys, but thieving is beneath you?”
    “A man’s got to have a code.”

  2. Mary Doyle on July 20, 2016 at 7:18 am

    The concept of theme has been the hardest one for me to grasp, but (thankfully) I finally figured out what my WIP’s theme is. Unfortunately, this was two years into the work, and despite having to throw out much of what I’d already written, it’s made all the difference in the rewriting. Every time you write about theme it reinforces the lesson so thanks for this and for all of the rest!

  3. Mia Sherwood Landau on July 20, 2016 at 7:33 am

    Is there an equal-but-opposite factor we need to consider? If we have a medium-level protagonist (not superhero) do we need to keep our antagonists on the same range as bad guys, meaning in the medium range, not deeply evil through and through?

  4. LarryP on July 20, 2016 at 8:12 am

    The other Big L

    40 years before The Big Lebowski was released, there was a movie titled The Big Land. In it, Gregory Peck (pre-Atticus) plays a wealthy owner of a shipping company who has left his home somewhere on the East Coast to follow his fiancé to some unnamed Western State (the Big Land).

    The people there can’t understand him; they think he’s a coward because he doesn’t show off his bravery — that’s not part of his Code. Rather than ride the untamed horse and be thrown in front of everyone — which seems to be some sort of right-of-passage — he declines, only to ride and keep being thrown until he breaks the horse when there’s no audience. When Charlton Heston’s character (one of Heston’s best roles — and a supporting one at that) calls him a liar in front of everyone, he again backs down from the fight — only to wake Heston up in the middle of the night to have that fight in private. The main antagonist is Chuck Connors (far and away Connors’ best performance), who has no code, and no honor, and so the climax is, as it must be, a duel, fought with Peck’s father’s dueling pistols (Don’t show dueling pistols in the first act unless you plan to use them in the third.) I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it.

    One more thing: because Peck’s character is from back East, Connors refers to him as “the dude”.

  5. Steven Pressfield on July 20, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    Mia, even for a “medium-level” protagonist, the stakes should be life and death, if not literally then in the protagonist’s lexicon. For Ferris Bueller, the stakes were nothing more than not getting caught by mom and dad. But for him this was everything, as never being thought uncool was life-and-death for Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. “Medium-level” is a very dangerous concept in drama. It’s like “lukewarm.” I have a feeling that’s not what you really mean when you use that term. I hope so!

  6. Sean Crawford on July 20, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    My parents, by word and deed, raised me to be like Peck. This made me the odd man out in school and the armed forces.
    Year later someone pointed out that my honesty and confidence would have intimidated other young males. I just said, “Oh” as I hadn’t thought of that. At least I tried to know my own strength and stay silent as needed.

    Some day I can use that as a plot or theme or something.

    Now in my weekly writing group we have the concept of “writer’s revenge” where you can mention people who were mean. In a way, I just did such “revenge.”

  7. Lise on July 22, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    I am reading “Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t!” and can’t thank you enough. “The War Of Art”, “Turning Pro” and now “Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t!” are hands down the most helpful books I’ve read on writing/art. Thank you! They are gifts. I recommend them to EVERYONE I know who writes/creates.

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