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Note: I have rewritten this question, upon realizing it was being misinterpreted. Please reread the question and provide new answers accordingly.

Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Star Trek. These are the phenomena of stories that never die. These stories have what I'm calling (for lack of a better term) 'cult status'. By that, I mean they have more than simply a huge fan-base. They have fanatics, people who study and live the stories to the point of obsession.

Having people like this interested in your story is generally a good thing, as it means that you have a group of people sure to buy your story if you ever write another one. It's guaranteed sales. Publishing is practically a given.

Key Assumption: I believe that not every story lends itself to this 'cult status'.

As an example, you have Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. LotR has served as the inspiration for countless fantasy stories, spawned some of the greatest movies made, and has a backing of fanatical fans, who have studied its lore to the point where they know the species of every far off land and can speak Elvish flawlessly.

Pride and Prejudice also has its followers and worshipers. But you don't see people donning early 19th century costumes at 'Jane Austen fests', or quoting the dialogue to each other, or endlessly speculating on what random details of the book might mean. Maybe you do in small groups, but not in large numbers. Not like with LotR. Or Star Wars, or Star Trek, or any of the other big cult names out there.

Why is this? The two novels above are merely examples; there are other comparisons. Why is it that some popular novels/movies achieve 'cult status' while others - which are still certainly very popular - do not?

Key Theory: These observations have led me to believe that there is a common denominator with the stories that have 'cult status', and that the stories which do not have this status, also do not have that common denominator.

Am I correct? If so, what is that common denominator? What makes a story able to attain 'cult status' (I realize you must have a good story first - that is another question)? If I'm wrong, then why is it that stories which are written equally well have such different receptions (maybe not at the time of publishing, certainly, but I am speaking of the current times)?

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    Not enough for an answer, but an observation: LOTR and Star Wars were founded on the very, very old theme of good v. evil. – Michael Apr 25 '17 at 17:12
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    Believe what you will. Either way it's not enough for an answer because Star Trek is not, and obviously there are plenty of works based on the theme that are not as popular, so clearly there is more to it than that. – Michael Apr 25 '17 at 20:06
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    If you want to discern a theme running through all of LOTR, it is the nature of temptation. The ring is, at its heart, a tempter. It is a tempter so powerful that the great and good of middle earth won't touch it. Bilbo has to be bullied into giving it up. Frodo at the end is conquered by it. Gollum is ruined by it. Tom Bombadil is unaffected by it because it has nothing to tempt him with. Only Sam (the embodiment of unselfish love) voluntarily gives it up. LOTR is a study in temptation. And let us not forget how strongly the theme of temptation runs through CS Lewis' work as well. – user16226 Apr 26 '17 at 0:23
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    @Michael Star Wars wasn't just good v. evil. George lucas has said the story was basically a mash up of a bunch of common fairy tale themes. Yoda is the wise master, Luke is the humbly born chosen one, and Leia is literally the pretty princess held hostage by the enemy. Choosing from fairy tales was a pretty obvious move for cult status, since those are some of the MOST injuring stories known to man. He then put them in one of the most cinematic environments, space, and voila you have an instant enduring classic. – GiantCowFilms Apr 26 '17 at 0:35
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    If you're a beginning writer, I'd worry more about "how can I get someone other than my mother to read my book" than "how can I write a masterpiece that will be remembered for centuries". :-) I'd be overjoyed if one of my books sold 2000 copies. Millions is a far-off dream. – Jay Apr 26 '17 at 16:03
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There is no formula for success - if there were, everybody would use it and it would just shift the line for what is normal and what is a success.

But the examples you outline give us a hint for what you are looking. What do they have in common? They all share two characteristics: They apply a popular and known basic frame, while pushing the boundaries in at least one way.

LOTRO expanded upon folk tales and mythology. JRR Tolkien's stated goal was to create a fictional Beowulf. So he used many parts that people know from such tales. But he also pushed the boundary on storytelling. There simply were no fantasy stories of such scope and detail in his time (and still few in ours). He made up entire artificial languages, developed an entire world in so much detail. That was new and astonishing.

Star Wars took a familiar basic story (hero, villain, struggle, good wins in the end) and pushed the boundaries not in the storytelling but the technology, the CGI, the visual impression. It created a rich world of imagination not by words but by visuals. Because it made its topic come so much more alive than comparable movies, it invited us to enrich the world yet more with fan-fiction or just imagination.

