What Besides Sex&Violence Sells
The previous parts of this series about Marketing Fiction In A Changing World can be found at:
We've discussed the definition of "strong characters" previously, establishing that the technical publisher's term "strong characters" does not mean muscles bulging or "kick ass heroine."
In the Depiction series we started in Part 1 with Depicting Power In Relationships.
We tend to see our real-world surroundings in terms of "Power" -- such as "Does The Government Have The Power to XYZ?" or "Does a President have the Power to ZYX?" "Power To The People!"
What do we really mean by the term "Power?"
The bald truth is most people, including voracious readers of Romance or Science Fiction Romance (or even Paranormal Romance) have no clue what the term "Power" means to them, except that they want it.
The writer's job as an artist is to DEPICT their reader's ordinary reality in such a way that it makes the Fantasy aspects of the story seem "realistic." Not real, mind you, but realistic enough to believe for a little while.
Then, as you've seen in the recent political campaigning, "connecting with" the audience is the big, fundamental, and essential avenue of communicating.
"Connecting" means letting the ideas being discussed come from a person the audience members can "identify with" -- or in some way see themselves in.
In a job interview scene, you want to write the dialogue (very off-the-nose style) in such a way that the interviewee presents him/herself as having something in common with the interviewer, so they communicate smoothly.
Or if the applicant is to be rejected, you want to make it clear that the interviewee just can't connect with the interviewer/decision-maker.
This is important when talking to Human Resources interviewer, but it is crucial when talking to the person who will be the immediate superior depending on this new-hire to complete tasks expeditiously.
Note: this is VERY important in the case of a hit-man applying for a contract from a Mob Boss.
So there are ways to study political posturing to discover techniques to employ in creating all kinds of fictional scenes.
One of the most critical techniques to learn about dialogue is that all dialogue is mortal-combat -- a jousting match between two (or more) people looking for an advantage, doing one-upmanship, positioning themselves in the power-dynamic of a Relationship -- or establishing a Relationship where they can define their own position as "powerful."
In real life, that's not always true. There are all kinds of speech used for all sorts of purposes, and some of them actually do lend themselves to becoming a Scene's core dialogue. There is Intimacy that does not have a power-agenda. And there is Intimacy that does have a power agenda.
In general, only a few pages of a 400 page book can be devoted to non-power-agenda dialogue. Dialogue (as opposed to real speech) has an underlying power agenda.
The reason for the exclusion of non-power agenda Dialogue is that (in general) it doesn't advance the Plot. All the words, every one, on the page must advance the plot, advance the story, AND enhance the context the characters are living in (description, narrative, exposition are the tools for context enhancement).
Non-power-agenda Dialogue can advance the Story when it does not seem to advance the Plot.
As we've discussed before, I am using the following definitions for story parts -- different writers use different terminology, but every professional fiction writer knows and manipulates these components.
Story is defined as the sequence of changes in the Character due to the impact of external Events (actions by an opponent). Plot is defined as the sequence of Events.
In other words, regardless of the ostensible subject matter, the conversation between characters that survives the final-cut is about Power.
Two kinds of Power that the writer does not have to explain to a reader are Sex and Violence.
They sell big, are considered the essential ingredients in a work intended for large and diverse audiences, because they need to explanation, and they need no translation for foreign audiences (Filmmakers aim at World Distribution, and sub-titles just don't cut it if they must contain polysyllabic words.)
So "action" sells because it is violence, and usually needs no translation. You can depict action easily in Show Don't Tell.
Think of the 1980's film THE TERMINATOR.
The Terminator had plenty of Romance, as did the Indiana Jones films. So did The African Queen which was much more Relationship driven than violence driven -- so they added leeches, mechanical breakdowns, and threats.
If you haven't seen those films, dig them up and watch them. Streaming has become the most invaluable asset for a writer. You can pick up long-standing trends, and analyze what does not change decade to decade.
