Style Vs. Substance (And The Key To Mastering Both)

The other day I watched the movie Drive for the first time. I was excited to see it because I heard so much about it.

All year, movie critics had been lauding Drive as one of the best movies of the year. I also kept hearing that the movie was unfairly shut out of the Oscar race this year since it was not nominated for any major category.

So, I was glad to get a chance to finally watch the movie and see what all the fuss was about.

But after I watched the movie, I found myself agreeing with the Academy’s decision: Drive is not, in my opinion, one of the best films of the year. I also don’t think it deserved a nomination for Best Picture.

Here’s why:

Style Vs. Substance

I think what people loved about Drive was its style. And as far as style goes, I give the movie an A++.

Even though I’m not the biggest fan of the 80’s, the way the director paid homage to 80’s-type films through the use of style was truly extraordinary.

I also found Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of a stunt-driver moonlighting as a getaway driver to be truly engaging. It was clear he was acting like a cross between a Robert Deniro in Taxi Driver and a James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. (An enticing combination that is sure to make Gosling’s character go down in movie history as one of the most iconic characters in the genre.)

Finally, there was the first 15 minutes of the movie, which featured probably one of the coolest chase scenes in film I’ve ever seen.

But, in the end, although all of these parts were great, they were all still part of the movie’s style. In fact, it’s only the director’s intriguing stylistic choices that even make this movie worth talking about.

That’s because Drive, although stellar in style, lacked in any clear substance.

What Is Style?

I think I have a unique definition of style.

I believe style comes from how other people influence us. Our style comes from how others give us permission to open up the hidden parts of us that want to come out, but can’t otherwise.

Style is often the result of us gathering the alluring pieces of others together, and then making these alluring pieces our own.

For instance, in our writing, we may borrow our passion from Lorca, steal our rawness from Moraga, take our straightforward symbolism from Valdez, grab our specific-yet-universal themes from Hansberry, and snatch up our complicated mixture of matter-of-fact skepticism and deep spirituality from Tolstoy—but only because something about these parts of our favorite authors reflect something true about us, and our style.

In Drive, I could see clear influences from Scarface, The Godfather, and Goodfellas.
(And, of course, it’s most obvious influence,Taxi Driver.)

The “borrowing” of all these stylistic elements, from its predecessors, led Drive to be a movie that was pulsating with something both exciting and compelling.

Unfortunately, there was no substance to back it up.

What Is Substance?

If style is the arrival of our true nature as awakened by others, then substance is our final departure from the influence of others.

Substance is what we bring to the table that others did not—or do not—bring.

And that is why Drive, a movie that was excellent in style, failed completely in substance.

Although it effectively formed its own compelling style, the movie itself didn’t bring anything new to the table. If it told anything, it was simply re-telling a story that Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver already told.

The Key To Mastering Style

I think that the key to mastering style is to study others.

See what you find in them that is reflective of something in you that is itching to come to the surface. Look for other authors, people, or movies that reflect something in you that you want to be, or exemplify. Then borrow, beg, and steal from those sources.

No, I’m not talking about plagiarism. (Uh, that’s illegal.) I’m talking about you using someone else’s sense of style as a guide to finding your own sense of style. Study others to find that part of your essence that is eager to come to the surface, but is too afraid to do so without a role model.

Sometimes we don’t recognize our own style until we see it reflected in someone else. It’s often the case that someone else’s style deeply attracts us, lures us in, and even makes us a bit jealous. This “alluring” style is reflecting a part of you that is ready to be awakened. Take hold of it, then, and add it to your own growing repertoire.

The Key To Mastering Substance

If you’re trying to master substance, you have to ask yourself these questions first:

What do I want to say that no one else has said? What can I bring to the table that no else has?

Once you’ve found the answers to those questions, proceed to say what no one else has said, and proceed to bring to the table something no one else has brought to the table before.

And if you really think you have nothing new to bring to the table, you’re dead wrong.

Don’t believe the lies that they tell you: “idea scarcity” is a big fat myth.

Think about this: there are trillions of souls who are living (and have lived) on this planet and they each represent a single story that is yet to be written.

And you’re telling me that we’ve already finished telling every single story about every single person that has ever lived?

You’ve gotta be kidding me. That’s ridiculous.

