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 à 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).