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Archive for September, 2010

Writing Using a Formula

Monday, September 13th, 2010

First suggestion for writers of literary fiction:  Don’t do it.

Second suggestion:  Develop an eye for formulas.  The first time you see a formula, you won’t recognize it as a formula.  The second and third times, you should.

Third suggestion:  If you’re going to use a formula, do what you can to add variety so you can keep surprising your reader.

Formulaic writing is the idea that a you can reuse a general plot over and over, just changing the details.  In general, this is frowned on in literary circles because it shows a lack of creativity and need.  If the story has been told so often that it has a formula, does it really need to be told again?

Many TV shows start out using established formulas in order to build an audience.  For example, in the first season of House, each episode proceeded essentially the same:

  1. The patient is introduced
  2. House initially says that their case isn’t interesting, but then there’s a slight abnormality that raises his curiosity
  3. The team takes the “easy” solution
  4. House goes to clinic duty.  He takes the simple solution for the cases.
  5. Something goes awry with the tough patient
  6. House goes to clinic duty again.  The patient from before returns, and the patient shows some aspect of stupidity (from House’s perspective).  As House berates them, he makes a connection to the “tough/interesting” case.
  7. House goes back and saves the day.

Even though House (at least at first) was formulaic, it had virtually no impact on the success of the show.  When done well, you can keep viewers’ interest for several episodes this way.  However, formulas get boring after a while, since people like to see variation in the plot. If the show’s writers hadn’t started to introduce more variety in plot, the show surely would have failed.

Formulas are also commonly used in commercial fiction, and are designed for books that people read to pass the time away.  When people are reading primarily for entertainment, or the book is part of a long-running series, many writers begin to use formulas in order to keep up the pace of writing required to keep putting out books.

As an example, mystery writers are notorious for using formulas:  http://ticket2write.tripod.com/id28.html

When I was much younger, I remember reading The Hardy Boys mysteries.  Eventually I realized that the mysteries in that series all tended to follow the same plot.  When I recognized this, I moved on to other stories that offered a better variety of plots.  What would be more interesting is a mystery that follows a more unexpected path.

This is part of the reason I tend to enjoy science fiction and fantasy.  With different rules for every world, it’s difficult to develop a formula that works as well.  With a combination of different plots, characters, and worlds, it’s much easier to add variety.  Fantasy and science fiction novels do often include a mystery, but it’s interwoven with other details that drive the story.

If you shouldn’t use formulas for literary fiction, what should you use?  In my next post, I’ll talk about some alternatives to using formulas.

Killing Off a Character

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Creating a character takes a ton of work.  Not only do you need to know who a character is and what they look like, but you also need to make the reader care about each one (at least enough to keep reading).

There’s nothing more interesting (or, at times difficult) than killing off a character–especially one that a reader never sees.

As a writer, you might kill off a character during the story for many reasons, such as (and not limited to):

  • Raising the stakes:  making a situation more real for the main character
  • Provide a start to a mystery
  • Carrying a story along:  for example, following a serial killer
  • The now-dead character may have known too much
  • Providing motivation for the main character to change

However, what’s harder for a writer is to kill off a character in more than just the storyline.  This type of death is more permanent:  wiping a character from the manuscript before a reader ever has a chance to see the character.

In other words, I’m talking about killing a character who never exists (from the perspective of the reader).

Why would you kill off a character this way?

Simplify the plot

Sometimes too many characters ends up causing confusion rather than adding intrigue.  For example, there may be an advantage to combining two characters.

As an example, over the weekend I had an insight about a story I’ve been working on.  I had two sections that I was having trouble connecting.  The scene introduced a new character, but I wasn’t convinced that she was believable within the scope of the story.

My insight was that I could actually reuse another character.  The original character won’t make it into this novel, but she may make an appearance at another time.  Reusing the other character means that I can leverage the work I’ve already done to create a believable character.

Avoid breaking the illusion

One of the big problems I had with the character I mentioned above was that I felt she broke the believability of the story.  I felt like including that character would have been carrying the illusion one step too far.

In the same way, sometimes you choose not to include a character because they simply don’t fit within the world you’ve created.  Perhaps they’re too similar to an existing character, or outside the norms of what you’ve already established.  Instead of trying to force them in, try killing them off and starting with someone else.  You can always keep their skeleton (character sheets, scenes you’ve tried, etc) and use them in a different story.

Add complexity for your main character

Sometimes a particular character makes the situation too easy for your main character.  In the past, I’ve removed characters from a story to actually make the problem harder for my protagonist.  This made the story more interesting, and also served to show a different side of the protagonist.

It wouldn’t have been possible to see that side if I’d allowed the other character to continue to exist.

Making a situation more challenging (without making the plot overly complex, as mentioned before) can make the story more interesting.

Have you ever killed off a character before someone had a chance to read about them?  Why did you choose to do so?

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