Star Trek is based on the typical episodic TV show with a fixed cast plus extras living through different adventures and difficulties. Just in space. But it pushed the boundaries of our definition of society. The post-scarcity economics but especially the egalitarianism. At the time of the original series, the mix in nationalities and ethnicities on the bridge of the Enterprise was a much bigger thing than we today realize. If I recall correctly, O'Hara was both the first black female character in a commanding position and part of the first white-black kiss on mainstream TV.

So all of them were both bold and conservative. They took something that the audience was familiar with, but went beyond that. Not too much to make it unfamiliar or uncomfortable, but enough to be bold and interesting.

This merges with what we know about personal growth - we make the biggest developments when we operate just at the edge of our comfort zones. There might be a hint there for the success recipe you are looking for.

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If you don't think Pride and Prejudice has cult status, you are looking in the wrong place. It's cultists are called Janeites.

And I think you may be overestimating the staying power of Star Wars and Star Trek. They are now brands more than they are art, and the ordinariness of the latest entries in both series is palpable. They are formula cinema. Star Trek, for instance, has not dealt with the kinds of complex ideas of the original series for a very long time. They have become branded space operas. And Star Wars has lost the innocence and simplicity of the original. They are brands, not cults. And how much of an ongoing audience is there for the originals of each?

LOTR is a different matter. The books are still read and admired. But their influence is not what it was. When I was in college -- many moons ago -- it was the book everyone had read. Literally, if you had read a book, it was that book. It isn't that anymore. It's audience has narrowed considerably from what it was. It is now a genre book in a way it was not back then. There is still much to admire about it, but I think the mantle of immortality has not quite been earned yet.

But that aside, I think the attempt to find the formula for cult status is misguided. One of the hallmarks of great works, whether their greatness is time-limited or not, is authenticity. They were not designed and calculated for the cult status they achieved. They were products of an authentic personal vision, and I imagine the extent of their success was a surprise to their authors as much as anyone else.

There is a formula for predictable content. Disney and Harlequin are both companies who can turn out popular entertainments with remarkable regularity and can make a lot of money doing it. But most other media companies can't reproduce their consistency, and Disney and Harlequin don't seem to be able to expand it outside the fields in which they have been successful.

And none of these works has achieved the kind of cult status you are talking about. Their very reliability seems to militate against it. Art is about vision, and vision is a fickle mistress. In other words, vision is not the kind of property you want to build a commercial formula on. You don't want to break new ground. You want to optimize the productivity of a well-tilled field. Actually, one of the hallmarks of a cult work is that no one can figure out how to reproduce the effect. (In favor of LOTR's cult status, we can note that not one of its millions of imitators are actually anything like it.)

Have a vision. Commit to it. Bury yourself in it. Hone it mercilessly and without compromise. If you do this there is a small chance you may capture something that captures the imagination of an age, or even the imagination of many ages. These chances are very very small. But they are the only chances you have.

Or, you know, be commercial. Work hard at it, hone your craft, and you might make a decent living at it. Get picked up by a company that wants to brand your stuff and you could make a very good living. It's not the road to cult status, but it puts food on the table.

TLDR: You can become a brand by trying to; you become a cult in spite of yourself.

