What the 50 Shades of Grey Phenomena Can Teach Writers About Storytelling


There has been a lot (a lot.) (A lot.) of buzz about E.L. James' 50 Shades of Grey, but it routinely gets horrible literary reviews. How did this almost universally-acknowledged poorly-written book reach such superstar status, and, most importantly, how can we as writers learn those lessons and improve our own craft? I'm not talking about a get-rich-quick scheme, I'm talking about digging down to the very core of how this story and others became so well-received in the first place in order to develop a better understanding of human nature in general, thus improving the realism and appeal of our own work.  

I will say it upfront, I did not like 50 Shades of Grey, but that doesn't mean it has nothing to offer me. As a writer I'm also an avid reader and I will often read outside my genre if the book is particularly relevant. 50 Shades is part of the national conversation. It's relevant. Very relevant. I'd read some excerpts prior to picking it up and kinda knew going in that I wasn't going to like it, but I read it simply because I wanted to become part of that conversation, and I'm glad I did. It wasn't as bad as I though it was going to be. The writing did get better after the first few chapters--low bar, but it did improve. I am a fan of fanfiction, and that is how the author originally wrote this story as-a Twilight fanfiction. Having said that, I will admit the writing is very good for fanfiction, so I can't hold that against the author because that's how she wrote it and the publishers pursued her. 

Now that that's over with, lets get into the analysis. I'm not talking about the plot, I'm talking about why and how it became so popular and how understanding those factors can help aspiring writers (like me!) be better writers. What do we know about 50 Shades of Grey fans? Well, they're overwhelmingly women, and the book and movie seems to act like a drug to them--they can't get enough. Some other books and movies have had a similar affect, namely Twilight and Titanic, and I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about why these movies and books, which are--frankly-terrible, are so dang popular with women. I have a theory. No secret that 50 Shades is a ripoff of Twilight which acted like a drug for a lot of young women, and Titanic did the same before that. Now in these stories, nothing happens. At least on the surface. In Titanic she doesn't get the guy because he dies, and yeah the ship sinking was cool but we all knew that was going to happen so what was the point? In Twilight the overriding message seems to be that the most important thing in life is finding an abusive guy and submitting to him even though Wolfboy is there is all his muscly glory ready to give you a happy life where you get to be... alive, and in 50 Shades of Grey Ana starts as an awkward virgin who wants a guy she can't have and doesn't understand. They fool around a bit with lots of angst and we end with her being awkward and wanting a guy she can't have and doesn't understand. The only thing that changes is she looses her virginity and learns some new vocabulary words. 500 pages and what's the point?

Yet, women go CRAZY for these books and films. Why? I think that in our society women are still expected to not have strong sexual urges. Most definitely they are not supposed to have 'wrong' sexual feelings. And they are certainly never supposed to step outside their sexual roles. Men aren't supposed to step out either, but at last for them these urges and feelings are acknowledged and allowed. It's normal for men to want more sexual variety, to be attracted to the 'wrong' type of woman, to struggle with these internal, diametrically opposed urges to be socially responsible and yet give in to temptation. Women very much deal with these same issues but we're not allowed to acknowledge them, sometimes even to themselves. I think these stories act as a pressure release valve, if only vicariously. They validate these 'wrong' feelings and show that it's okay to have them. It's okay for women to have these urges. These stories show women giving in to temptation, exploring this aspect of their sexuality be it the 'wrong' guy or the forbidden kink or even just the sheer variety, and nothing happens. It's okay. She takes this journey, makes these decisions independently of what her socially accepted role in life is, and isn't stoned or cast out at the end. That's the important element--she's not punished. Bella gets to keep her relationship with her father and still gets a happily ever after with the wrong guy she chose. Rose doesn't have to marry the guy or live the life she didn't want to and gets to live a full, rich life on her own terms. She dies a happy old woman warm in her bed just a few doors down from her grandchild. No regrets. Ana walks away back to her normal life, with no real changes to it, after indulging in her fantasies. AND ITS OKAY. I think the fact that "nothing happens" in these stories, is, in fact, the point. It's the antithesis to all traditional storytelling structures and formulas, but the reason it works is because it's speaking to something deeper in its core audience. 

So, how can this help us as writers? Well, right now I'm joining this bandwagon by writing my first novel, a reverse-harem dragon shifter fantasy. Reverse-harems are very popular right now precisely because they speak to this forbidden sexual urge that a lot (perhaps ever all) women ultimately have, even if they are unable to admit it to anyone or even to themselves. Here's what's important: It's not about the free-for-all sex, it's about the freedom to have free-for-all sex. Putting your character in a room full of condoms and hot dudes isn't going to make for a satisfying story--your readers don't actually care about the sex. My book is Young Adult, there is no explicit sex. My main character is being pursued by a bunch of hot dudes because she and she alone can choose the next Warrior King, not because the whole city thinks she's a slut and therefore easy. She's not going to be branded with a scarlet letter, she's going to be crowned Queen and become one of the most powerful members of her society. Her allowing herself to be courted and engaging in multiple relationships fit the story in a logical and critical way.   

For those that don't know, a reverse-harem is typically one woman with numerous male suitors perusing her, but instead of a love triangle or other traditional dynamic, the female is the one to determine exactly how she will choose to interact with all the men rather than being forced to pick one over the other(s) via pressure from the men themselves or some other societal norm (i.e. monogamy). The heroine may very well end up settling down with just one guy, or may keep them all around as playthings. It's up to her. 

The fact that this sub-genre is so much in demand right now, and almost exclusively from women, tells us that it is fantasy fulfillment, and there's nothing wrong with that. Men have long loved the classic hero story. Why? Because they like to imagine themselves as the hero--and that's okay, too. For them it's not about the explosions or the big guns or the collapsing bridges, it's about that feeling of importance and power and accomplishment they get when they imagine themselves as that character. I'm not saying you have to write a whole book orbiting around a kink, but if women are a part of your intended audience, it's something to keep in mind. Maybe some secondary female character is running a BDSM Swingers club on the weekends out of her suburban home. Maybe the neighbor has a constantly revolving door of well-dressed male suitors who routinely leave late at night or early in the morning looking very satisfied. We may not see it, but we get little hints of it, just enough teasing for us readers to start thinking, 'hey, what's that about?'

You never know, your fan base might just demand a spin-off.     

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