I. I N T R O D U C T I O N
For the past decade or so, I’ve been tracking fiction trends privately. I’m not a trend analysis professional or a media expert. There’s no huge survey of data here… I’m just a layman watching mainstream media and thinking about what seems to get the culture excited and afraid. This thinking helped me correctly predict mini-trends like time travel stories (Hourglass, About Time), more major ones like fairytales (Mirror Mirror, Snow White & the Huntsman, Maleficent), and what you could call mythic tales or sandal and sorcery (Noah, Gods of Egypt, Star Wars). The artistic merit of these stories is obviously variable, and my predictions aren’t perfect. Here are some misses I had:
- I didn’t think dystopia had as much sticking power as it did, expecting it to go the way of the dodo a few years ago. (Although now I do think we’re showing signs of dystopia fatigue as it’s the default mode for parody.)
- Time travel never really took off in a major way. It’s not impossible that this could still kick up, but it had a minor moment that’s passed, so I’m not holding my breath.
- I also supposed global monster hunting would be a trend. We’re seeing flickers of it (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Ghostbusters), and I still think this one could fan into a flame
So with that disclaimer and explanation, let’s dive into my current suppositions about what we’ll see in next couple of years.
I I . O V E R V I E W
Real-world currents that influenced this list include…
Any list such as this is a snapshot of a particular moment in time. Here are some of the themes I was thinking about while pulling together these predictions: The gun debate, ISIS, police violence, Trump, Putin, gay marriage, transgender awareness, marijuana legalization, Greek debt, GamerGate, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Frozen, Hamilton, and the Great British Baking Show. Obviously, any major breaking news or culture-defining event will have a major impact on what trends in fiction, so all of this could be overshadowed by some much larger event. But each of these themes seem to be influencing our ideas in real-time, and are a decent starting place for a predictive list.
The rules of modern storymaking
- New stories aren’t told on the big screen: This is a rule that’s made to be broken. Look at the success of Zootopia as a present-tense counterexample. But the broad trend in filmmaking is serialization and adaptation. Every tentpole film is either a continuation or commencement of a “universe,” and even Hamilton, the breakout smash storytelling hit of the year, is an adaptation of a pre-existing true story. Therefore, expect any mainstream trend to come from a remix, remake, or extension of a pre-existing property, including history and legend. As for original fiction, we should look off the big screen (and probably offstage), to comics, online flash fiction, YA novels (although even these are becoming less fertile for new properties), web video, and games. (Side note: There’s an arms race at the moment for the first truly great video game adaptation … although some playing fast and loose with terminology would argue Edge of Tomorrow: Live Die Repeat already won. Warcraft appears to have already lost, although this article is written pre-release and I could be proven wrong. Assassin’s Creed probably stands the best chance of changing the tide. But once some formula is discovered, watch for games to be the new comics as the source of fresh material for Hollywood. If Assassin’s Creed fails, my money is on Tomb Raider.)
- Straight, white males make for weak protagonists, good sidekicks, and easy villains: No one expects the classic “leading man” to leave the screen any time soon. But watching the increasing fervor for alternate casting in major smash properties (looking at you especially, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hamilton and Frozen), it seems likely that straight, white males will find themselves less and less at the center of the action… as the hero, anyway. We can expect more women and minorities in the lead of films, while men take a supportive or antagonistic role (see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road as prime examples of both in the mainstream). It’s going to be an interesting moment for those who have always seen themselves at the center of the screen… and, if our political cycle this year demonstrates anything, probably a profoundly uncomfortable one.
- Utopianism is seeping in: You’ll see this woven throughout my list below, but keep a close eye on utopianism as THE major trend in the next couple of years. You might say it had its modern antecedent years ago with Avatar, and has lain dormant while dystopias have ruled the screen. But now it’s starting to bubble up again (Tomorrowland, Inside Out, Captain Fantastic), and we’re going to see a lot more of it. Think of it as a reaction against the dystopian model we’re all too familiar with, and also a reach towards innocence and hope. Like video game movies, this formula hasn’t been cracked yet. Don’t expect it to be wide-eyed and naive, either. These utopias will be subtle, nuanced, and threatened… but they’ll be there, and beautiful, and worth defending. They’re a major theme in my list below, as you’ll see.
I I I . F R A M E W O R K S
This list is built of three modes of story, drawn from the trends listed above. These are the paranoia story, the power fantasy, and the satire. Each of these is a response to a feeling of powerlessness against danger, surveillance, and authority, which appears to be a major trend in our cultural discourse right now.
- Paranoid stories put the protagonists under the domination of a menacing greater power which cannot be escaped.
- Power fantasies give the protagonists an uncommon way to fight back against that which threatens them (although don’t expect as many direct superhero fables as we’ve seen… these will be sideways takes on the idea of power fantasy, as I’ll list below).
- Satire, on the other hand, leans back and mocks the imbalance of power, choosing to paint the authority or threat (or our inability to overcome it) as ridiculous.
