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Is the Fantasy genre just a dopamine fix? What makes a Novel ‘intellectual’?

Finchbearer

Minstrel
Discuss…

Okay okay, I’ll provide some context. As an avid reader of books (and an enthusiastic amateur fantasy writer) I often trail back to reading fantasy/magical realism genres because, well, why exactly?

It’s firstly the escapism and excitement that comes with reading about worlds and characters that are not true to real life, but maybe there’s also an element of quick gratification, that dopamine fix.

Question is how would you define a soapy fantasy novel with exciting twists and turns in comparison to something more intellectual?

With my writing I’m trying hard not to fall into that trap of ‘but what if this happens’ and then ad-hoccing a load of trashy rubbish just to try and make it more appealing. When do you draw the line at a fantasy novel just becoming a dopamine hit?

Or is the strength of the genre? GOT style let’s just kill the central characters off to add more interest and make those jaws drop. Who wants the slow burn when you could have the kitchen sink thrown in??
 
The intellectuality of a book (whatever that exactly is) has nothing to do (in my opinion) with the genre. Within each genre there are great literary masterpieces and entertaining but perhaps forgettable pulp stories. It's all down to the language employed by the writer etc, and has nothing to do with genre.
 

pmmg

Vala
I think there is a lot of what you describe going on in the movies today, and if my opinion matters, I find it boring.

You know, everything runs the gamut. Good fantasy and bad fantasy, and some is trashy, and some is intellectual. I dont know that any of it is bad for being such, people enjoy what they enjoy. I do, however, think the beauty of fantasy, and what draws me in, is its investigation of concepts that cannot be explored anywhere else. In fantasy monsters of real and we can fight them, and by allegory send messages that even us tiny people can do great things. We can see the gods speak, and contest them if we like, and lessons can be learned from our daring accomplishment or our prideful folly. And all of this allows the circumstances to be set where humanity can cast a light on its own circumstance and present what it means when philosophies challenge our notions, and are challenged back. I think fantasy is a vehicle for just the opposite of dopamine hits. I have things to say, and Fantasy is a good way to say it.

Free from the real world, where Gods do not speak, and people cant agree on what the evils are, let alone fight them, I can show evil, and I can show good, and I can show what the powers that be think about them. And I can show the value of the struggle, the sacrifices, and what is best and not best about all us squishy human types. I fear, in the real world, my MC would likely be thought insane, win few supporters, get arrested and ostracized, but in the fantasy world, their actions make sense, and in fact, are required because the threats are not nebulous, they are apparent. And through them, I can make my own commentary of the world around me, and push back a little against the forces that push against us all.

But my taste does not really lend itself to gratification and dopamine in fantasy (though I have other avenues for that). I fear I left that a long time ago. Some of it is fun, but I like the freedom to experiment with the messages, both receiving and sending out.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
I wouldn't even try to differentiate between a supposedly soapy novel and something more intellectual. And the reasons for that are spelt Shakespeare and Dickens. Works by both writers are regarded as classics now, worthy of intellectual study and interpretation. But they were written as popular entertainment. The same applies to music by Mozart and Haydn. They wrote what was then popular music - and they wrote for money - but which is now seen as classical.
 

Finchbearer

Minstrel
I wouldn't even try to differentiate between a supposedly soapy novel and something more intellectual. And the reasons for that are spelt Shakespeare and Dickens. Works by both writers are regarded as classics now, worthy of intellectual study and interpretation. But they were written as popular entertainment. The same applies to music by Mozart and Haydn. They wrote what was then popular music - and they wrote for money - but which is now seen as classical.
That’s entertainment I guess. It’s difficult when writing to avoid too many twists and turns for the sake of entertaining the potential reader though.

In this fast world, the likes of TikTok where people want that fast dopamine hit, attentions spans are getting ever shorter, it makes me wonder at humanity and our incapability for slowing down - will fiction have to change to accommodate that too?
 

pmmg

Vala
Sorry...I stopped reading at 'In this fast world...' Maybe say it faster?

The world is large, there will always be some, but I think the percentage will decrease over time. There are a lot of reasons to fear our efforts are for naught, but I persist anyway. I just hope there will be something for it when I am done.
 

Finchbearer

Minstrel
I think there is a lot of what you describe going on in the movies today, and if my opinion matters, I find it boring.

