It’s all about the “story physics.” In this case, 100 million examples of how and why story physics are the most important consideration in the crafting of a story.
Maybe it is. But that’s not the right question… at least here.
Did you see the film Unbroken, which documents some of the most heinous human suffering and cruelty ever shown in a mainstream film? Is that porn?
But it’s a true story, you could truthfully say. But so is what happens, thematically, in “50 Shades of Grey.” It’s real, folks, deal with it. It happens. I will never understand the moral license to show human torture and death in heinous ways in comparison to showing the expression of human passion in ways that don’t happen to float your boat.
And it’s not domestic abuse, either, when both parties lock the door behind them and sign up for whatever happens.
Besides, if you didn’t like the book or movie, there are 100 million people who disagree with you, and another 1oo million who couldn’t care less. Which puts you in a very loud, rather inexplicable minority of people who don’t really know what they’re talking about.
Bad writing? Maybe. That’s why we have book and movie reviews. But morally reprehensible? It’s no more heinous than many of the tax returns and court records of half the people who are bitching about it.
Check your own closet before you proclaim yourself the voice of the so-called (and self-anointed) moral majority.
But that’s not really today’s question, either.
Learning from the novel itself… there’s no debate about the upside of that.
The novel, 50 Shades of Grey, and it’s two series successors, have sold 100 million copies, and now the movie version has added t0 the legend by grossing a quarter of a billion dollars in its opening week alone. Much like The Davinci Code – which sold 80 million hardcovers – it is widely dissed by writers who seem to believe they could do better.
That’s funny, actually. Or pitiful, not sure which. Because if you’re not paying attention to what is working out there, you’re not really engaging in the business of writing publishable fiction at a professional level.
You may be one of them. Read on, because there’s another way to look at it that might ignite a light bulb or two in your career.
Everyone who has access to an online venue seems to be dumping on this story, if not for the writing itself, then for the subject matter. “Outrage” is the theme of many reviews and op-eds, people who call it “domestic abuse” and downright perverse. The actors themselves are being quoted out of context to support this point of view.
I saw the movie with my wife, and as we left the theater a guy behind us said, “Can you believe there’s actually people who do that stuff, like, in real life?”
Welcome to the rock under which a great many people live their lives, with blinders on. Welcome to the seat of judgment, which holds that everyone should think as they do, spoken with the hubris-riddled security of knowing that your listener has no idea what you are doing in the shadows of your own domain.
There are orders of magnitude more instances of true non-consensual abuse, both physical and emotional (that has nothing at all to do with kinky sex) among domestic partners than there are homes with handcuffs and riding crops hidden in the back of a closet. And there are literally millions of those, some of them right in your neighborhood, and if you ask those people if they’re happy with their sex lives, odds are they’d look you in the eye and say, “Yes, and probably a lot happier than you are with yours.”
And in many cases, they’d be right. That’s why we have books about romance and intimacy, so we can have a vicarious experience that takes us out of our “normal” for a while.
So let’s clear the air. Let’s get outside the moral debate and create a context for writers to understand why this story works to the massive extent that it does.
And leave the non-literary judgment to the clueless and the naive, in the hope they’re not abusing their spouses in truly non-consensual ways.
As for the literary conversation… hey, I hear you. The writing was… fine. That’s not why it works. But it’s fine enough. Other aspects of the story, though, get better the closer you look at them.
First of all, E.L. James has proven, with statistical validity, that interest in this love story arena (BDSM) is not the sole province of the debauched and the twisted. Or of lonely romance novel aficionados who seem to populate the bell curve of the story’s target demographic.
People love this stuff. They fantasize about this stuff. A great many more than you might image either dabble in, or practice outright, this stuff.
Here’s how to shut up your stuffy, outraged, holier-than-though neighbor who thinks this is all just sick and wrong and outrageous.
You have two closing arguments on that front.
First, the story is not about how true BDSM relationships work. In the novel and the film, Christian Grey is into it, Anastasia Steele isn’t. She’s curious, perhaps, intrigued at first, and then realizes his tastes and preferences are not her own. Despite all those swooning orgasms that emerged while she was making up her mind. He doesn’t force it on her – that is the province of rape fantasies, which 50 Shades absolutely is not – nor does she push back until she clarifies her preferences.
