Whilst reading the book I reviewed a couple of days ago, I realised something. It was a book from 2013 that was basically a 1990s-style action movie in disguise 🙂 It surprised me that the type of films that I really wish Hollywood still made still existed… but in book form.
Not only that, the novel had also brought this old genre (eg: 1990s-style action movies) into the present day in a way that didn’t really seem too nostalgic or old-fashioned. It felt totally fresh and new, yet it was undeniably a 1990s action movie in book form.
So, this made me think about how to bring old genres up to date – and I thought that I’d offer a few tips:
1) Timeless elements: The best way to bring an old genre up to date is to look at the basic underlying elements that make the genre so distinctive. The qualities that can be quickly summed up in ten words or less. In other words, the timeless parts of the genre.
For example, with 1990s-style action movies, this would include things like: Ludicrous villain plots, non-topical drama, teams of main characters (instead of a lone hero), an optimistic attitude, interesting location choices, a friendly atmosphere, light-hearted romance, a sense of humour, making mundane things thrilling etc…
With 1980s-style cyberpunk novels, this would include things like: Information overload, jargon-heavy narration, gloomy weather, morally-ambiguous protagonists, alternative worlds (eg: cyberspace), cynicism, hyper-capitalist dystopias, fast-paced storytelling etc…
With 1980s-style splatterpunk horror novels, this would include things like: Poetic descriptions of ugly things, gory violence, the mundane mixed with the horrific, a dark sense of humour, a grim sense of poetic justice, complex background characters who die soon after they appear, lurid titillation etc..
Once you’ve found the timeless elements of an old genre (by studying it), then it’s just a simple case of writing a modern story that includes these elements. Even if your story is set in the present day and has a few differences, if you include lots of the timeless elements from an old genre, then your story will remind people of it.
2) Nostalgia: This is a bit of a complicated one. On the one hand, nostalgia is absolutely amazing. On the other hand, it can get in the way of what makes updated modern versions of old genres so fascinating – namely the feeling of discovering something new in a genre that you thought was long since gone.
After all, many of the original works in an old or forgotten genre weren’t made for nostalgia. They were made to tell stories, to entertain people and as a form of creative expression. All of the nostalgia was added later by fans. So, even if you don’t include any nostalgia, then your audience will add it anyway.
As such, don’t go overboard with nostalgia when updating an old genre if you can help it. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, too much obvious nostalgia can remind the audience that they’re looking at something based on something old – rather than getting to experience the joy of discovering a totally new work in a forgotten genre. So, be subtle about including nostalgia and don’t include too much of it.
3) Streamlining: Simply put, get rid of whatever doesn’t work whenever you’re updating an old genre. Be ruthless.
But, be sure that you have a good understanding of how an old genre works before you decide what is worth keeping. To use a videogame-based example, a lot of “awkward” design choices in old survival horror games (eg: strange camera angles, limited inventory, clumsy movement/combat controls etc..) are deliberately there to make the player feel vulnerable, and therefore even more scared.
But, if you find something that used to work in a genre (but which doesn’t work these days), then get rid of it and replace it with something that does work. One example of this that I briefly mentioned in an article a couple of days ago is how older and newer thriller novels handle things like sentence length and linguistic complexity differently.
One of the main differences between a thriller novel from the 1970s and one from the 2010s is that the old one only had to compete with films/TV, but the new one also has to compete with boxsets, smartphones, the internet, videogames etc… too. So, things like more matter-of-fact descriptions, shorter sentences and shorter chapters might mean that new thrillers aren’t the same as classic thrillers. But, they work!
These changes mean that they’re efficient and readable enough to hold their own against boxsets, games etc.. They still evoke the same emotions as older thriller novels do, but they’ve had to cut out the excess in order to keep doing this in the 21st century.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