You know, everything runs the gamut. Good fantasy and bad fantasy, and some is trashy, and some is intellectual. I dont know that any of it is bad for being such, people enjoy what they enjoy. I do, however, think the beauty of fantasy, and what draws me in, is its investigation of concepts that cannot be explored anywhere else. In fantasy monsters of real and we can fight them, and by allegory send messages that even us tiny people can do great things. We can see the gods speak, and contest them if we like, and lessons can be learned from our daring accomplishment or our prideful folly. And all of this allows the circumstances to be set where humanity can cast a light on its own circumstance and present what it means when philosophies challenge our notions, and are challenged back. I think fantasy is a vehicle for just the opposite of dopamine hits. I have things to say, and Fantasy is a good way to say it.

Free from the real world, where Gods do not speak, and people cant agree on what the evils are, let alone fight them, I can show evil, and I can show good, and I can show what the powers that be think about them. And I can show the value of the struggle, the sacrifices, and what is best and not best about all us squishy human types. I fear, in the real world, my MC would likely be thought insane, win few supporters, get arrested and ostracized, but in the fantasy world, their actions make sense, and in fact, are required because the threats are not nebulous, they are apparent. And through them, I can make my own commentary of the world around me, and push back a little against the forces that push against us all.

But my taste does not really lend itself to gratification and dopamine in fantasy (though I have other avenues for that). I fear I left that a long time ago. Some of it is fun, but I like the freedom to experiment with the messages, both receiving and sending out.
How can I describe it, you know those cliffhangers at the end of a chapter that make you turn the page, I think it’s sometimes a tricky balance to not throw everything at it. I’m finding that in my world I’m wanting to create more and more creatures, or more twists and turns just to keep the reader interested.
 

pmmg

Vala
I like those little pull hooks as well. Nothing wrong with them. I've spent time with a lot of stuff that was just fun, and not the most thoughty... But fantasy can be both, neither, or or. If yours is keeping the reader turning the pages, you should call that a win.

Do you write with some sense that its not engaging enough and the more is needed?
 

Finchbearer

Minstrel
I like those little pull hooks as well. Nothing wrong with them. I've spent time with a lot of stuff that was just fun, and not the most thoughty... But fantasy can be both, neither, or or. If yours is keeping the reader turning the pages, you should call that a win.

Do you write with some sense that its not engaging enough and the more is needed?
I think I need to describe what’s going on in more detail because I have a skeleton that’s in need of some muscle and flesh. But it’s also the fun part of fantasy writing when I get carried away with myself by thinking up more interesting twists and turns, and like I say more ‘creatures’. And then as a reader of fantasy, I sometimes feel that what I’m reading might be a page turner but perhaps it’s more to do the interesting magic or creatures the story is describing and then those cliffhangers - or pull hooks (I learnt a new term there) are sounding too cheesy.

I aim to create haute cuisine not McDonald’s, but then people (generally) love McDonald’s right??
 

Ben Scotton

Scribe
Discuss…

Okay okay, I’ll provide some context. As an avid reader of books (and an enthusiastic amateur fantasy writer) I often trail back to reading fantasy/magical realism genres because, well, why exactly?

It’s firstly the escapism and excitement that comes with reading about worlds and characters that are not true to real life, but maybe there’s also an element of quick gratification, that dopamine fix.

Question is how would you define a soapy fantasy novel with exciting twists and turns in comparison to something more intellectual?

With my writing I’m trying hard not to fall into that trap of ‘but what if this happens’ and then ad-hoccing a load of trashy rubbish just to try and make it more appealing. When do you draw the line at a fantasy novel just becoming a dopamine hit?

Or is the strength of the genre? GOT style let’s just kill the central characters off to add more interest and make those jaws drop. Who wants the slow burn when you could have the kitchen sink thrown in??
Have you read Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories" or Lewis's "On Stories"? A lot of what is called Fantasy today has a lot of clichés from the genre but misses the heart of what makes an engaging and uplifting Fantasy story.
 

Finchbearer

Minstrel
I think there is a lot of what you describe going on in the movies today, and if my opinion matters, I find it boring.

You know, everything runs the gamut. Good fantasy and bad fantasy, and some is trashy, and some is intellectual. I dont know that any of it is bad for being such, people enjoy what they enjoy. I do, however, think the beauty of fantasy, and what draws me in, is its investigation of concepts that cannot be explored anywhere else. In fantasy monsters of real and we can fight them, and by allegory send messages that even us tiny people can do great things. We can see the gods speak, and contest them if we like, and lessons can be learned from our daring accomplishment or our prideful folly. And all of this allows the circumstances to be set where humanity can cast a light on its own circumstance and present what it means when philosophies challenge our notions, and are challenged back. I think fantasy is a vehicle for just the opposite of dopamine hits. I have things to say, and Fantasy is a good way to say it.

