Friday, January 21, 2022

The Same Story Told Ten Thousand Times

 Storytelling, Fantasy, Imagination, Story, Storyteller

I'm thinking of a story. Can you guess what it is?

It is the story of a young man who is whisked away into a parallel world. There he suddenly acquires a set of rare and overpowered special abilities that make him the strongest being to ever walk the face of that planet. Though he encounters endless hordes of enemies, he destroys them with ease. As he explores the world, he amasses a small army of nubile young women, all of whom adore him and are also highly skilled combatants. Together, they go on grand adventures to conquer new foes, find new treasure, and recruit more women.

What's the title of the story?


Whatever title you're thinking, the answer is yes.

Isekai harem stories are everywhere. They have the same setup, the same character archetype, the same story beats. From a high-level perspective, almost all of them are functionally indistinguishable from each other.

Here's another story. See if you can guess the title.

The story begins with a new and insidious threat to America. An evil organization is planning a campaign of terror and subversion. Conventional methods are useless against it. In desperation, the National Command Authority commissions the creation of a top secret black ops unit, composed of the finest warriors of the nations, and sends them to do battle with this foe. Using high tech gadgets, superior firepower and utter ruthlessness, this unit tears its way through the opposition just in time to defeat a doomsday plot.

What's the title of the book?


I've pretty much described every other special operations thriller that focuses on terrorism, espionage and shadow warfare. Whatever the title you're thinking of, the answer is yes.

Now here's a third story:

Average Jane working an average job suddenly encounters a smoking hot billionaire CEO who runs a global MNC. Though the billionaire has thousands of things to do every day, he is suddenly obsessed with her. He lavishes his time, energy, resources and attention on her, sweeping her off her feet. Sparks fly, igniting an all-consuming inferno of passion.

What's the title?

It's not Fifty Shades of Grey. It's every story out there tagged 'billionaire romance'—and there are more such stories than there are actual billionaires in existence.

This is the state of modern fiction. A genre is the same story told in an infinite variety of ways. The characters differ, the introductions differ, the settings differ, but it is the same plot, the same story beats, the same themes, the same target audience, the same plot structure, the same story.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing all the time. Different people have different tastes, and these tastes are in turn shaped and reinforced by the stories they consume. Writing to the tastes of your audience is a surefire way to make money.

But when every story is the same at the macro level, the only thing that distinguishes them is the micro level execution. Depth of character, interactions between characters, level of authenticity, worldbuilding, plot events. In other words, the writer's craft. Even that is lacking today.

Crack open any ten—or even any five—books from the three genres mentioned above written in the last ten or even twenty years. Look at the style, the characters, the action, the velocity of plot. For extra credit, see how well those characters reflect lived reality. And if you're looking at fiction from certain big-name publishers, track the number of times they ram politics down your throat. Now compare the craft in those stories to books written before 1980, or even 1940.

Here's the thing: it doesn't matter.

Whales dominate the publishing and reading industry. Whale authors and publishers put out huge volumes of content on the market. Whale readers consume huge numbers of books—at least a book a week, maybe even a book a day. When you feed the whales what they want, they buy up all the books you have, and you make all the money.

But here's the catch: whales are picky.

Whales rarely, if ever, read outside their genre. They read lots and lots and lots of new content, which means they rarely re-read old content. For those who speed-read their way through books, they're not stopping to absorb the prose and think about themes. They're swallowing all the words in front of them in great gulps, processing enough to track characters and plots before taking the next hit. They read to find and recognize the story tropes, the tropes laid down by the countless other stories before them. When they get their dopamine hit from pattern recognition, they move on to the next pattern, the next chapter, the next story.

Writing as a business is inherently conservative. It has to be, especially if you're a self-published writer or a small press. Writing and publishing a book is expensive. No one wants to spend weeks or months and thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on producing a book or a series only to see it flop. If there is a proven model, a proven strategy, a proven market, authors and publishers alike will hit it. If one strategy becomes dominant, then it becomes the only strategy everyone uses.