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    Closely related to your reply: A couple of weeks ago, I went to the pub mid-afternoon, when nobody was there and the sports wren't on. The TV was showing what looked like one of those sword-and-sorcery computer games (which I do not play), in which large, heavily-armed, identical-looking animated characters whack at each other. I supposed that the idle bartender was playing a video game. Wrong! He told me it was "The Hobbit." Not any Hobbit I ever read! But I lot like Star Wars, I imagine (which I do not watch). – user23046 Apr 25 '17 at 14:31
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    And to that question the only answer is to be really good. There may be a formula for good, but there is no formula for great. Depending on how much of a materialist you are, that may only be because we have not yet decoded the tacit knowledge of the great artist, or it may be because inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit, but either way, we have not worked it out yet. – user16226 Apr 25 '17 at 15:43
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    BTW, it is not for want of trying. The AI/Machine learning enthusiasts are confidently predicting the end of human art in the next decade, when it will be replaced by a DaVinci bot, at Shakespeare bot, and a Mozart bot. Personally, I am dubious they will achieve much more than an Orwellian porn bot, but either way, the discovery of the algorithm of genius would not be good news for writers. It will not make them rich. It will put them out of business. – user16226 Apr 25 '17 at 15:46
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    I advise all persons reading this thread to do the following: Think of a "cult" book of recent origin, say published in the 1970s or later. Locate a copy that is not the first edition (probably in your public library). Open to the copyright page. Who owns the copyright? The author? Maybe not. A book publisher? Maybe not. Could be some outfit better-known for movies and television, if that's what happened to the book. So, who do you think calls the artistic shots for more books of that kind? The original author? Guess again! – user23046 Apr 25 '17 at 19:21
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    @MarkBaker I believe we will se a RapBot before we see a MozartBot, and a GraffitiBot before we see a DaVinciBot. We already seem to have StudiesBot books in certain college courses, in lieu of Shakespeare. – user23046 Apr 25 '17 at 23:15
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I don't think you can find a formula for the stories that are truly great and memorable, because what makes them great and memorable is precisely that they DON'T follow a formula. The most memorable stories are those that are original and creative.

Any time a Hollywood movie is successful, you always see a horde of imitators. These imitators almost always pick the most surface aspects of the story to copy. I read an article a few years back where they quoted some Hollywood producer saying that the success of the Harry Potter movies showed that Americans were interested in "movies about British school children", and so he was planning on making such a movie. I don't recall what his movie was or if it was successful, but his analysis was absurd at a dozen levels. At the very least I'd say that he completely missed the point of Harry Potter. I think few went to see it saying, "I want to watch a movie about British school children". More likely they were thinking, "I want to watch a movie about magic and fantasy."

But even at that, just because a story about magic was successful doesn't mean that all stories about magic will be successful, or even particularly that stories about magic are more likely to be successful. Adding some scenes about magic to an otherwise non-magic story is unlikely to improve it. It will probably make it worse.

An example suddenly occurs to me. Almost everyone is interested in sex, so lots of stories including sex scenes or subplots. I don't doubt that can help a story's popularity. But I've read many books and seen many movies where they throw in a sex scene for no apparent purpose. I recall a sci-fi story I read once about a female spaceship captain that had nothing to do with sex, except there was a scene where she's walking down the hall of the ship and then suddenly steps in to the cabin of one of the other officers, they have sex, and she leaves. There was no lead up to it and it never comes up again. It has no apparent affect on ... anything. It was like the author or the publisher just decided they needed a sex scene so they flipped open the manuscript to a random point and threw one in.

What makes some stories popular is that they are original and creative in some way, that they have interesting plots, that they have engaging characters, and that they are well written. There's no formula for that. It's more of an anti-formula. It you set out to write a story saying, for example, "people like stories about time travel" or "... about brilliant detectives" or whatever, that's of virtually no help in writing a good story. If you set out trying to apply a formula, you will almost surely end up with a trite, run-of-the-mill story.

Of course that doesn't mean that there's nothing to be learned by studying popular stories. Just the opposite. There are all sorts of tools and techniques that one can pick up. I think the tool analogy is a good one. If someone asked, "how can I paint a great painting that will be remembered for centuries like the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper?", there's no formula we could give. It would be foolish to say that because the Mona Lisa has lots of browns that therefore the secret to great painting is lots of browns. But it is fair to say, "start by learning to use a paint brush" and "learn to create the color you want by mixing paints" and so on.

  • I like your answer. It answers the question of 'how can I write a great novel' perfectly. BUT... I think I see where I went wrong in my OP. I'm not asking how to create a great novel. I'm asking specifically about what KIND of novel can spawn huge numbers of fans/fanatics, that take the time to delve into what you have written and endlessly speculate on every little detail. I will edit the OP now. – Thomas Myron Apr 26 '17 at 17:02
  • "what makes them great and memorable is precisely that they DON'T follow a formula. The most memorable stories are those that are original and creative." -- It is not that they don't follow the formula. The basic formulas are written in the human psyche and if you don't follow them you don't have a story. It is that the great works elevate the formula. Their originality and creativity come in their ability to make more of the formula, not in their ability to break it. It is the acuity of their vision and their ability to express that vision that raises them above the rest of their genre. – user16226 Apr 26 '17 at 18:31
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I think your revised question reveals a confusion of two different things. There are works with strong and enduring followings, and there are works that inspire roleplaying. There may be some intersection between these two categories, but they are by no means the same thing.

