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Posts Tagged ‘formulaic writing’

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.


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