I first learned this concept from Jim Horwitz, who’s the author of the WATSON comic strip. (The context we applied it to was genre movies, because this was an analytic class.)

It’s called the 80/20% rule guideline.

And it goes like this:

While as much as audiences say ‘we want new! All the new!’ THEY CAN’T HANDLE THE NEW. But when a film has a lot of familiar ground (the 80% adhering to genre tropes or structure or whatever) and is still innovative (20% new, different, unique, whatever) then audiences are like ‘ZOMG BEST THING EVER.’ Because the audience needs the familiarity of that 80% to appreciate the 20% (and actually don’t even notice the 80% as much because it’s ingrained into their psyches and is familiar, so they can focus specifically on the 20% that is new).

Obviously, this is not a Rule Etched In Stone–it’s just an example of one way in which things might work in your favor.

A lot of genres have their own toybox full of tropes and structure quirks and shorthand, etc. And that’s fine, that’s awesome! If you’re writing an epic fantasy and want to pit a small band of heroes against the giant glowy eye in the clouds, go for it. A lot of the structure and plot might slide easily into the “80%” part of the formula, and then the fact that your MCs are a robotic business of ferrets who can’t focus on their mission for very long because there are swords to stash or raisins to eat or keys to steal. (20% along with some setting flourishes and maybe the magic system and other shiny.)

Essentially, in this analogy, the 20% is your shiny. The stuff that is super cool and unique to you and your story. (When people say something is entirely derivative and cliché and ‘done before’ then it’s likely that the ratio is skewed more towards 95/5 or something. There’s not enough new/unique/cool stuff to make it stand out, and thus the audience gets annoyed. Not all the audiences, of course. Audience persons who’ve never read something in the genre may enjoy and find a specific book or movie amazing and love it, while other audience persons who are more jaded and have been in genre for years may not be impressed. And that’s okay. There is plenty of room for all ratios.)

Sure, there may be lots more than that percentage! Maybe it’s 30/70 or 50/50 or 99/1 or whatever. Whatever ratio works for you. Maybe you don’t believe in ratios. That’s cool too. Basically, if you understand that you may very well have familiar elements in your work, AND THAT IS JUST FINE, it might be easier to focus on the percentage (be it 20% or something else) that is unique to you and that will make the work feel fresh and awesome and shiny.

This post was inspired because I basically told Krista D. Ball this is why her books are so good and do well (and why her forthcoming epic fantasy, The Demons We See, is so fantastic).

Says I to her:

I think what you’re pulling off is similar in the best way. 😀 There is enough familiar groundwork that people who are new to epic fantasy, or people who’ve read a lot of it, will have solid footing. We have a basic idea of how novels like this in genre are structured and it’s cool. That familiarity fades into the background like comforting ambiance. And that lets us focus on the NEW SHINY, the stuff we DON’T see a lot of–and that we NEED to see more of. Queer characters in positive relationships & positions of power! Non-binary people who are kickass awesome! POC! Strong kickass women!

The reason I think it “feels” like a lot of epic fantasy and at the same time not, is exactly that. There are familiar groundworks being established here and that’s FINE. It makes readers comfortable so they can focus on the new stuff, WHICH IS THE POINT BECAUSE IT’S ALL SO AWESOME.

Do what works for you. That’s really all that matters. And if this helps? I’m super glad and wish you ALL THE POWER. Even if it doesn’t apply or help, STILL I WISH YOU ALL THE POWER. Go out and write mighty and be awesome.

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