It’s been kind of a strange week. I have been hit by an inner ear issue, which has thrown off everything for me for the last week. It’s nothing serious–just a build-up of fluid in one ear. I’m not even sick or congested, really. I just have an intermittent earache/jawache and sort of cloudy hearing in one ear. The doctor gave me a plan to help drain the inner ear, and things are better, but if they don’t improve significantly very soon, I’ll be looking for an ear/nose/throat doc to see if there’s something more that can help.
So because I’ve been a little under the weather, and because I’m going to have family in town for the next week or so, my writing plans and schedule are a bit off. I had something else planned for today, but I didn’t get it done in time, and since I had another thought rattling around in my head, I decided to ramble about that for a while.
The Power of the Familiar
I finished reading Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction, by Derek Thompson, and it was very good and worth the read (I posted a short and sweet review on Goodreads). The points Thompson makes are relevant to both sides of my writing business–fiction and commercial writing.
One point Thompson makes is that people say they want new and different, but ultimately, they gravitate toward the old and familiar. Say what you want about tropes–they’re tropes for a reason. People respond to them. Just thinking solely about entertainment–books, movies, TV, music–the most successful pieces of entertainment have some level, deep down, of familiarity.
I think that when we want to be entertained, we don’t always want to work hard at it. We become consumers–people who expect the medium to satisfy those deeply human needs we have. We say that we want new and shiny, but when it comes down to it, we want familiar. Why are Hallmark Channel movies, romances, and Rom-Coms so popular and successful? Because the formula is easy to consume and satisfies the need we have for the “happily ever after.” Even though I don’t read romance, I do understand the appeal of it, and I definitely enjoy a good rom-com in the vein of You’ve Got Mail or Hitch.
There’s also the familiarity of nostalgia. A lot of sequels do well for a reason. Why are the Toy Story movies and the movies set in the Marvel universe so successful? It’s not just marketing. It’s nostalgia. If Iron Man hadn’t been such a massive hit back in 2008, it’s possible that no one would have cared about Tony Stark’s role in the MCU. But Robert Downey, Jr., made Iron Man an icon, and we keep going back for more because they satisfy something. We want to feel the same rush we felt the first time Tony Stark said, “I am Iron Man.”
The Power of Fans
We saw Top Gun: Maverick over the weekend, and I think it was absolutely worth the very long wait. It was a better story and a better movie than the original. But what’s interesting is how seamlessly it blended nostalgia for the first movie into an updated story and updated technology for the second. I know a lot of people have poo-pooed it for precisely the nods to the first movie, but I suspect that my generation–GenXers who have a little money and a lot of good memories of the 80s–do not give a flying fig about what movie critics think. We just want a good, old-fashioned, 80s, pro-America, Tom Cruise movie with some cool airplanes, a Kenny Loggins soundtrack, a little redemption, and a few snarky lines.
Which is exactly what Top Gun: Maverick is.
The massive success of Top Gun: Maverick speaks to another issue: fans vs. critics, or fans vs. legacy outlets, or fans vs. new and unfamiliar. Top Gun: Maverick understood and delivered exactly what fans wanted. It is not what typical movie makers or movie goers consume these days. Rather, it found exactly the notes that fans of the first movie wanted and delivered, ensuring that those fans would drag their reluctant teenagers to see it.
You see what happens when a successful franchise goes off the rails and delivers something the fans don’t want. We’ve all experienced this–a favorite artist, franchise, outlet, whatever decides to “go a different direction,” and that’s not what we want. We want familiar. We come to those particular artists expecting something specific. Sometimes the updates are fine–a fresh sound or story or whatever that still has some familiarity–but other times, the direction is so far off the mark that we just can’t stomach it.
And… we move on.
The Power of Tropes
Right after I read Hit Makers, I read The Martian (full review coming soon). I loved the movie, and the book was excellent (despite a couple of quibbles I had).
But what I was thinking about was this: The Martian is basically an old story wrapped in a new package. It’s the story of a man stranded somewhere and his fight for survival and persistent attempts to find rescue before nature kills him. It’s essentially just a Man vs. Nature story, which is one of the most basic, elemental plots we have as a human race.
Think about some of the most famous versions of this plot:
- The Odyssey (hero endures monsters, peril, and shipwreck during a harrowing 10-year journey home)
- Robinson Crusoe (man is shipwrecked multiple times and keeps surviving)
- Cast Away (FedEx employee survives deserted island with only his wits and a volleyball)
- Hatchet (stranded, but in Alaska and for middle schoolers) (maybe not super famous, but all of my kids read it in grade/middle school, which demonstrates how universal this theme is)
There’s also the fascination we have with new frontiers. Robinson Crusoe was written when people were first venturing into unknown oceans. The Martian draws on that fascination when it comes to space. How many movies have we seen where someone is stranded in space? How many movies ask us to pretend that the unseen and unknown reaches of the galaxy have potential terrors (or just complete lack of safety) that might kill us?
- Apollo 13 (based on a true story, but it’s compelling because it hits all those spots we like)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
And a lot more (several listed here).
Not to mention the totality of the Star Trek universe and the fact that one of its series was based entirely on ship lost in the Delta Quadrant, trying to get home.
We love tropes and traditional plots. We respond to them. They resonate with the human condition and the deepest parts of the human spirit. The trope of a man alone in the wilderness with only his wits and a few tools will never get old, because there will always be a new wilderness or new tools or new circumstances.
The Power of the Human Spirit
Finally, there’s one other aspect of The Martian that hits that sweet spot we like: the human spirit. We need to stories about people helping people survive and get home. Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut, even says this at the end of the book (and expresses similar comments at the end of the movie):
If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do. And because of that, I had billions of people on my side.
We desperately want to hear about people coming together to help hurting people. We need to know that we aren’t alone, and consuming entertainment that shows people helping other people gives us reason to think someone might come save us if we’re stranded.
We also need to believe that if we’re stranded somewhere, we will be able to use our own ingenuity and grit to tough it out. And that maybe we’ll even be able to make a few jokes about the whole thing.
We need to believe that the wilderness won’t kill us without a fight. But even more than that…
We need to know that the human spirit will live on.
Despite bad romances, misunderstandings, bad guys who want to do us in, white whales, or our own misguided decisions, sometimes we need to wrap ourselves in a story that reminds us that the human condition is endurable or even–dare we hope?–a condition in which we can thrive.
And that, my threes of fans, is why I write the stories I write.
Next week may be a rather truncated post–we’ll see what the schedule brings. But after that, I should be back on track, and I will very shortly have some fun new things to share with you all! Stay tuned!