Three Random Tips For Modern 1970s-Style Storytelling

Although I’m much more interested in the 1990s than the 1970s – I happened to read a novel from the 1970s recently. Although I read a few second-hand 1970s novels when I was a teenager (during the 2000s), this was the first one I’ve read in quite a few years.

So, this made me think about what sets stories from the 1970s apart from more modern stories and, more importantly, how modern writers can tell 1970s-style stories.

1) Narration: When telling 1970s-style stories, the narration shouldn’t be as hyper-formal as something from the early 20th century – but it shouldn’t be too “modern” either. In other words, you should probably focus on including slightly more complex narration and descriptions (but in a slightly understated way).

To give you a comparison, here’s a descriptive sentence* from “Iceberg” (1975) by Clive Cussler: “He slowed his movement, spellbound by the strangeness of the dark colour beneath the vast shroud of blue-green water.” Notice how this is a single, longer sentence that is filled with slightly more complex language – yet, it is still very readable.

Now, here are two modern descriptive sentence from “Zero Hour” (2013) by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown: ‘Kurt noticed the hue of the water. Pink at the top but darker red as the light was absorbed.‘ Notice how this description is split into two shorter sentences and uses slightly more matter-of-fact language, yet it still manages to achieve the same level of description as the sentence from 1975 does.

So, when telling 1970s-style stories, your narration and pacing should be very slightly slower and more formal. Your sentence length should be a little bit longer too.

The thing to remember here is that books were a popular form of entertainment during the 1970s (since things like VCRs, the internet, videogames etc… weren’t widely available back then) in a way that they aren’t these days. As such, writers and readers had slightly different expectations in terms of formality, pacing etc… during the 1970s than they do today.

(* And, yes, the quote is from a UK edition of “Iceberg”, hence the spelling of “colour”. The original US edition probably uses US spellings. Interestingly, spelling localisation in UK editions seems to be less common these days than it was in the past.)

2) Content, censorship and moral standards:
Ok, this is a little bit of a complicated one.

Basically, the 1970s was a decade where book censorship was no longer a major issue (in Britain at least). However, when writing modern 1970s-style fiction, you need to make a distinction between traditional censorship issues (eg: profanity, horror, violence etc..) and modern moral standards (eg: about discrimination etc..) because the two things have to be handled in very different ways.

When it comes to traditional censorship issues like horror, violence, drug use, scenes of an adult nature, profanity etc… you can be as intense or as subtle as you would normally choose to be. Official censorship of these sorts of things in literature ended in Britain with the “Lady Chatterley” trial in 1960 and, of course, the US has the first amendment too.

If you don’t believe me, then read “Crash” by J. G. Ballard (1973) or “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson (1971). The toned-down 1990s film adaptations of these 1970s novels still have an “18 certificate” to this day (and the adaptation of “Crash” was even banned from some cinemas in London) – so, the 1970s certainly wasn’t a prudish or censorious decade with regard to literature.

However, “historically inaccurate” as it may be, it is a very good idea to apply modern standards to topics like discrimination, prejudice etc.. when writing new 1970s-style stories. This is because your modern 70s-style stories are still modern stories and will be judged by modern standards by a modern audience.

So, if you’re just writing a 1970s style story, it is best to leave 1970s-style attitudes out of it altogether. If you’re writing a historical story set in the 1970s, then the generally accepted rule seems to be that, whilst 1970s-style attitudes can be described/shown, they must be presented in a critical way (and, usually, shouldn’t be held by the main character). Likewise, whilst you can critically show dated attitudes, avoid using dated language (eg: insults etc…) wherever possible.

3) Technology: Yes, technology was less advanced during the 1970s. However, if you actually read stories from the 1970s, this is barely mentioned at all. After all, why would it be? I mean, most modern stories don’t include characters bemoaning the lack of futuristic holograms, cyborgs, flying cars etc….

So, when telling a 1970s-style story, just be a little bit subtle or understated about the technology. Just treat 1970s technology in the same “ordinary”, understated way that we often tend to think about modern technology.

After all, a lot of the underlying elements haven’t changed that much – I mean, a newspaper and a news site do basically the same thing. A landline phone and a smartphone both allow for phone calls. Cars fulfil the same role today as they did during the 1970s. The military, some police officers, hunters/farmers, violent criminals etc… still use guns (which haven’t really changed mechanically in decades). A vinyl record and a MP3 file both contain recorded music. A document can be typed on a typewriter or a computer. People still drink in pubs/bars etc..

Yes, you might have to make the occasional substitution, but it isn’t as difficult as you might think. For example, if a character hears an important piece of breaking news then just show them hearing it on the radio or the television (or have another character tell them the news), rather than showing them seeing it on the internet. I’m sure you get the idea.

Not only that, the technological limitations of the past can actually result in better stories. For example, detective stories where detectives have to rely on clever questioning and Sherlock Holmes-like deductive reasoning rather than just using modern forensic technology. Or thriller stories that are more suspenseful because the main character can’t just call for backup on their mobile phone etc….

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