So Romance was top of the heap in World War II movies made in the 1950's, but it was more expensive to depict airplanes in dog fights and big explosions. Good closeups were cheaper. The sex scenes were "go to black" -- they happened off-screen.
As technology advanced, audiences came to adore the explosions, destruction of cities, massive crashes, and other violence they had only been able to imagine. More minutes of a film were devoted to destruction and violence than to the slow-sweet development of a Relationship before sex.
As social values shifted, sex (nude scenes) replaced "go to black." Step by step, Romance took a back seat to Sex.
Whatever wasn't a nude scene had to be a violence scene, and those films and novels that spent more time on sex and violence and less on "What she sees in him" made bigger profits -- because "What She Sees In Him" is very hard to translate across languages and cultures.
All the way to 2014, marketing machinery has caused writers and film makers to trim back the time spent on Relationship and include only nudity or violence (or sometimes both at once).
Some very broad trends in the reader/viewer's community can be traced parallel to this trend in entertainment.
These are decade-long waves of change. The point in discussing them here is to pick up a trend and extrapolate it to The Next Big Thing.
So here's a list to consider and research on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
1) The disintegration of The Family (trace Leave It To Beaver and The Brady Bunch all the way to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Lost)
2) The displacement of Loyalty, Patriotism and Honor with Betrayal, Draft-dodging, and Hatred of Parents.
3) The replacement of Character Arc expressed in Poetic Justice with Characters who just win and indulge their emotions (with sex or violence), mostly to just escape their fate.
These are 3 trends that depict the changes in the consumer's real world and are reflected in what those consumers (your market) enjoy in entertainment.
There are reasons for taste preferences in statistically large markets that can be most easily understood by writers via Astrology. Here is the index post to all the Astrology Just For Writers series -
Astrology gives a handy way to capture the timing of generational shifts. Marketers target people between certain ages because at those ages they tend to be more vulnerable to peer-pressure, sales pitches, and tricks of the Public Relations craft.
That "certain age" lies between the advent of sexual awareness and mastery of the overwhelming emotions and physical demands of the body. The demographic centers around about age 18, but spreads from 13 to 35, with decreasing gullibility after age 30 (after the first Saturn Return when Saturn (discipline) has been full experienced and internalized.
As they say: Never trust anyone over 30 -- they might actually be able to think for themselves. Wisdom sets in at 30.
In other words, at certain ages, humans tend to be better "Marks" for the grifter's tricks. Public Relations is the grifter's art enhanced with mathematical precision.
As entertainment producers discovered sales increased when sex&violence were ingredients, and followed the trend to making sex&violence the only ingredients, so too will they follow the trend to something that comes along and sells better. Could easily be Romance again, with a new twist.
Keep in mind that it is to the advantage of Sellers to keep the Buyers immature and unable to discipline (Saturn) their own emotions (Moon, Venus) so that they will identify with characters who have no self-discipline who "model" impulse-buying and use the excuse "I couldn't help it" when failing to resist an emotion.
It is the hallmark of the teen years when sexuality kicks emotions into high gear that the teen's personal philosophy is founded on the conviction that the only right or wrong in the world is rooted in how you feel. And we see that reflected in popular fiction -- especially Romance --- that there exists such a thing as an "irresistible" arousal. And that is true for the immature.
Thus marketers have a vested interest in fostering the assumption of helplessness in the face of your emotions. If they can induce in you a desire for something, you won't even try to resist because resistance is futile.
The writer's concept "strong character" means a Character whose character is "strong enough" to impose discipline on emotions, even raging arousal, and not succumb -- not even consider succumbing -- to an inappropriate impulse.
In fact, a fully mature human never even has an inappropriate impulse. That is the Strongest of Strong Characters. Such people do exist in real life, and every culture has a term for achieving that level of maturity and a theory about how to achieve it. The achievement was once assumed to be a universal goal of all humanity and was lauded, applauded and rewarded with Rank and Power.
In fact, the only humans trusted with Power over other humans were of fully mature, strong character. Others who achieved Power without that Strength of Character we distrusted and rebelled against.