Should that happen, all stories will converge, becoming the same story told ten thousand times.

Big Entertainment uses a variation of this strategy. It's why you see remakes and reboots and endless sequels. Creating a new intellectual property is risky. You need to build a new audience from scratch, secure buy-in from a cold market, convince stakeholders that they will profit from the venture, balance advertising with potential returns, and so on. Building upon or recreating an existing franchise is the safe play. There is already an audience eager for whatever you have to offer. You just need to give them the same story with the same characters and the same plot points, just told a different way.

This strategy works best for multi-generational franchises. Adults and seniors get a nostalgia hit when they see the old story told a different way. They introduce them to their children, who are entrained by the patterns they see in what is, to them, a new story. When they become adults, the cycle repeats. Except that this time, the former children, never having been exposed to higher and finer works, are led to believe that these pop culture stories are the height of culture.

This is why you always, always, see the same Western superheroes on the silver screen, and have always seen them for generations. Why create a new franchise when you can tap into an existing market? If you have to create a new IP, then elevate a formerly minor character from the same universe, then throw in references to other events elsewhere. This retains your existing audience by offering them a different perspective of the same universe they know and love.

From a commercial perspective, this makes sense. Publishers and movie companies and self-published authors are all running businesses. They have to make money. This strategy is an easy way to make lots of money. But from a cultural perspective, it is a dead end. The same story told in ten thousand different ways is still the same story. There is no innovation, there is no creativity, there is no exploration. Without creativity, culture cannot grow. It stagnates—even decays.

We are now seeing the effects. An entire generation of writers have entered the industry knowing nothing but endless rehashes of tired tropes blended with postmodern feminism and woke politics. They spit upon those who came before them and do not trouble themselves to learn the craft. They believe that the epitome of the craft is stuffing the work with as all the tropes, pop culture references, snark and irony. The result: box office bombs, cancelled TV shows, books that barely sell.

We aren't at get woke, go broke levels of optimism. But we are seeing the breakdown of the strategy of nostalgia and pattern repetition. That strategy depends entirely on writers having the chops to tell the story in a new way while still entertaining the audience. When writers lack even the basics of the craft, the strategy falls apart.

Ironically, the big publishers are the best suited for driving innovation. They have the marketing budgets, the loyal fans, the distribution base. If anyone has the power to turn a niche genre mainstream, it's them.

LitRPG / GameLit may be highly popular with the indie crowd today, but it had its start with big publishers. When the virtual reality and MMORPG craze hit in the 1990s, we started seeing books set in virtual worlds. It got to the point where Tom Clancy, a thriller writer, got into the action by branching into the Net Force and Net Force Explorers franchises. In Japan, the publication of the webnovel Sword Art Online by a mainstream publisher took the industry by storm; in Korea we saw the same phenomenon with Solo Leveling. Today's indie writers brought in a new 'innovation': stats and stat boards, sometimes with cool graphics to make the stats appear more readable. In so doing, they made their books less like prose and more like menu screens from RPGs.

Big publishers have the leeway to work on genre-blending or otherwise unconventional stories. If they take off, wonderful. If they don't, they can eat the financial hit and make up for it by sales from other, more conventional products. Larry Correia's Grimnoir Chronicles combines superheroes, magic, dieselpunk superscience, alternate history, gunplay and cosmic horror. Marcus Wynne's The Sword of Michael is the story of shaman-warrior Marius Winter, blending shamanistic practices and high-octane firefights in a quest to harrow the depths of Hell. Christopher Ruocchio's Sun Eater series is clearly based on Dune at first, but it quickly sets off into the darkness in a fantastic exploration of cultural conflict, linguistic divides, the impact of technology on humanity, war between incomprehensible and transcendent beings, and the chain of decisions that leads a man down the road to atrocity.