Free from the real world, where Gods do not speak, and people cant agree on what the evils are, let alone fight them, I can show evil, and I can show good, and I can show what the powers that be think about them. And I can show the value of the struggle, the sacrifices, and what is best and not best about all us squishy human types. I fear, in the real world, my MC would likely be thought insane, win few supporters, get arrested and ostracized, but in the fantasy world, their actions make sense, and in fact, are required because the threats are not nebulous, they are apparent. And through them, I can make my own commentary of the world around me, and push back a little against the forces that push against us all.

But my taste does not really lend itself to gratification and dopamine in fantasy (though I have other avenues for that). I fear I left that a long time ago. Some of it is fun, but I like the freedom to experiment with the messages, both receiving and sending out.
Also, I love what you’ve written here about fantasy being an investigation of concepts.
 

pmmg

Vala
I think I need to describe what’s going on in more detail because I have a skeleton that’s in need of some muscle and flesh. But it’s also the fun part of fantasy writing when I get carried away with myself by thinking up more interesting twists and turns, and like I say more ‘creatures’. And then as a reader of fantasy, I sometimes feel that what I’m reading might be a page turner but perhaps it’s more to do the interesting magic or creatures the story is describing and then those cliffhangers - or pull hooks (I learnt a new term there) are sounding too cheesy.

I aim to create haute cuisine not McDonald’s, but then people (generally) love McDonald’s right??

I hate McDonalds, they just make me fat (Damn them and their convenience :bigtears:)

As a writer, I would say dont overthink it, and get it on page. Making it pretty and fitting right is for the editing process. Some beta readers should be able to help with that. But...you are not really asking for that.

I think all stories need a little bit of the pulling cause if they dont catch the reader, all the rest never happens. I would likely agree that adding more creatures and neat on screen explosions does not top story. The story itself need to provide the surface tension that keeps the reader interested. If its not there, cool explosions enter into the realm I noted above...boring.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
Don't get me wrong. I'm not agreeing to the portrayal of fantasy as a trashy dopamine hit. There's a lot of positive things to be said about commercial fiction, and fantasy in particular, and reading of any kind. There are also many different ways to add meaning so that even a trashy dopamine hit can have meaning.

But one of the key differences between commercial fiction and literary fiction is sometimes referred to as the difference between "scene vs. postcard." You can google the phrase if you want. It's not how I would phrase it personally.

But in general, a scene focuses the action to the point where the character has to make a decision. Things lead to a head, and the character has to do something about it.

In a postcard - in literary fiction - things often just happen. Life happens. And the MC can't really do anything about it. There's no hunting down the bandits that killed your mother. There's no rules of justice and climax. You don't get to go on an adventure and fix the bad thing that happened early on. Bad things happen and life just goes on. You learn, you cope, you adapt, you grow and struggle in subtle and internal ways until things make sense to you. Then the next bad thing happens, and the character shows their growth by handling it better. The events in a character's life represent a kind of dialogue about life that the reader is supposed to absorb for their own growth.

The OP mentions Game of Thrones, which is a good example of a story that tries to do both. Some of those character deaths are good examples of a postcard.

But again, there are other ways to add meaning, even in commercial fiction, and of course there's plenty of postcards that still aren't very good, and sometimes a postcard can feel kind of random. Literary, in this context, doesn't immediately equal quality or value. It's about what the author is trying to do in the structure of the story.
 
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Ben Scotton

Scribe
Been thinking this through a little bit more. Couple of points:
  1. Does "good" Fantasy have to be intellectual? Surely there's a sense in which a work of art which is fun is its own justification - just like a work of art which is perceived as a thing of beauty?
  2. How can you give a story depth? Didn't Lewis say something along the lines of the two best sources of inspiration for stories are yourself and those around you? In other words, write the story you'd want to read, or write the story which you know would mean something to specific people in your life. "This joke will make so and so laugh. That moment will be really meaningful to this particular friend." The worst inspiration for a story is marketing. "We need a new series for Fantasy fans in their early twenties. Our research says they'll like dragons. And we need an impending end-the-world disaster that can only be stopped by the chosen one because most successful Fantasy stories have that right now."
Hopefully i've understood the question rightly. Of course, there's no "correct" way to produce art.

What does everyone else think?
 
