January 17, 2021

Thrillers - The Genre Of Our Time

As Shawn Coyne states in his book The Story Grid, "what determines the degree of popularity of any one particular Genre [for a Story] are the vagaries of the time period in which it has been written." Westerns are practically nonexistent these days, and space movies are only just recently making a comeback while zombies and vampires have been mostly relegated to the background, so to speak.

However, the one Genre that Coyne posits is representative of our time period (and has done so for a few decades now) is the Thriller (1).

The following text is an excerpt from The Story Grid on this very topic, which I find particularly √† propos considering the topic of the blog post I shared on New Year's Day this year. Be warned, it's long, but really, really interesting!

The thriller is the Story form of our time because it concerns the individual coping with omnipresent and often difficult to even comprehend antagonism. Thrillers boil down our modern experience to a psychological core that [every] person on the planet can understand, sympathize and empathize with.

Contemporary civilization is a dizzying mix of sensory input designed to elicit individual compliance and subconscious behavioral action. We are inundated with psychically damaging messages--
we're too fat, we're ugly, we're low class, we're not cool, we're lazy, we're never going to make it. On top of those assaults are prescriptive solutions to overcoming our inadequacies--go on a diet, join a health club, go to college, wear hip-hop clothes, take this seminar. They are targeted to us every single day, hour, minute, and even second of our lives.

And these are no longer static images from the Mad Men era. They are loaded in full High Definition motion on billboards, in cabs, on buses, on the Internet and every single cable channel. While the commercial messaging is impossible to ignore or avoid, it is modern life's "control" messaging that really knocks us on our asses. (. . .) 

The granddaddy of all messages we receive is this: WE' RE NOT SAFE.

We are told tat there are boogeymen at every corner. Al Qaeda, and now ISIS and a slew of other terrorist organizations that we know little of, want to destroy us. Pedophiles are stalking our children. Our government is failing us. The world is getting so hot, it will soon melt down. Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, are imminent (2). Storm watches, breaking news, lone gunmen, sociopaths, psychopaths, liars, cheaters, swindlers, gangs, feral youth, pirates, unstable veterans, racists, sexists, drones, the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the Police, MI5, MI6, the Stasi, KGB, DEA, IRS, drunk drivers, texting drivers, homeless people. . . The fear factory is churning out product like no other time in history.(3)

To make matters worse? We all live alone. We belong to no protective tribe. The nuclear family is a couple or just one parent with a kid or two or three. Perhaps all from different partners. Single parents pulled in a million directions. It's just mano a mano.

This is why the thriller is the form that holds the blockbuster baton these days.

I also think we are attracted to the thriller because of the chaotic and yet intricately connected character of our age. Modern man is assaulted with data from the moment he wakes to the moment he falls asleep. While we are all connected now by the World Wide Web, we don't see any real grand humanitarian design coming to bear as a result. There are millions of people starving, being slaughtered, used as slaves, and our economies are in complete flux. Everything that modern man once held dear and believed (technology will solve all of our problems) is now in doubt. There just doesn't seem to be any way to navigate the world without feeling in one way or another victimized by forces beyond our control.

In order to find our way in this chaos, we seek stories that give us hope and faith that we can persevere.

While over the top action fantasy stories are certainly still viable and commercially irresistible, long form stories in novel form that do not sugarcoat reality or simplify success help satisfy our need for order. As we often feel like we have no impact on the world whatsoever and are treated by the powerful as consumption machines to be programmed by the latest algorithms, we deeply identify with thriller protagonists.

The thriller is all about one individual negotiating a complex world, living it to the limits of human existence, and usually triumphing over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism. Isn't this a description of what we often feel we are up against every day of our lives? We love thrillers because they reassure us that there is an order to the world and one person can make a difference, have an impact. When we leave a great movie thriller or finish a great thriller novel, we have a catharsis. The experience purges our gloom and gives us reinforcement to stay the course.

I told you it was a long passage, didn't I? :) But I think it's very interesting to see and understand possible reasons for the prevalence of thrillers in our day and age. Somehow, that genre speaks to us, at some deeper level, helps us make sense of the world around. I wonder if this would have helped people at the start of the 20th century when they suffered from a newly diagnosed disease called neurasthenia?

In any case, let me reassure you should you be wondering while reading this post: I do not currently have any plans to diverge from writing fantasy(4), though I will most definitely play with the type of Story Genre within Fantasy (including, potentially, thrillers and/or horror, who knows?).


(1) I believe that technically the Romance genre is still at the very top, and will remain so as the quest for true love will (thankfully, might I add) always been our top priority, but in terms of media noise and wide appeal (I don't know why there's such a bad rep for "chick flicks" or "chick lit" in N. American culture among a sizeable portion of the population), thrillers are "It."

(2) And now we're dealing with COVID-19 and its mutations, without including talks of bioweapons potentially already being developed for use.