In the story, Anastasia is far less outraged than these blushing bloggers are.
In the real world this flavor of sexual encounter is consensual. Which takes it off the table to either debate or judgment. It is no more sick and wrong than your righteous outraged neighbor’s habit of turning off the lights and hiding under the covers with her eyes clamped tightly closed until her grunting golfer husband finishes two minutes after he begins.
She consents to that form of abuse, far more than anyone in 5o Shades is consenting to something inherently more immoral by comparison.
Not for us to judge. Not for them to judge, either… when the relationship is trulyconsensual. Which in reality, it always is. And which, in that movie, it wasn’t, even though it certainly was at first.
What is was, actually, was an exact model of what happens in every intimate relationship. Two people get together, bringing a past with them along with certain tastes and preferences and hopes and fears and fantasies. And so they play, they experiment, they negotiate, and after a time they decide if they are compatible.
You did that. I did that. We all do that. And then we settle in for the long haul. The contract is there, it is verbal, if it is even spoken at all.
E.L. James wrote about that, and exactly that. It was never a story about the arena of S&M relationships in either a condoning or a judgmental context – which the high and mighty are judging from behind their pulpits of ignorance and fear – it is a story about two people trying to see if they work together.
In that sense, the story is classically romantic. No more so than a scullery maid being taken at night by the handsome king while his wife consorts with prisoners held in the castle dungeon.
That book is out there, by the way.
The other answer is to put this story alongside stories that have people murdering their lovers for pleasure and profit, or simply out of rage or insanity. That’s far more perverse as well as far more frequently the stuff of bestsellers, nobody is ringing the moral outrage bell at those stories. Occasionally there are even BDSM elements in play (click HERE for the Top 25 films in this regard, you’ve heard of and seen most of them), and yet, your opinionated neighbor (who probably owns some of those DVDs) is mum on the subject.
No, the non-literary judgment of this story stems from ignorance and fear as much as anything else. It’s classic bullying – I can’t have what you have (bliss, however you define it), so I’ll put it down as wrong. Review the movie as harshly as you please, but focus on the true issues at hand – its dramatic and artistic execution, rather than anymoral ambiguity of its themes, which pale in comparison to much of what fills the genre shelves and movie theaters today.
As for the actual literary reviews… well, just ask James Patterson and a host of other authors who are “writing down” to a pedestrian reading level, ask them about how strategic and effective this strategy is. Just as many people are quietly panning books from Jonathan Franzen and Charles Frazer and that Melville guy who wrote Moby Dick as virtually unreadable, so there you go.
Part of me says this to writers who put this short-sighted moral criticism in print: shut up and write. Who appointed you the arbiter of what works and what doesn’t, especially in the face of numbers that prove you thoroughly, irretrievably, embarrassingly in a minority?
You probably didn’t like The Davinci Code, either, for the shots it took at your belief system. Thematic controversy is a genius narrative strategy, live with it. Your outrage says nothing about the dramatic execution of that book, which is the largest selling commercial novel of all time.
It is the dramatic execution where we should look to find answers as to what works, what doesn’t, and why.
So what makes “50 Shades” work so well, based on results?
The answer is, pure and simple, story physics.
Story physics are the intellectual, emotional and instinctual forces and factors within a story that cause a reader to respond at a core level. To care. To fear. To wonder. To stick around to see what happens.
There are six basic realms of story physics:
1. A compelling dramatic premise with a conceptual core.
2. Dramatic tension arising from conflict facing a hero facing a quest.
3. Strategic pacing within the exposition that meters the degree of tension, clarity and hope.
4. Providing something for the reader to root for, and against (fear).
5. The delivery of a vivid vicarious experience.
6. A narrative strategy that lifts the story to a higher level of intimacy, accessibility and effectiveness.
Most writers do some this instinctually, even involuntarily. But when a story doesn’t work – you don’t read those, because they don’t get published or talked about… but I see them all the time in my story coaching work – it is because these factors of story physics are underplayed, misplayed or missing entirely.
The very essence of fiction – all fiction, in any genre – is conflict.
Conflict leads to dramatic tension. Which fuels the story’s forward motion through the solving and resolution of conflict, and stokes the reader’s emotional engagement, which stems from the stakes of the confrontation between the hero and whatever antagonistic force (usually a villain) blocks the path toward the goal.
