Here’s the punch line: because certain themes/morals/ideas are always in fashion.
The problem is that “conventional wisdom” tells you to “write to market”. And in some genres (particularly Romance) there are spammers that simply crank out “consumable” fiction and then get it sold by discount prices, bot farm clicks, and buying reviews. And that hurts everyone. Part of Amazon’s “race to the bottom” problem.
Classics are that way because there are certain themes that keep coming back all the time. In Westerns, this was Max Brand – who only read the age-old classics and then put them into a Western setting. While he was living in Italy. (Real name: Frederick Faust.) These books are all still in print.
The original Star Trek was popular (despite all the efforts the network took to kill it) because Gene Roddenberry wrote “morality plays” in a space opera setting. Even that first inter-racial kiss. (Hint: Othello did it first in Shakespeare’s play of that name hundreds of years earlier.)
Take up another over-prolific Pulp Era writer, William Wallace Cook (mentor and friend to Erle Stanley Gardner of “Dr. Kildare” and “Perry Mason” fame.) worked over plots and motivations with his classic “Plotto”
He worked out that the single main motivation we all share is To Achieve Happiness. Under that, there are three main areas. But this is itself a subset of the Supreme Purpose we all have – which is “To Live”. The conflict there is that at some point we all have to meet Death. Instant plot: Character in a setting with a problem.
Cook broke this down further, coming up with three clauses for any “masterplot” for a book –
- A Clause: Protagonist
- B Clause: Action Origination and Pursuit
- C Clause: Action Pursuit and Termination
Someone wants something and takes action to get it and does – or doesn’t.
He narrowed down 15 possible types of protagonists, 62 possible B clauses, and 15 C Clauses.
This then gives you a possible 13,950 possible unique masterplots.
And that’s if you like mechanics.
If you get his book, you can see that these are really ways to find classic plots and interactions that run through most all of our great literature.
What Romance Scammers Don’t Get
For them, it’s simply re-writing the “one” plot that romance has and changing the setting and character descriptions. And they are selling to readers who simply want to read the same plot over and over and over. So these scammers have to constantly keep churning out new books, as they are writing “disposable” fiction.
An endless treadmill.
Of course, they think they’ve figured out Amazon’s algorithms to game their system. Good luck with that. Even the people at Amazon don’t know all their algorithms.
Meanwhile, the volume of books just keeps increasing and will never quit burying most of the authors who are coming out with new ones. And Amazon will keep working to keep as much of their income in-house as they can, so the income paid out to KU authors per page read keeps getting lower every year.
Again, race to the bottom.
(Oh, and a recent survey showed that KU readers don’t buy many books – why should they? Essentially, they get them free with their subscription.)
The Funny Thing about Parables
…is that they don’t have authors. Sure, there are attributed authors, but what survived is what is most popular – most valuable. Aesop, Lao Tze – those are assumed authors. But there’s evidence that those works were written or compiled over centuries. Even Jesus’ gospels were written hundreds of years after his death – and only the most popular parables got put into print. After they’d been told over and over through generations.
Parables are the most useful ideas of all time. Now fables like Aesop’s contain generations of stories. Of these, the ones that continue being retold are the most useful, the most widely applicable. Like Grasshopper and the Ants. Perennial classics. Eternal themes.
No, most of them aren’t ready to be made into three-hour movies. But the best Disney movies were made from exactly those fairy tales that have been told and retold like parables. The Grimm brothers didn’t invent these stories, they just collected them. Disney just re-wrote the violent parts and made them more family-friendly.
The point is that these stories have probably always been there. Perennial classics from the times before printing presses, and in some cases, before any written word. Told by storytellers who did that for their living. All their long lives. This is where history came from – via legends.
How to Write A Legendary (Perennial) Classic
You’ve seen these. Books that never go out of print. Louis L’Amour was told this about his books after he’d been writing for a decade.
You can also look them up on Gutenberg. Certain books that continue to be downloaded year after year, several thousand (or hundred thousand) each month.
What do these books have in common?
They usually contain all three physical plot structures (mystery, adventure, romance) in one book. Even if it’s a short story – like the bulk of Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” books.
But don’t take my word for it – check these out. (And yes, the modern film/TV versions of the Holmes’ books all deal with his one love interest as part of them or an early episode.)
And Shakespeare used that same concept. Three ways to keep entranced through his plays – in almost every case. (At least the most popular ones.)
To get and keep the reader entranced, no matter how many times they read the book.
Writers like that use eternal themes that keep showing up as popular from generation to generation.
What Are The Eternal Themes That Make Perennial Classics?
Cook really did outline these in his Plotto book. But you can also find them on your own bookshelves or the movies you keep watching over and over. Popular fiction. But forever popular, not just some “woke” retelling that has a temporary fad following.
Casablanca, High Noon, Citizen Kane, the first Star Wars movie, Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. To some degree, this is also the reason for cult classics like “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Pick up the classics and study them. Why do you like re-watching them until you know the lines by heart? Same as Shakespeare – because those lines have as much or more meaning in our modern day as they did then.
Those lines continue to change our lives as we embed them in our subconscious for later use.
That’s probably why the most popular Western-culture movies all have a positive ending. And the most popular Eastern-culture movies have a definite lesson. So we can model our own life against those character’s solution or new understanding.
As we change, going through our lives, so does our understanding of those stories. So they read differently every time we review them again.
Certain Themes Are Always in Fashion.
Hollywood has always been degrading our culture. Because they want to “push the envelope” to get people interested in the salacious. They think sex and degradation sells more tickets. (That’s just old news. It’s been that way at least since Sodom and Gomorrah – perhaps back to the Garden of Eden.)
Trick is – the G-rated movies always out perform in box office receipts most all of the R-rated ones. (Even while they keep moving the goal posts about what is PG.)
The reason is simple: they appeal to the widest possible audience.
Studying these most profitable, or most viewed films shows similar quality points. They bring up questions and conflicts that have run through history and bear re-examining by every generation. That point itself may be the reason for their continued popularity – each generation needs to visit those problems for themselves. And a young couple just starting out may still want to review and gain new perspective once their children have all left the nest. As well, on retirement, that same set of eternal issues will need new examination.
Such eternal themes, if modernized, can become new top hits and best sellers. Consider how “Romeo and Juliet” gained new life as “West Side Story.” Or Shaw’s “Pygmalion” was again a classic hit as “My Fair Lady.”
Some have said that there are no new plots under the sun – there are only new versions of them.
How to Write Classic Perennial Top Selling Books (and Screenplays)
- Simply read/watch the books/movies you really love. Over and over.
- Listen to your inspiration. At all times.
- Write the most effective way possible, take no shortcuts, deliver the best quality you can – and make the next one even better.
Of course, start by reading the oldest classics you can – as long as you like them – and keep studying the perennial-selling books. Ignore the modern “disposables” of any age.
That will make it possible for you to write books designed to be re-read over and over – because the ideas in them change the reader. And reading with “fresh eyes” is the result.
But you know this. Just believe in yourself.
And swamp yourself with only quality input and you’ll be able to generate quality output as routine.
So – have fun with this. The second best time to start is now.
Also published on Medium.