The roleplaying phenomena seems to have arisen out of comic books with no particular literary merit. As far as I can tell, there is not a lot of ongoing readership of older comic books. The time I went into a comic book store looking for something for my grandson, I did not find a shelf of classic comic books. All the action seems to be in new titles. The cult is a cult of the characters, not the works. Feeding the cult of the character requires a continual stream of new work. That in itself indicates that there is little literary merit here, the real attraction is the brand.

Why are people attracted to brands? Because associating themselves with brands makes them feel better about themselves in some way. Why does the bullied kid identify with Bat Man? Because Bat Man can fight bullies. Why do people buy iPhones or Gucci, or Ferraris? To make a statement about themselves to the world.

Branding is a big thing in the entertainment world now. Comic Con may have started out of fan obsession with Iron Man, but the whole phenomena has been thoroughly corporatized to the point where they design the dolls and the lunchboxes before they ever writer the script.

Role playing is about brand identity, not literary merit. Beating Disney at this game today is going to be next to impossible. Writing a book with a strong and enduring following, on the other hand, is about literary excellence, and does not involve any dressing up or conference attending.

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Typically a work is described as a "cult classic" if it has a smaller, but more passionate and devoted group of fans. If a work has widespread, mainstream popularity, it isn't a cult work, no matter how devoted its fans. Conversely, if it's obscure and no one is passionate about it, it isn't a cult work either. It's the combination of the two. (Arguably LOTR was initially a cult classic that later passed into mainstream popularity). And in particular, to be qualify as a "cult classic" it must maintain that profile over an extended period of time (for example, The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Given that, what makes for a cult classic is if it a) is extremely relateable for a small niche group of people, who will identify with it in a way that the mainstream will not b) if it is exceptionally good in a relatively unpopular genre or c) if it is highly unusual or eccentric in a way that most people will reject, but that a few people will find compelling. Usually it will be some combination of these three factors.

Typically cult classics are created by idiosyncratic artists who are passionate about their own visions, and who refuse to adapt them to audience tastes and demands. So, unfortunately, if you're seeking to create a cult classic, you're unlikely to achieve it. However, if this is really your goal, your best bet is probably to find a narrowly defined, under-served niche audience, and target your work squarely at them.

  • In my OP, I define 'cult status' as having a large fan base and having a core of enthusiastic obsessive fans. In this context, that's what 'cult status' means for this question and its answers. I wasn't aware that cult status meant you had a small following, and that is the complete opposite of what I want to achieve. I want to achieve what I described in the OP. – Thomas Myron Jan 7 at 16:12
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Given the non-standard usage of the term "cult status" in the OP

Works that inspire unusually passionate or devoted fans do have a common denominator --they are risky, challenging, eccentric, or otherwise outside the norm. Works of this sort have an uphill battle to reach mainstream popularity. A challenging work that does become a hit is therefore particularly notable. In order to transition from a cult hit to a mainstream hit, a work typically needs to be a) exceptionally good, b) adopted as the pet project of someone with a lot of resources and/or cultural cachet, or c) happen to hit the larger cultural zeitgeist at exactly the right moment (and/or survive until the larger culture catches up --i.e., LOTR).

The reasons behind this are pretty straightforward. Work that is well-executed but safe, or less unusual, may consistently draw fans over a long period of time, but people are less likely to be passionate about it because it will be more interchangeable with other things that are widely available. What sparks intense devotion is something that feels completely unique, irreplaceable and irreplicable.

There are some factors to this that are largely out of your control --in particular, it's hard to know what will hit the zeitgeist in the future (chasing current trends is usually a losing game with a huge number of competitors). What you can (try to) do is create the best possible work, that fully reflects your own personal idiosyncratic eccentricities and unique vision. If it reflects the experiences and perspective of some under-served niche group, so much the better. That way, it's more likely to embody (a) and pick up (b). (Conversely, if you just want popularity, but not devotion, pour resources and excellent execution into something safe, non-threatening, and reflective of trends that are bubbling just under the surface of mainstream ubiquity. Just make sure to get there first.)

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