How do certain stories—recently the Harry Potter, Hunger Games or Game of Thrones series—attract the attention of so many fans? Why these stories, but not others?
Listening to and reciting stories is perhaps one of the oldest and most distinctly human experiences. We all enjoy stories in one form or another—films, books or video games—making them our chief means of entertainment. For as long as we could speak, there have been stories and people who’ve been enjoying them.
The longest-lasting story to date is thought to be the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was written down nearly 3,000 years ago in Babylonia; its contents still live on today. The tale has been passed down through the generations (hundreds of them!) and written down on stone tablets.
Against all odds, stories like these outlive their creators and become the stuff of legends. They encourage professional retellings (think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes) and fan fiction, as well as inspire art, clothing and accessories.
But why these particular stories? What makes them so successful?
If we knew the answers to these questions, every story or movie out there would be an instant success. There would be no bad movies and all books would sell equally well. With the perfect formula right under our noses, there would be no need for risk-taking or innovation. Thankfully, perhaps, no such formula exists.
We might try to find commonalities in the most popular stories of our time, shared character tropes or similar events, but there has never been a foolproof means of capturing this success. Try as we might, despite the hundreds of thousands of new books being published every year in the United States alone, we have not been able to find the secret to the perfect story.
Yet every year (at least), we see the inadvertent rise to popularity of another excellent story. These examples might be works of already well-known writers or directors, but besides that, there is little to suggest which books will get popular and which ones won’t.
For some success stories, it might be as simple as being in the right place at the right time, hitting the market exactly when people are itching to devour it.
But other stories come out of the woodwork, surprising even the market experts who attempt to study them. Harry Potter, by British writer J. K. Rowling, radically changed the landscape of children’s literature, finding unimaginable success. By taking a risk and telling the story she wanted to tell, it paid off big. Bigger than big.
So if there is no magic formula for the perfect story, how are we supposed to continue to create the stories people want to hear?
It’s the job of editors and film producers to test the waters of their respective markets, so even if we don’t know exactly why stories are popular, that’s not to say we don’t see the patterns.
Right now, fantasy is incredibly popular. Publishing houses are paying more attention than ever to works of fantasy, hoping they will become a commercial success.
Even a series like A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, which was published in the early 1990s, can make a comeback as the right market comes back around. It was a moderately popular novel until recently, when it became super popular, selling 60 million copies worldwide.
Continuing to create the stories that people want to consume and that might stand the test of time is often a gamble. But with all the enjoyment and passion stories can spark in us, it would be a shame to stop taking these risks.
One of the worst things that could probably happen to us is for people to stop telling stories just because success isn’t guaranteed or because they were afraid no one would like the story they were trying to tell. Many of the stories that have become so popular in the last few years might as well have happened by accident.
To create art is human, and to be human is to make mistakes. But in order to enjoy the most human forms of entertainment out there—rich and fulfilling stories—we have to be willing to make them, even if we might fail.
And if we are lucky, or if someday we find the secret to the perfect formula everyone’s been looking for, we’ll have a timeless story on our hands—one that will last for centuries.