Someone who says there are no more ideas left in this world is someone who is either too lazy, or is trying too hard to play it safe by avoiding stories people are too afraid to tell.

And if you’re thinking:

“Well, then. I guess substance takes a lot of courage then. You have to be willing to go where no one else has gone before.”

You’re right. Having substance has a whole lot to do with having the courage to go where no one has gone before, and revealing a part of you that you’re way too afraid to reveal.

Still Hungry For Something Meaningful And New

Style is great, but it doesn’t get you anywhere unless it’s backed up by something that’s meaningful—unless it’s backed up by substance.

In order to have substance, you have to be continually willing to go to a refreshing, truthful place. In my experience, the more you go to a refreshing, truthful place, the more people will be attracted to you.


Well, it’s because style without substance is like a having icing without cake. When you eat it, you get the delicious high from all the sugar, which is nice, but you’re always left feeling hungry afterward.

This is the reason that Drive didn’t make the Oscar race this time around: it was all style—great style—but no substance.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie certainly made for some great “icing” and gave me a wonderful sugar high. But I was still left feeling hungry afterwards.

Still hungry for something meaningful and new.

much love,


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34 comments on “Style Vs. Substance (And The Key To Mastering Both)

  1. Laith says:

    Great post Ollin.

    Your breakdown of the difference and importance of style & substance is wonderful. I’m sending a link to this one to a few friends of mine who will appreciate it.

  2. nancy says:

    Thank you for explaining to me why the movie left me cold. I agree, the style was engaging. But at the end I asked myself–why did I watch this whole movie, I didn’t even like the protagonist. I didn’t understand why the girl was so taken with him. Did his introversion allow her to read into him qualities that weren’t there? I love Ryan Gosling, especially in the movie with Steve Correll. He played a slime ball you could root for. I tried to comprehend him in Drive but the whole thing did not speak to me on a substantive level.

    • Ollin says:

      Oh yes! Crazy, Stupid, Love was one of the best movies of the year. That’s a much better Gosling movie to watch and it definitely has a lot of substance.

  3. Substance all the way!

  4. Tim O'Brien says:

    I too watched Drive the other day with great expectations. As the movie progressed I looked at my wife and stated that this movie was not worthy of high praise. I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was something missing. You nailed it perfectly. There was no substance to this movie. Great example of style vs substance. Actually, I wasn’t all that thrilled with the “style” of this movie either.

  5. Kari Scare says:

    Style without substance truly does lead to a shallow end. Sometimes, we may not have a new idea per say, but often can present an old idea in a new way providing we credit our sources and adhere to a strict policy of style and substance. With that being said, we must also pursue entirely new ideas with passion too. Also, the idea that we often don’t know our own style until we see it reflected in the style of others is quite profound. It extends to the fact that we often don’t have new ideas
    to give what we do substance until we have them cultivated by the way others have expressed their ideas. Sometimes, new ideas come in the form of a compilation of how we process the ideas of others.

  6. Rainamay says:

    Wow…okay..LOVED this piece, really. I have to tell you that the two things I have read that you have written have really hit home with me. Your ideas and concepts are intriguing to me in a sort-of familiar and validating way. I SO study people–attitudes, personality; cultural, religious, and societal influence. I am also writing a book, though not a novel (a bit too ambitious for a novice like me). The material that I cover can be echoed in what I would better term your “study” of substance vs. style rather than a critique of the movie Drive. I found your observation to be apropos to life and people in general, as everything is relative—and therefore, relevant. I enjoy reading your posts…from one rather expansive mind and imagination to another…KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!

    • Ollin says:

      Thank you! Yes, I think the post applies to life, too. Our personal style can be derivative of other people’s style and the substance we bring is the “new” thing we bring to the table that others don’t.

  7. I’m not sure what my writing style is. (I’ve admired authors that range from Elmore Leonard to John Steinbeck.) My aim is to make my writing more substance than style. Enjoyed your take on this. Haven’t seen “Drive,” but I get what you’re saying.

  8. Janet says:

    Thanks for another great post Ollin. You make having both the style and the substance look effortless. When I’m sometimes stuck on my own writing, I read your posts – not just for the tips, but for that ‘voice’ running through it that leaves me more positive. When I return to my own writing it’s always a little easier. I guess that’s an aspect of your style – one I’m is very grateful for!

