The familiar and the strange

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I’ve recently been listening to a lot of 2CELLOS. Their particularly charismatic brand of classical pop song covers makes for a hugely energetic sound, and as my friend John pointed out, there’s something about the cello that gets you right in the gut. But this morning, listening to their cover of Kings of Leon’s ‘Use Somebody’, I felt the penny drop.

These guys play music like Robert Kirkman writes zombies.

The Kirkman hypothesis

Robert Kirkman is the creator of The Walking Dead, the hugely successful Image comic that’s become a hugely successful TV show. As a comic, The Walking Dead doesn’t have the sales of the big X-men books or the latest take on Batman, but it does have something those comics don’t – sales growth. Most comic books see their biggest sales at the point of launch. Lots of curious readers pick up the first issue. Less of them bother with the second. Sales keep dropping off in a slow death slide, until the comic is cancelled or re-launched amid a blaze of publicity.

For years The Walking Dead was the only comic that defied this trend. Its sales kept growing as word of mouth spread about how great this book was. Its success was unprecedented.

I once read an analysis of The Walking Dead that argued that Kirkman’s success came not from creating something completely new, but from getting the right balance of the familiar and the novel.* Kirkman’s post-apocalyptic soap opera got readers because they saw something they knew they liked – zombies – and found within it something even more fascinating that they’d never have looked for. If he’d just given them the new thing no-one would have bought it. If he’d written just another zombie comic it would have suffered that familiar slow decline.

Kirkman’s comic kept growing because it found the perfect balance between the two.

Nothing is new

When I read that analysis my mind was blown. It made perfect sense, and it was something I could use as a writer – combine the familiar and the unfamiliar, draw readers in with something they know but keep them reading with something new.

I started seeing this pattern all around, in many of the best things I read, watched and listened to. Hence the 2CELLOS connection – songs I like (except Coldplay) played in a way I wouldn’t have looked for (including Coldplay, I never look for Coldplay).

But actually, what Kirkman achieved wasn’t all that new. Just take a look at The Lord of the Rings, a foundational text of the fantasy genre. Tolkien wanted to share his own wacky enthusiasm for detailed secondary worlds full of magic, mystery and invented languages. The familiar trappings of medieval Europe gave it an aura of familiarity that let people get drawn in and find enthusiasm for this new world.

Balancing acts

It’s an interesting exercise to consider as you’re reading. Think about what’s new in a book, what’s familiar, and what all of that is doing to your interest in the story. The right balance varies with the reader, and even their mood. Some days I want to watch Breaking Bad, some days I want to wrap myself in the comfortable tropes of Castle. Being aware of that balance has even helped me judge my own mental state.

As writers it’s a useful question to ask as we approach the page. What am I including that’s familiar, that will make people comfortable and draw them in? And what’s new, whether in content, style, or the way I mash elements together? Because that’s what will make the story interesting.

And in the meantime, here’s 2CELLOS doing unexpected things with a Greenday song. If you like this I recommend watching their Arena Pula gig on Youtube – an hour and a half of fantastic stuff.

 

* Apologies to whoever wrote that article, but it was years ago and I can’t even remember where I read it, never mind provide attribution. But hey, you probably aren’t reading this, so we should be OK.

4 thoughts on “The familiar and the strange”

  1. It’s so true. I often get upset with the insistence from the mysterious “they” that writers should steer away from familiar ideas (vampires and zombies for example). I find that unfair, because people are interested in both (and other well worn topics) and just because something’s been written about before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be written about ever again. What you say in this post is the perfect anecdote – write about something familiar, something people THINK they have hear about, but then give it something new and unexpected. I see nothing wrong with that formula. Cool post!

    1. Thanks. I think there’s actually two contradictory tendencies in the advice given to writers – write for the market, and don’t write what’s already been done. Finding a happy medium of familiarity and novelty seems like the best way to square that particular circle of contradictory but well meaning advice.

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