In “50 Shades,” the BDSM itself is that antagonistic force. It is personified by Christian Grey, who is inflexible in his demands and his parameters, and perhaps inexplicable and indefensible (for some) in this preferences (just as any villain cannot truly justify some combination of their needs and their means). Anastasia must play by his rules, tolerate and accept what he desires and relishes… or it won’t work out between them.
That is conflict, pure and simple. The stakes being love itself. It is a story about love having to conquer obstacles, which is an eternal, universal theme.
Anastasia’s experience is not abuse, it is character arc.
The BDSM context is what is conceptual about the story, setting it apart from other romances and love stories by virtue of how it shows up in the premise. It polarizes, it frightens, for many it intrigues, it pushes deeply held secret buttons of desire and curiosity. It’s what you signed up for when you bought the book or a movie ticket, and you knew what you were getting before you laid your money down.
The story could have been about Christian’s love of mountain climbing, to which (in such a version) he devotes his life, and the need for Anastasia to strap on some climbing boots and head with him to the Himalayas to win his affection.
That comparison illustrates the genius in James’ conceptual choice. The premise is intriguing (that guy coming out the theater? He was there for a reason… either he or his partner/friend were, by virtue of having bought a ticket, intrigued). It makes a promise of something we haven’t seen a lot of, or even, something forbidden yet as old as massage oil within the sensual proposition.
Something you’ve already kicked around in your head, if you’re honest about it.
It is a genius concept. It is one of two explanations as to why this story works… because it is played against the themes of love overcoming obstacles, posing a universal core dramatic question: will they make it? Will he compromise. Will she accept and begin to enjoy what he’s asking of her?
The other reason it works… that’s easy. Once the reader/viewer is taken into that world, it all becomes astoundingly VICARIOUS. It takes us somewhere we haven’t been before, to which will (for some) never go, or (for some) you desire to go, and for others, are afraid to go yet curious about, and and when you get there it is a literal, visceral, passionate experience, as shown the story’s “red room of pain” scenes.
Cut those and the story doesn’t work. That’s a fact. The story soars because of the vicarious experience they deliver – one of the six realms of story physics – and the romantic context of it, as well.
Abuse? Isn’t any story about a lover who is cold and cruel a story about abuse and neglect? Isn’t a story about a cheating lover actually about abuse? Shouldn’t there be there more valid moral outrage in a story about a lover who rapes and mains and kills in a moment of passionate rage, and then tries to cover it up?
How many times has that story been told, without a single whimper of outrage?
If you’re writing a story about love in the face of obstacles, take a page from E.L. James and get outside yourself. Go to the deep well of concept and see what might make your story sizzle. Give us a vicarious experience with vivid, pulsating detail. Adopt a narrative strategy – in her case, creating multiple contexts of forbidden appeal, including the lifestyle of a billionaire and the promise of vast riches, which are also eternal themes – and you’ll have a provocative, perhaps controversial, richly contextualized story landscape on your hands.
Real life is never all that vicarious, at least in ways that sell books.
Or, you can write that story about mountain climbers in love, perhaps having sex in their muk-lucks, and take your chances.
I’m not suggesting you write the next S&M thriller (I’ve tried that myself – my USA Today bestseller, “Darkness Bound,” went deep into that dark little corner of seduction, and sold over 200,000 copies in the process… clearly, there are people out there who get it). I’m not suggesting you try it out for yourself, or even shed your disapproval, if not your judgment.
Just keep it to yourself. Ignorance is always embarrassing.
And while you’re keeping it yourself, be a professional and strive to notice what makes the story work, just as you notice what makes a great character like Hannibal Lector cause you to lose sleep and recommend Silence of the Lambs to all your friends.
Vests made of human flesh? You freaking loved that story. How sick and wrong is that?
Better that we notice what is happening in “5o Shades of Grey“… why it works, why it pushes buttons, why it is vividly vicarious, and how the forces behind it (the forces of story physics) are available to you, as well.
Want more on Story Physics? Please consider my craft book from Writers Digest Books, “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling.”
It explains why bestsellers are just that, and how you can apply those same forces to your own stories… by design, rather than backing into them by chance.