And yet, most of them don't pursue innovation.

It's telling that the three authors mentioned above are, in one way or another, connected to the same publisher: Baen Books. What about other publishers?

The most charitable thing I can say about them is that they are committed to the time-honored strategy of telling the same story ten thousand ways. Except that a growing number of them think that the best way to put a new spin on the story is to pay homage to woke politics—just like every other publisher and megacorp around them.

It's telling that derogatory terms for mainstream entertainment and tired tropes have emerged into mainstream lexicon. Isekai trash, moeblob, Strong Wahmen, and more vulgar terms. It's not that these tropes have been overused; it's that they've been overused and executed poorly whenever they appear.

Under these circumstances, PulpRev becomes inevitable.

The promise of PulpRev is at once simple and ambitious. We study the grandmasters of the past and apply these lessons in the present to create a new culture for the future. It is a writing culture based on the essence of the pulps: awe and wonder, thrills and spills, exotic locations, ironclad honor, heroes and heroines the reader can aspire to become. We reject the homogenized nonsense of the modern world and embrace the vivid dynamism of the pulp age. By our hands, we will write a better world into existence.

Where does that leave me?

I am tired of seeing the same story told over and over and over and over again. Many people may be hardwired to chase the same story, the same tropes, the same patterns. I'm not. It doesn't generate any dopamine for me. It just induces boredom. When I see evidence that the writer's craft is lacking, it produces a disgust reaction so strong that I cannot bear to read beyond the first chapter. The market may presently be satisfied with the bland goop churned out by faceless armies of second-handers who seek only more money. I aspire to different goals.

I write the stories I want to read—and there are so, so few of such stories these days. The same story told an infinite number of ways has become the same story told ten thousand ways and it will become the same story told a thousand ways. Authors compare notes, tropes become codified, strategies and stories consolidate into a singularity of slop.

Am I the portrait of the eccentric and demanding artist? Of course. But how can I be anyone else?

At the same time, I have to make a living. For all the time and energy I've spent on writing, I have to see a return on investment. I simply cannot keep writing into the dark forever.

The market is larger than any one man. I cannot simply will the market to grant me money. I need to create value. I need to distinguish myself. I need a brand. That brand is based on my writing talent stack.

There are two routes to success. You can be world class at one thing, or you can develop a variety of skills that make you unique. I'm not in the former group. I don't have the connections or chops for that. Which leaves me with developing my talent stack—and thereby becoming world class in what I do.

For the past few years, I've working on just that. It is a constant work in progress, not the least because I am always seeking growth and innovation. Here, in this moment, is what my stack is made of:

Authenticity and Novelty

I grew up reading thrillers. Authenticity bled off into my writing style. At the same time, I don't care to write straight-up military thrillers these days. To compete with most other authors out there, I need to have experience or connections that I don't have, or else be willing to obsess over research that I don't have the time or resources to do.

Besides, I've read many of the same stories and same action scenes before. Outnumbered heroes using superior firepower and tactics to overwhelm larger but less competent and lower-tech antagonists. The deployment of a superweapon, or the prevention of its deployment. Lone hero Ramboing his way through a horde of mooks. In these pop culture scenes we see a reflection of American military history, a history forged in the face of banzai charges and human wave attacks, in the shadow of the atomic bomb and the sands of the Middle East. Why tell that same story when I know I won't be able to recapture its essence as well as others?

I'd rather focus on other possibilities, such as:

  • Battling cosmic horrors with cold weapons by adapting real-world tactics
  • Integration of magic, guns, swords, fists
  • Utilization of next-generation technologies to shape the battlefield—by both sides
  • Competent adversaries utilizing sound tactics and strategies

Instead of trying to compete with writers who are world-class at what they do in their field, I'd rather work in genres that opens new possibilities for exploration—and stand out from other writers in a genre that doesn't emphasise authenticity.