(3) In Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman, it's stated that the news churns out more horror stories in times when such horrors are sparser than before. As the number of plane accidents went down, for example, when such an accident does occur, the news spills even more stories on the subject matter, until that is all one hears, causing people to develop more fears of flying at a time when flight is actually safer than before. The same phenomena holds true for other terrible happenings: the press will scream louder about such occurrences if they are more rare, giving it a disproportionate (sensationalized) importance in the overall scheme of things. 

(4) Though I do have a story on the backburner that is more dystopian scifi (and no magic per se), but it's a rarity among all my other projects (even other future scifi projects would have strong fantasy elements to them).

December 31, 2020

Best Wishes For 2021 (& Beyond)

I am no oracle, and thus, like so many others, I have to say that 2020 was not at all what I had expected it to be. Not even close. In fact, it forced me to confront human nature at its vilest, to the point where I often lost all hope in humanity.

But I am now reading Humankind by Rutger Bregman (a wonderful xmas present I just received), and I am more than willing to change my attitude. As Bregman remarks early on in his treatise, "our grim view of humanity is also a nocebo (1)." Meaning that, if we see our neighbors as dipshits ('scuse my French), they will be dipshits. A self-fulfilling prophecy that we would all, I think, wish to avoid.

It is the Law of Attraction in full effect. We get what we expect to get. "We are what we believe," Bregman states. "We find what we go looking for. And what we predict, comes to pass."

The problem is that we have been trained to be cynics, to view even kind acts as being conducted for selfish reasons at best (2). Interestingly (and alarmingly, I might add), when economics professor Robert Frank tested his students' generosity, he found that the longer they studied economics, the more selfish they became, and concluded that "[w]e become what we teach."

So instead of focusing on 1001 doomsday scenarios, I wish to shift my focus to more positive potential outcomes for our world instead. I want to believe that humans are more often than not kind to one another, that we all wish for things to be better for everyone, even if we don't always agree on the best way to get there. But we are still trying.

I believe that is the reason why the Hopepunk genre was created as well--instead of focusing on dystopian futures where technology allows the worst of our natures to be expressed as in Cyberpunk stories, for instance, Hopepunk novels show the good that could come of it (3). These are the types of messages I would like to focus on in 2021 and onward.

After all, I posit that the most powerful passage in the whole of Victor Hugo's Les Mis√©rables is when Jean Valjean is caught by the police after he stole a silver candleholder from a kind priest. But instead of turning him over to the authorities, the priest tells the cop that Jean Valjean actually forgot the second candleholder (they're a set), for he had given him both. It is a lie, but one that changes the main character's life and worldview around. And for the rest of the story he will strive to reciprocate that kindness with others.

Of course, this doesn't mean that remaining true to this new vision of the world will be easy. It's so much easier to be a cynic than to believe the best of people, just as it's easier to destroy than it is to build. But isn't it so much more worthy a quest?


(1) Nocebo is the opposite of placebo. So if instead of giving you a fake pill telling you it's a drug that will cure you, and you thereby do heal from your illness, your Doc tells you she was mistaken and gave you something that makes you gravely sick, you are more than likely to get sick. That's how crazy powerful our mind is.

(2) The news (real and fake) is considered a "mental health hazard" which likes to play on our fears as it's the easiest way to boost viewers with dopamine hits (like cocaine!) that will make them keep watching for more . . . and therefore allow the news stations/services to rake in more dough. How many of us have caught ourselves doom-scrolling? This is the "mean world syndrome," and it leaves those who follow the news feeling sad, depressed, stressed out, and their hearts full of venom for others. I am guilty of this, too, for, with the advent of COVID-19, I ended up spending a lot more of my time checking the news than I used to. Not only tat, but the media is also a tool for controlling "the masses" that political arms love to use (though they don't like to admit to it, as the case with the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed) and has done so--and will continue to do so--for ages, so if we want to be rebels, the best would be to ignore the news as much as is safely possible, and instead focus on living as best we can while holding to high moral standards such as love and kindness.

(3) In this Tor.com article, you can read more about this relatively new genre that aims to refocus our zeitgeist from disillusioned and cynical (hence why we have so many anti-heroes in our TV shows and movies of late) to optimism and other positive traits. Interestingly, for those of you who enjoyed the BBC's most recent The Musketeers series, it was also the reason for the director to bring that series about--he wanted to bring back main characters who, despite their flaws, keep their hopes up, and try to be just and kind no matter how difficult things may get.

November 30, 2020

December 1913 - The Year Before The Storm


We now enter the last month before the year when the whole face of Europe, and warfare, changed.

The Mona Lisa painting, which has been missing for two years, is recovered in Italy. Its thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, had been a temporary glazier at the Louvre, but the Paris police had forgotten to take his fingerprints, or to look under his bed when they visited him at his humble abode. Vincenzo is acclaimed a hero by the Italians, 'an avenger of the thefts of Napoleon.' The painting is still returned to the Louvre, however, and the thief sent to jail.

In Babylon, the Tower of Babel is discovered at Etemananki.

The year closes with celebrations of the new year.

Not knowing what kind of hell is waiting for them on the other side.


1913, The Year Before The Storm, by Florian Illies