In Praise of Formula Writing

In my alternate life as Tate Hallaway, romance writer, I often hear non-romance readers complain that romance is all just a matter of “the formula,” which they are convinced we all receive by mail from romance publishers. While, it’s entirely possible those things still exist somewhere, most writers I know, romance or otherwise, make stuff up out of their heads and any “formula” that happens is purely accidental.

I’ve been thinking about this because my four-year old Mason is currently very into the Scooby-Doo mystery chapter books by James Gelsey. One of the things that Mason and I first noticed was the formula. For these books, it goes something like this: Chapters 1 – 4, the suspects and situation are introduced. Chapter 5, the monster shows up! Chapter 6, Velma finds a clue (note: it is almost always Velma who finds the clue, as Fred and Daphne are off together somewhere “goofing off.”) Chapter 6, the Mystery, Inc. gang takes the case. Chapter 7, Velma solves the case, but doesn’t reveal who the monster is. Chapter 8, they set the trap Fred thinks up, which always includes Scooby and Shaggy as bait. Chapter 9, everything goes awry, but the villain is defeated anyway and mystery revealed.

Mason LIVES for this formula. In fact, part of the enjoyment for Mason is knowing, in advance, what’s going to happen and when to start anticipating the excitement.   When we get to Chapter 5 (when the monster comes), Mason starts getting so excited, sometimes he asks me to stop reading so he can jump up and down on the bed for a while.  I think that there’s something important about this in terms of becoming a life-long reader. Knowing that books (unlike life) are, in point of fact, somewhat predictable is what makes them both comforting and exciting. But more on the exciting, because the moment we know Bob Smith hates the amusement park going in next door, Mason and I start trying to guess if he will be the villain revealed at the end, and then suddenly everything Smith does is fraught with meaning and the whole story becomes more engaging.

I don’t know what I want to say about this, except that I noticed it now for the first time after having read over a dozen of these in that many days, and I think there’s something here that’s important to writers of all books — not just writers of mystery or YA. Formulas aren’t bad. In fact, I think they’re necessary. The reader needs them to anticipate, and the writers needs to know them to write against them

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  1. 1. The Eeyore Librarian

    I totally agree, especially for emergent/reluctant readers. Or for those of us who need a brain break and reach for the nearest bodice ripper!! I’d like to pretend every reading choice is one that will challenge or engage me, but sometimes you just want a good yarn.

  2. 2. Lynne Thomas

    I’ve often used the concept of the sonnet as a way of explaining the need for formula. Formula needs to exist to provide structure, but the real genius comes with what you *do* with that structure. All sonnets are the same, the same way that all romance novels are the same. But there are big differences between Shakespeare and Spenser, even when they write in the same genre.

  3. 3. Mike Brotherton

    I don’t know if it’s entirely formula, although perhaps in Mason’s case, and the case for young readers, it is. I think it’s more a matter of just satisfying expectations. A mystery is presented, it had better be resolved. And that governs everything from what’s behind the door being opened in the first paragraph of a story to the fate of the world in an alien invasion. Every time a question pops up, whether it is a question involving plot, character, or setting, it must be satisfied by the end of the story or there’s no satisfaction. A reader expects a resolution, and will wait for it happily (if not impatiently) once the mystery is presented. At its most basic, I think a “formula” is just a successful balancing act that creates the most satisfying wait between the presentation of a question/problem and it’s solution.

    As an aside, and probably to my detriment as a writer, I’ve always admired stories and novels that seem more like real life and don’t always answer all the mysteries, somehow managing to avoid doing so without being totally unsatisfying.

  4. 4. Kip W

    Lester Dent, who wrote the majority of the Doc Savage books, used a formula . Introduce the hero, swat him with a fistful of trouble, hint at a mystery… toss in a surprise about once per page of manuscript… and so on.

    The formula works if you’re as good as Dent. If you can’t write, you can take the formula and still turn out bad work. Perhaps diligent use of the thing will at least give some structure to what you produce, though.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    I’ve used the sonnet analogy as well, especially in explaining some of the tropes in fantasy to people who don’t necessarily believe in fantasy, but do believe in sonnets.

  6. 6. Mister Nice Guy

    Recently, my life has taken a depressing turn — after years of mere irritation and anxiety.

    I find that I have a powerful need for formulaic writing and a lack of anything challenging or disturbing in what I read just now.

    Maybe I should reconsider selling my 1960s comic books….

  7. 7. Daemon

    I’m ambivalent about the use formulaic plots and genre conventions. They don’t bother me when they are used well, but can be annoying if used a bit too obviously.

    Honestly, though, I think many of the people who complain about a genre’s “formulas” are basicly complaining about the genre itself. You know, people who just don’t like magic or space ships, or stories about people falling in love. It’s just a way to dismiss the stories they were already going to dismiss, but do it in way that lets them feel justified.

    A lot of people who take issue with formula in genre fiction are perfectly content to accept it in other fields – such as their TV preferances.

  8. 8. Thomas

    Howdy,

    Personally, I don’t think it is possible to write a story or tell it without there being some formula in it. I’m not just talking about your average hum-drum Hollywood assembly line of movies. I think every story has elements of formula, and those that don’t, that deliberately strives not to, are relegated to the terminally abstract, esoteric minded, which account for perhaps one percent of one percent of society.

    This is why in literary studies you always run up against canons, theme devices, plot devices, symbolism, etc. This are the markers that lets the reader in on what happened, what is happening, and what might happen. That is how Aristotle derived his famous six elements of a tragedy. You can only come up with these six elements if there are commonalities to all these kinds of stories.

    I was told once that humanity is in what we all hold in common, not what divides us. This is so with stories. A good story will have many elements that are similar to other stories, and because of that, some degree of formula is inescapable. (Even Shakespeare did not invent Macbeth in a vacuum.)

  9. 9. Sean

    Glad I found this. I’m in the middle of rewrites for my first novel, and I realised I was following a formula that’s uncannily similar to my second novel. I started freaking, but then I googled this and found out I’m alright. The formula’s not a problem. It’s the writing and the subject matter. Whether the subject matter is engaging or not is up to my future readers, but I feel confident enough to say that it’ll be up to snuff for most.

    Thanks for this!

Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.

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