There are three dominant settings that emerge from the trends: realist, vigilante, and pastoral. Each of these mixes with the modes and worldviews to create interesting backdrops or contexts in which the stories can be experienced.
- Realist scenarios look at the modes and trends in a real-world context, and often fuel Oscar-bait and drama.
- Vigilante scenarios are the stuff of fantasy, science fiction, and superhero tales, creating super-real contexts where individuals can take abnormal action.
- Pastoral scenarios make all the stakes small and safe, wrapping their narratives in serenity, which can either compliment the story or contrast against it.
Three major ideals arise as potential responses to a world in chaos: tribalism, romance, and normalism. I should stress that each of these begin as a moral neutral (even if they might sound aligned with various worldviews). A tribal story can be full of human compassion, and a romance can be bitingly satirical. These are merely a few common ways in which a storyteller might react to the trends we’ve looked at.
- Tribalism, or “Us Against Them” makes the protagonists part of a small, endangered group, surrounded by opposition. Heroes in the tribal story oppose the threatening out-group to defend members of their community.
- Romance, or “Love Conquers All” puts the spotlight on two individuals in a swirl of greater chaos, telling a story of love that overcomes even the greatest of obstacles.
- Normalism, or “United We Stand,” posits that society as a whole is not broken, but the danger comes from rogue individuals or monsters who threaten an otherwise unified normality.
I I I . E X A M P L E S
The examples listed below are just to demonstrate the types of ideas that could be explored with these frameworks. I’m watching for them to crop up in one form or another. Very informal testing of these stories among friends and family suggests that many of these storylines are interesting or compelling hooks, and could fuel some good narratives. But, like most predictions, these could be total garbage. Still, let’s wait and see if any of them become popular. Here we go:
Tribalism: Us against them
- Paranoid tribalism.
(1) Realist paranoid tribalism: A family trying to survive inner city or small town gun violence. (2) Vigilante paranoid tribalism: A captive family surviving and getting justice in the midst of a corrupt empire such as Rome or Babylon. (3) Pastoral paranoid tribalism: A family holding onto land despite grasping authorities.
- Power fantasy tribalism.
(1) Realist power fantasy tribalism: A small group of young pacifists disarm a neighborhood. (2) Vigilante power fantasy tribalism: A small group of heroes protect the world… see Avengers/Star Wars. (3) Pastoral power fantasy tribalism: A struggling family discovers their child has an amazing artistic gift, saving the family from ruin.
- Satirical tribalism.
(1) Realist satirical tribalism: Comedy about trying to open a small business, thwarted at every turn by incompetent authority figures, competitors. (2) Vigilante satirical tribalism: A small group ignores the actions of an inept authority, doing what they want… see teen movies a la John Hughes. (3) Pastoral satirical tribalism: Warring garden clubs in the British countryside.
Romance: Love conquers all
- Paranoid romance.
(1) Realist paranoid romance: Teens in love against their parents’ wishes, unaided by smartphones… see John Green. (2) Vigilante paranoid romance: Forbidden love between a peasant and noble during the French Revolution. (3) Pastoral paranoid romance: Forbidden love between unequal families… see Jane Austen.
- Power fantasy romance.
(1) Realist power fantasy romance: Romance between a young female startup Silicon Valley CEO and a poor farmer… twist: neither of them are in the wrong. (2) Vigilante power fantasy romance: Pacifist Bonnie & Clyde. (3) Pastoral power fantasy romance: Mythological love story between a goddess and a human.
- Satirical romance.
(1) Realist satirical romance: Love in a government bureaucracy entangled by red tape. (2) Vigilante satirical romance: Teens run away to get married, a hilarious manhunt ensues. (3) Pastoral satirical romance: Idiots in a tangled love quadrangle in the British countryside… see P.G. Wodehouse.
Normalism: United we stand
- Paranoid normalism.
(1) Realist paranoid normalism: The son in a family is a shooter, and there’s a manhunt on for him. (2) Vigilante paranoid normalism: Monster hunting in a haunted academy, see Alien + Harry Potter. (3) Pastoral paranoid normalism: Generational struggle between dissident LA teens and their immigrant parents.
- Power fantasy normalism.
(1) Realist power fantasy normalism: A police officer hunting a shooter. (2) Vigilante power fantasy normalism: Gifted hero stopping terrorist, see Batman. (3) Pastoral power fantasy normalism: A hero hunts a monster in a beautiful, mythic place.
- Satirical normalism.
(1) Realist satirical normalism: A comedy about only idiots running for president. (2) Vigilante satirical normalism: The comedic life and times of 60’s and/or Occupy Wall Street protestors. (3) Pastoral satirical normalism: Getting rid of the terrible new HOA guy.
I V . C O N C L U S I O N
As I said at the outset, these ideas are based on no data, and are largely vague and unprovable. But I’m excited to watch for if and when any of them arise in the mainstream. At the very least, they’re all movies I would watch, books I would read, games I would play. Hopefully others find this list compelling as well.
(PS: I can’t prove it yet, but over the horizon, there may be themes of spiritualism and post-humanism on the rise. Watch for those, too.)