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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

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.

Creatures of Fiction: Vampires

Monday, July 12th, 2010

There’s a little-known theory for how the story of vampires came to be.

Vampires, like all creatures of fiction, are based in reality–real events, real symptoms, and real people.  Without access to today’s wide resources (like the Internet), everyday people tried to explain these events–giving birth to the tale of the vampire.

The legend of vampires came from:

  • Rabies symptoms
  • Burying people who were not dead
  • Animals that easily catch/transmit rabies

I came up with this theory on my own, but found that dozens (if not hundreds) of other doctors and scientists beat me to the punch (including Dr. Juan Gomez-Alonso in 1998).  It’s far from the first time this happened, but it’s still satisfying–those dozens or hundreds of people provide support for my opinion.

While Dr. Gomez-Alonso’s inspiration came from the Dracula movie, my inspiration came from an episode of House that describes a woman who has rabies symptoms.  Among the rabies symptoms shown in the film were:

  • Aversion to light and water
  • Aggression–biting and drawing blood
  • Immunity to pain
  • Bats flying away from the affected woman’s living space

These symptoms (and others) combine to create an understandable image of the modern vampire.

Biting/sucking blood

Vampires are perhaps best known for their tendency to bite victims and suck their blood.  Occasionally, this will turn those victims into vampires themselves.

Rabies is often transmitted via a bite from an infected creature.  After a sufficient incubation period, the victim will then demonstrate rabies symptoms themselves.  By the time rabies symptoms are present, the victim is not treatable with today’s technology.

Creatures of the night

Vampires are traditionally known to attack during the night.  Their victims, often asleep, are at their most vulnerable.

Rabies victims experience photophobia (fear of light), which often causes them to turn away from the source, hissing and with bared teeth.

It’s easy to imagine a vampire movie at this point, with Dracula (or some other vampire) turning away.  I’d also imagine that the idea of using a cross to defend oneself against vampires was accompanied with a bright torch–and this would certainly cause the rabies victim to turn and run.

Garlic and Holy Water

Traditional defenses against vampires include cloves of garlic and holy water.  These defenses actually would have worked.

Rabies victims experience hydrophobia (a fear of water) and a hypersensitivity to strong smells.  Garlic and water would have certainly repelled any perceived vampires.

Transforming into Bats

Bats are often associated with vampires–vampires are said to have the ability to transform themselves into bats and fly away to escape capture.

Bats are also known carriers of rabies infections.  It’s easy to imagine coming upon someone sleeping, only to see a bat flapping away into the night.  With other rabies victims (or vampires) already known in the area, it would have been easy for someone to get confused and assume that a vampire transformed into a bat.

Super-human strength

Vampires are known for being impervious to pain.  This is why the “only” way to kill a vampire is to pierce its heart with a wooden stake.

Rabies victims also become immune to pain as the disease progresses.  In the House episode above, the victim is hit with a taser, and feels no pain.  For people who had more primitive weapons, it’s easy to imagine that a rabies victim would have appeared to have superhuman strength.

Rising from the dead

Vampires, of course, are known for being undead (more active than zombies, but still sustained by human blood).

As described in this Wikipedia article, some of this is explained by the natural decomposition process, which can make it appear as if a body is fuller and have blood around the mouth.  This may also be partly explained by someone who was accidentally buried alive, which, horrifyingly enough, did happen from time to time.

For you as a writer

As you can see, though vampires are fictional, there’s a basis in reality.  If you’re looking to create a new creature, it may help to take symptoms of a disease and use it to guide the creation of a new race.  These traits can also help you to create believable trends, and will help guide you in creating more realistic characters.

If you happen to write about vampires (as it seems many people are), then you may want to consider researching rabies to guide your story.

If you liked this, you may also be interested in: Real-Life Fantasy Creatures

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