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pmmg

Vala
I dont know that I would be in the school of Lewis, and I did not read Tolkien's essay, but I did read the Hobbit, LOTR and the Silmarillion. I dont think I will do any more from him. And, hate to say, I generally avoid anything the has a title like 'on writing ___'.

Anyway, I dont think I would write something just so my friends could share in inside joke. Heck, I dont think my friends will ever come through with reading all the stuff they said they would already.

My answer to how to give something depth, and find the reasons behind the reasons, and what they mean to all involved with them.
 

Ben Scotton

Scribe
I dont know that I would be in the school of Lewis, and I did not read Tolkien's essay, but I did read the Hobbit, LOTR and the Silmarillion. I dont think I will do any more from him. And, hate to say, I generally avoid anything the has a title like 'on writing ___'.

Anyway, I dont think I would write something just so my friends could share in inside joke. Heck, I dont think my friends will ever come through with reading all the stuff they said they would already.

My answer to how to give something depth, and find the reasons behind the reasons, and what they mean to all involved with them.
Fair enough - each to their own. I personally find discussing and sharing my work with my friends as I go along to be one of the big motivations to writing.

As you say, you've definitely got to be asking questions like, "what's this person's motivation? Why did they chose to do that?"

Who's your favourite Fantasy writer then, pmmg? Is there a book you keep coming back to?
 
In this fast world, the likes of TikTok where people want that fast dopamine hit, attentions spans are getting ever shorter, it makes me wonder at humanity and our incapability for slowing down - will fiction have to change to accommodate that too?
I don't buy into the "fast world" idea. The current best selling fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, writes 400.000 word novels (in a series said be end up being 10 books long), and they end up being #1 New York Times best sellers. I can find plenty of other best sellers across pretty much all genres which are long books.

Yes people like fast dopamine hits. Nothing wrong with that. But people have always liked them. And they don't remove anything from longer works. People like those as well. I'll maintain that the notion that people's attention spans are getting shorter and they care less about longer works is false. It's simply older generations complaining about younger ones. Which people have always done, and will always be doing.

I agree with Mad Swede. In a historical context, literary usually ends up meaning popular works by prolific creators who had a large influence on the creation of art at their time. The pulp will be forgotten, and what ends up as classics will endure. That's all there's to it.
 

Puck

Minstrel
Fantasy and SciFi are in many ways all about setting rather than theme. You could have a SciFi story that erred towards horror, or one that erred towards action adventure, or even towards romance.

The only difference between a horror story set in the 'real' world and one set in a fantasy world is the setting.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>It’s difficult when writing to avoid too many twists and turns for the sake of entertaining the potential reader though.
It isn't difficult. When writing, one puts in just as many twists and turns as one pleases. The difficulty comes when one is *worrying* about one's writing. When one is presuming to know that the readership is demanding this or that, or imagines one can see the arc of reading preferences across generations.

That stuff will drive ya nuts.

We can (and have--see above, and numerous other threads) argue over what "readers" want and what are today's trends. I won't re-hash that. I will, however, point out that there are successful authors in just about any and every style you'd care to name. There's a reader for every writer. Or, in my case, a baker's dozen of them. There are also readers who will despise that same writer, and still others whose reaction will be somewhere along the spectrum of yawn to shrug.

To put this more succinctly: don't worryaboudit. Write your book. All the rest is marketing.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
>It’s difficult when writing to avoid too many twists and turns for the sake of entertaining the potential reader though.
It isn't difficult. When writing, one puts in just as many twists and turns as one pleases. The difficulty comes when one is *worrying* about one's writing. When one is presuming to know that the readership is demanding this or that, or imagines one can see the arc of reading preferences across generations.
Not only is it not difficult, it is essential to avoid too many twists and turns. If you don't do so then eventually you lose the reader completely and they just stop reading. Its like the number of supporting characters you have in the story - you should have as many as you need to move the plot forward, and no more than that. Too many, and the reader (and sometimes you the author) lose track. The idea is to entertain the reader, not confuse them.
That stuff will drive ya nuts.

We can (and have--see above, and numerous other threads) argue over what "readers" want and what are today's trends. I won't re-hash that. I will, however, point out that there are successful authors in just about any and every style you'd care to name. There's a reader for every writer. Or, in my case, a baker's dozen of them. There are also readers who will despise that same writer, and still others whose reaction will be somewhere along the spectrum of yawn to shrug.

To put this more succinctly: don't worryaboudit. Write your book. All the rest is marketing.
Yes, write. And above all, finish what you write. Then you can edit it - or get someone else to do it.
 
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