  9. Style remains the same, we change. As a kid I would have eaten my foot off rather than watch Casablanca or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Now I watch them monthly with loving tears in my eyes. It just wasn’t your time to watch Drive.

  10. spinx says:

    Do you, by any chance, know a movie called “SCOTT PILGRAM”?

    If you do not, I very much advice you to give it a try——-you will get so much style that it will throw you off completely. A first-hand experience that will show you why too much style is suffocating.

    Because it is, it truly is. Too much style is hard to swallow.
    It can be distracting.

    Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola – they were so good because they knew when to LEAVE style OUT.

    Now, Ollin – what about a nice little post on the difference between voice and style?

    Bring it!


  11. Dane Zeller says:


    Once again, a post that starts me thinking.

    I see two kinds of writers of fiction: the wordsmith, who creates clever sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters; the storyteller, who sees the vision, the big picture, the driving force, the purpose. Generally, I don’t think these paths cross.

    The wordsmith deals in style, I believe. The storyteller, in substance. I did not see “Drive,” but I would guess there was no discernible story. Am I right?

    • Ollin says:

      I think style is important to help you deliver the substantive message. I think both are necessary.

      It did have a plot–and a story I guess–but I don’t think the movie said anything meaningful or new. That was my point.

  12. Hi Ollin,

    Wonderful post. I like this line -” the more you go to a refreshing, truthful place, the more people will be attracted to you.” We can all get confused at times that style is what we need, but really what we need is to be real and have substance. Thank you for a delightful read.

  13. Ollin,

    Thanks for another thought provoking post. It really is fascinating how visceral this whole concept of style vs substance can be. I feel bamboozled when I am seduced by style only to leave the experience feeling empty and unsatiated. However, when I encounter something rich in substance, I can almost perceive a shift in how I experience my own internal world as I internalize this movie, book, piece of art or whatever it may be. Good stuff!

  14. Rainamay says:

    Just saw it myself last evening, and I have to totally agree. I wasn’t glued to it, mesmerized by it, or even moved in any way by it. It was just an empty series of “action shots” with an air or up-in-the-air, loose-ends type of cascading plot. The relationships between the characters were shallow and nondescript and the ending left you going “okaaay???” I smell sequel. I don’t even know how it could have been lauded one of the best movies of the year. Makes you wonder from what kind of mindset these movie critics are viewing creativity and talent. It’s all been done. If there is a sequel, I won’t be in the least tempted to view it.

    • Ollin says:

      Right? But it might just be our personal taste. Who knows?

      • Rainamay says:

        I think it has more to do with “depth perception” (in a metaphoric sense). If you watch a movie to be entertained with flash and style, special effects, and feats of the almost real-life unattainable then there is no doubt you will be entertained. We all have to admit that there are some screenplays that are written that capture the essence of something very meaningful in one viewer but leave the one sitting next to them going “I don’t get it.” Whatever you are attracted to is actually a mirror. The bonus comes when it is not about style vs. substance, but the integration of them. Why settle for one or the other, when everyone really deserves both. I wasn’t really all that impressed with the style neither…overdone, and at the conceptual level, too linear and vague.

  15. MacReady says:

    Olin, new to the site and concept of blogs in general. I can see your point with Drive, but then again I think that was sort of the point of the movie. I don’t think this tore off Taxi Driver at all, it’s two totally different characters with two drastically different ideologies. Like you said under keys to mastering substance everybody has a story to tell. I think this was more a throwback to Clint Eastwood’s character The Man With No Name. Don’t get me wrong, there were several flaws with the movie that I was disappointed with, but I don’t think the film had a complete lack of substance.

  16. RD Meyer says:

    I especially liked your comment about the myth that new ideas don’t exist. They DO exist, but it takes creative minds to bring them out. And it takes deep minds to give them substance.

  17. Tammy says:

    I’ve definitely got to go rent it to see the difference for myself. Agree with RD Meyer that new ideas do exist!

  18. […] Morales uses an analysis of the movie Drive in Style Vs. Substance (And The Key To Mastering Both) to provide strategies for incorporating both in […]

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