Or: The Difference Between Being Told Something and Experiencing it. A note to myself.
Something clicked while I watched Ready Player One with my son. Finally.
A bit past midway of the movie, I caught myself thinking, “yeah, here’s the moment when she thinks he’s betrayed her, and it looks like it’s the end and that things are going to fall apart. Wonder how they’ll resolve this.”
Then, I recalled that I thought just about the same thing in Black Panther. And in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
The movie took me back into its world then, but on the walk home, I realized I could find examples of this from many other movies and books as well:
- Hero and heroine who start off not liking each other (two heroes or heroines)
- Eventually, they overcome this dislike
- They join forces, many times with a dollop of the romantic
- Then something happens. Many times it’s a misunderstanding, sometimes something beyond the characters’ control leaps between the pair, seemingly putting an end to the new team
- Now all appears lost
But, this isn’t the Marquise de Sade or Baudrillard, so somehow, someway, something, almost always foreshadowed, will happen, and things will turn out positive. Not necessarily happy. But the bad guys will get defeated, and the pair with newly repaired differences head off to some future or another.
- Separate, but with mutual respect.
- Together as firm partners.
- Or good friends.
- Or lovers.
- Or some combo.
If only in memory—heroes do die at the end sometimes. All depends on the flick or book. And the genre.
Fleshing out this truism as I walked home was an idea from an intensive copywriting course I recently completed. In the class, Bryan Cohen beat into us is that people crave the familiar. Therefore, you give it to them.
You write copy that fits genre expectations so someone reading that little bit of text will think, “Oh. This is the kind of book I’d like”, meaning the book will have the expected problems, solutions, etc. that the person likes to read about.
For example, in romance: Each person has an issue, and the question is can they overcome these to find love. It’s what Romance readers read romances for. The same in for any genre. Even literary fiction, which appears not genre by definition, but it always has someone whose life/livelihood is in jeopardy, and if only they find something in themselves will s/he save the day. †
Then these ideas jelled. What I’d superficially known became obvious. To me. At long last.
This is why people watch movies. Or read books. Consume anything with a story in it:
To find what they crave, something satisfying to them. The kind of story they want to see or read.
Sure, different characters, places, plots, circumstances—different in the details, but fundamentally recognizable.
- Will Joe and Sally finally find love?
- Will Joe or Sally finally find it in his- or herself to do the right, the good thing, regardless of personal cost?
That doesn’t mean all heroes or heroines find or do the same thing, in the same way of course. If one is even passingly acquainted with Campbell’s Hero with A Thousand Faces, the monomyth is familiar: the one great story, in which the details are merely costumes various functions dress in while describing this one basic story.
So, while the details and specifics of the plot of a story are (or should be) unique, it will have the expected, craved, problems and solutions/resolutions of its genre. If it doesn’t, it has little chance of being popular. A cult hit, perhaps, but generally not popular.
I’d known this intellectually. I’d read about it. I’d seen lists of what sells and what doesn’t. I know romance/erotica is the best selling genre.
But only when I was sitting in a movie and heard myself thinking in genre tropes did I actually understand what I knew. That romance/erotica is a best-selling genre because it delivers the needed fix to the reader.
If it’s genre or sub-genre lit, it will have X, Y, and Z. If not, most readers/viewers won’t like it. And one thing people want, logical or not, is a positive ending *. Life is hard, mysterious, full of disappointments: Why would I spend my free time reading about unremitting misery and failure?
* Notice, not Happy, but positive. Even the hero dying in the end can be positive if they’ve accomplished something imporatnt with his or her life. Unrelenting dark fiction is out there I’m sure, but mostly with a small, cultish following.
Sure new genres do appear. Ones that actually work are freakishly rare.
And if you look at the numbers, take the outside view, books in established genres sell. Literary fiction as a “non-genre” continues to sell less and less. (Especially when the target audience is the author, or “people like me.”)
Now, about what writing what one wants to write vs. writing something to sell—I’m going to follow Jonathan’s lead, from A Perfect Blindness:
“I don’t want to play between shifts,” Jonathan says. “I want playing to be my shifts. How I make my living. To be what I do. All the time. I don’t give a rat’s ass about art. Purity, selling out—those are just excuses masquerading as virtue for people who can’t make it. I’m done with ramen noodles.”
Back here in Brooklyn, the answer to the question I recently posed—what should I write next? Is that I’m going to write genre fiction. Fantasy. It’s what lit the fire in me to write in the first place. And genre fiction sells. (Fantasy and Scifi are the second best selling genre, it turns out.)
And frankly, I can’t stand answering questions about how a relatively expensive book of literary fiction by a first-time author is selling.
’cause it’s not. Not really.And understandably. For many reasons.
So, I lift my glass to Jonathan who saw this before I did. Art, purity or selling out be damned. (Kills me that I created him and WROTE THAT LINE—YEARS AGO!!!)
Next up from the writing studios of W. Lance Hunt: portal/high fantasy, with a dose of sci-fi. About a middle-aged man (shocking like me) who stumbles on a reality that exists just beyond our own. Magic. Physics. Adventure. It asks the question: what if you could live out your childhood dreams as a middle-aged man. Of being a hero. Saving the world. Being more than a number, a job title, a marital status and an address.
(†I’m explicitly excluding experimental fiction, the sole purpose of which is to defy expectations, which is in itself an expectation, but so very protean. And extra hard to sell for that very reason.)
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