Thus Hollywood depicted Role Model characters, such as The Lone Ranger,
who had achieved that ultimate strong-character position dealing kindly with people who did not have strong character and thus inspired a generation to emulate strength of character (even if they didn't have it). It was an admired and achievable trait to be beyond temptation via the emotions.
See The Untouchables - Elliot Ness's take-down of the Chicago Mob by being incorruptable - beyond the temptation of money, and beyond the fear of being targeted by a hit man.
Or P.N. Elrod's brilliant The Vampire Files series.
The Vampire Files Now is in audiobook, too.
Character Arc means the experiences that develop that kind of incorruptible strength of character -- all the way to the point where the enticing vision does not in any way arouse or entice.
We call that an old fashioned value. So writing it into a Romance can be a radical departure.
Maybe we won't go all the way back to "go to black" for sex scenes - but maybe onward to less air-time (or page-words) spent on nude athletics and more spent on the complex and abstract reasons for accepting this person and rejecting that one according to the self-discipline exhibited by that person.
This change will come from a book and/or film that just includes that ingredient among the sex&violence.
So where do we look for this new ingredient that will out-sell sex&violence?
First we have to examine where sex and violence come from in our society, and what those two things represent artistically, then find what other elements exist in human experience that harmonize with them.
In the Astrology Just For Writers series, I pointed out how Astrology describes the relationship between sex, violence, and love.
The sign Scorpio is Ruled By (or associated with) the planet (or whatever they are calling it now) Pluto. Scorpio is the Natural 8th House which represents sexuality and death, as well as taxes and other-people's-money. In other words, via the association of Scorpio with the 8th House, we learn the relationship between money and sex, and thus the reason why our Elected Politicians keep getting caught secretly (Scorpio and Pluto represent deep secrets which when revealed become scandals) having sexual affairs and questionable financial dealings.
Our culture sees sex, violence, finance, Power Over Others, and secrecy as separate things, as if you can have one without all the others.
Scorpio Sun Sign is known for such intense privacy preferences that they are considered secretive.
Artists (such as writers) depicting this culture or marketing to this culture, can "see" (with the mind's eye and artist's understanding of poetic justice) that all these separate matters are the same thing.
Scorpio is raw, physical, animal sexuality, and also represents the deeper and more potent manifestations of Violence. 8th House is other people's Values or the Values of The Public. And Values includes money, which means taxes if the topic is government or power-over-others.
The current USA government policy is to use Taxes to shape the behavior of citizens. We tax cigarettes to reduce smoking. We tax gasoline to prevent driving so much. This practice puts "Power" into the hands of the few -- the elected officials and bureaucrats who have climbed up the Civil Service ladder to gain decision making power in Agencies such as the IRS, NSA, EPA.
Those who make decisions governing your behavior, incentivizing healthy eating , or dis-incentivizing asocial behavior such as tax-dodging, have positions of Power.
If those individuals are individuals of Strong Character, they can't be bribed, just as Eliot Ness couldn't be bribed in The Untouchables.
And if they have Strong Character, they won't use their Power just to assuage their own emotions. Say for example the emotion of Fear. Tax Policy and EPA Regulations are Powers that can be used by those who fear global warming to assuage their fears by forcing people to stop doing what the Powerful believe causes global warming.
People driven by Fear can't be stopped by Facts.
People driven by Greed (for money) can't be stopped by Facts.
So if one side of the global warming argument is driven by fear of global warming, and the other side is driven by greed for money (based on Fear of poverty?), it doesn't matter what the Facts actually are. No fact will alter the behavior of either side because the behavior wasn't fact-based to begin with.
We all do this kind of disconnected thinking. We all have an inner, emotional life that is fraught with Internal Conflict which drives our Story Arc. That's why novels depicting an Internal Conflict are so vivid.
It doesn't matter nearly so much what the Internal Conflict of a novel-character is, the mere fact that it is an Internal Conflict establishes rapport with the reader. A character who has an internal conflict that they "project" psychologically on their external world is a Real Person to a reader.