Character and Culture

Modern fiction emphasises bland, empty protagonists that the audience can pour themselves into. It is a quick way of self-identification so they can immerse themselves in the story and live vicariously through the MC.

It is nonsense.

Bland, empty people do not go on grand adventures. Bland, empty people don't have what it takes to stand up to a schoolyard bully, never mind an invading army or a demon king or a cosmic horror. Bland, empty people are barely noticed by other people, especially the wealthy, powerful and attractive who have the world at their feet. Bland, empty people are boring, and boring people are not worthy of great feats and accomplishments.

My protagonists are the kind of personas that people aspire to become. They are the best of humanity. They don't have to be perfect, but in every way they strive to become the best that they can be. They exemplify the virtues, they act with honour, they hold themselves to high standards.

These are the kind of people heroes and legends are made of.

But such people are not empty slates that arise from nothing. They are forged. They are shaped by the people around them, and the culture they inhabit. Thus I must also create cultures that support the generation of heroes. It is why the jianghu of Saga of the Swordbreaker isn't defined merely by power struggles and hedonism. Though smothered in the red dust of corruption and decadence, it is a culture built upon the wisdom of the sages, the beauty of the artists, and the teachings of transcendent beings. Those who can perceive and live by truth, goodness and beauty become heroes; those who embrace the red dust return to the dust.

And unlike most cultivation writers, I actually read and write Chinese, and grew up in the Chinese diaspora.

Soul and Sword

Pulp is an action-oriented genre. But action alone isn't enough.

Why does a man fight? Why will he not fight? What will he fight for? What will he not fight for? What will he do, and what will he not do? What are the consequences of his actions, for himself and those around him?

Violence is a tool. It has no more morality than a flame or a car. The morality of violence reflects the morality of the user.

More than action, pulp is a moral genre. Protagonists engage in violence to stop evil. Through their deeds, they celebrate and reinforce honour and moral values. In a hero's sword you see his soul.

Most writers are content with simple good and evil stories. I'm not. I'd rather dive deeply into such weighty matters and explore the impact on the soul. It may sound abstract, but it also has a significant impact on the action scenes. In Saga of the Swordbreaker, you can see how the protagonist's tactics, techniques and fight strategy changes over time as he continues his path as a cultivator. This comes to a head in the final battle, when he has grasped the essence of his art and the teachings.

The intersection of philosophy, physicality, psychology, morality and spirituality isn't explored much in fiction. The only stories I'm aware of that consciously does this is Vagabond by Inoue Takehiko, The Sword of Michael, and to a much lesser extent, the anime franchise Ghost in the Shell.

I have lived a life that is simultaneously extremely boring and extremely strange. I have seen firsthand this unexplored country. My experiences had bled into my pen.

How can I not write this?

Put all these elements and I have a talent stack no author can touch. Is it enough?


Or, rather, not yet.

This is a highly eclectic approach. It blends genres with casual indifference. It demands that the reader pay attention to the story, instead of skimming over sentences. It is not a strategy for whales who seek the same story told ten thousand times.


It is also a stack that can be applied to a huge range of genres.

I am not confined to any one genre. I can take this approach to any genre I please. When market trends change, I can change with it. I can take my writing patterns and insert them into wider genre patterns, and so create something that is uniquely, distinctively, mine.

Can this strategy work?

It worked for the writers of the pulp era. They freely blended tropes to craft stories of awe and wonder. Mystery, fantasy, exploration, Western, even sports. Conan the Cimmerian is the Western template applied to a historical fantasy setting, creating the quintessential sword and sorcery tale. Manly Wade Wellman combined his lifelong interests in folklore, music and the occult in the genres he covered. H. P. Lovecraft redefined horror by menacing the very foundations of a society that prides itself on scientific progress and religion.

But can it work today?

I don't know.

But I know this: I'd rather be a prime mover than a second-hander.

Want to see the latest incarnation of my talent stack? Check out Saga of the Swordbreaker here!

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