Thus if you are bringing a couple together where one is frantically working to stop global warming and the other is trying to stop the interference with his business by global warming fanatics, you capture the readers from both sides of the argument.
Most people don't know why they believe what they believe. If your characters likewise don't know or care why they believe what they believe, and so are intransigent in their beliefs, you have a conflict that you must resolve in the end.
"To Agree to Disagree" is not a resolution of a conflict that can lead to a plausible HEA.
If this story is driven by sex and violence -- you will end up with one of this Couple murdering the other.
But if you make the story of the collision of a Believer with a Believer into a genuine Romance (Science Fictional or Paranormal) you another thematic dimension to the innate Sex&Violence collision of say Greenpeace with Whalers.
That thematic dimension is the core theme of all Romance in all sub-genres: Love Conquers All.
People driven by Fear (of Global Warming or Personal Poverty) who have the Power to make themselves feel safer can't be deterred by any arguments.
Fear is overwhelming, primal, and even more irresistible than sexual enticement. If these people (government officials or businessmen) have grown up convinced that emotions can not be resisted and had that proven by reading stories about overwhelming sexuality, then they won't even try to master Fear.
But we have the theme of Love Conquers All.
Love Conquers Fear.
Love Conquers Sex&Violence.
What's the difference between Sex and Love?
Raw Sex which is the flipside of Violence is represented in Astrology by Scorpio and Pluto.
Love which is the flipside of Beauty is represented in Astrology by Libra and Taurus. Venus rules both Libra and Taurus, and has many associations, all of them compatible with Romance which is best symbolized by Pisces ruled by Neptune.
Love is not Romance. They are two different things, which is why we have so many "Honeymoon Is Over" stories of shattering divorces within the first 5 years of a marriage. 5 years about covers a Neptune or Pluto transit which define the epochs of our lives.
Likewise Love is not Sex.
Love is all about what you see (Libra, Natural Seventh House, Partners, the Public, open enemies) in (internal conflict) another person. What you value (external conflict) (Taurus, Natural Second House, Money, Beauty, Moral Values) in another person grows out of that Love.
Love is all about what you are capable of perceiving -- not necessarily what is really there.
Love is Blind, as they say. The symbol for Libra is Blind Justice holding her scales. Being "blind" in the external eye allows "the sight" with the inner eye, allows seeing into other people.
So your job as a writer is to convince the reader that the reader is smarter than you are, and that the reader is able to see the true inside of at least one of the characters -- to see deeply and accurately enough into a Character to Love that character.
The easy way to do that is to create a Character who is ostensibly an adult but is emotionally immature enough to have no strength to overcome emotion such as Fear or Greed. His own emotions have Power over him, and therefore anyone with Power over his emotions (of fear, greed, jealousy, etc) can force him to do their bidding even against his own will.
Remember, with Hypnosis, you can not get someone to jump off a roof and commit suicide -- but with control over his emotions, you can -- provided he has no control of his emotions.
The difficult part of telling such a Weak Character's story is to convince the reader that the experiences you put the Character through will cause the Character to strive for strength and thus to become a Strong Character.
Right now, Love doesn't "sell" very well without Sex&Violence added. So many novels substitute sex and/or violence for studied exploration of the character's inner life. This substitution makes it impossible to depict Poetic Justice.
Poetic Justice is the Plot Event that brings the reader's sense of right and wrong into alignment with the Character's resolution of the Character's internal conflict.
Poetic Justice is Poetic (a harmony) and Just (making things come out right).
Poetic Justice is about the Beauty (Venus) of Justice (Jupiter). The harmonizing element is Mercy. Justice without Mercy is neither just nor poetic. But Mercy without Justice creates co-dependence which is not Love and thus conquers nothing.
If you can depict Love conquering All, especially today's most potent Fears, without flinching from depicting those Fears, you may turn the tables on the Marketing decree that only Sex&Violence sells.