Back to Formula?

Posted Jul 21 2010, 1:49 am

In Spiderman, Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn utters this exclamation while murdering an employee in a most spectacular ‘roid rage.

Mr. Osborn doesn’t like formula very much.  And neither do Twitter pals Trisha (@trishaleighKC) and Matt (@mattdelman). Trisha brought up Nicholas Sparks and we exchanged some tweets about our favorite stories.  When she said she no longer reads Sparks because he’s resorted to formula, I wondered why that’s a bad thing. A Google search suggests she is not alone.

Sure, formula can mean predictable but I think the expectations and anticipation that arise from the predictability in a story are the very reasons I choose one title or one author from among all the possibilities available.  Romances comprise a huge segment of the book-buying market.  Girl meets boy, usually hates him at first and then falls in love. Something happens to break up Girl and Boy. But the end? It’s always happily ever after and I like that.  Whodunits always have a dead body and a detective – amateur or professional – to name the killer.  I like that, too.  Didn’t every Nancy Drew ever published have a Nancy-in-peril scene? Couldn’t our choice of genre, I argued, indicate our preference for adherence to formula?

I had to get back to work, but our Twitter conversation simmered on the back brain all afternoon and I considered blogging about the topic (and I have to thank Sean Ferrell for urging me on). When I got home, I discussed it with my sons.  Chris, son #2 (which indicates birth order, not preference) suggested that formula is essential when you’re just starting out, a lesson I learned the hard way with my current WIP, SEND. I finished SEND earlier this year and started querying it as a YA romance. But my lead characters were twenty-two.  Characters in YA need to be in their teens and preferably, still in high school, which is how I am writing this version.

Not only a clear case where one must actually know the rules before breaking them, but also… Formula.

We talked further about these rules and Chris brought up Harry Potter. The books follow a pattern: Harry goes to school, learns some cool magic spells, battles evil, returns to an unhappy home. For six books, this was the pattern established and followed. But in the seventh and final book, Harry does not return to school.  The pattern is disrupted and because of it, the book is that much more compelling.

(Mom boast: Yes. This is my 15-year-old, folks!)

Patterns? Hm. Matt and Trisha made almost the same point. Patterns are good depending on how popular a writer you are and how many releases you’re expected to deliver.  I realized then that I hadn’t read a Nick Sparks book in years. It was never a conscious decision on my part. There are just so many extra dollars I have at any given point in time and I’d begun spending them on other fiction. But when forced to consider why, I am also forced to agree with Trisha: Sparks has resorted to formula. I’ve read four or five books and they are all THE SAME STORY.

I never consciously noticed this, other than I had grown bored.  I had the same impression with Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol. It was like DaVinci Code 2, yet I really enjoyed Angels & Demons and Deception Point.

Trisha and Matt helped me realize that writing to formula may start out as following established and favorite patterns but can quickly become a limiting trap.

So, what say you? Is writing to genre inherently formulaic? Better yet, give me your examples of titles where the patterns were disrupted.  I’d love to check them out.



17 responses to “Back to Formula?”

  1. You go Chris! What a smart kid. Seems to me you have an Editor in the making. No wonder you are so proud.

    As for this post, it is pretty terrific and I want to think about the points you have made.

    I don’t think formula is bad if you are writing different characters. Formula gets old when you are writing the same story over and over again with the same characters.

    Great post!

    • Patty says:

      Thanks and thanks! I have to agree, he is pretty smart. And great.

    • Hilary says:

      I think there is an important difference between formula writing and writing the same story.
      Yes, the Harry Potter books follow a formula, but the things that are at stake grow and change: in the first book the stakes are Voldemort returning and Harry’s life; in the second book the stakes are Voldemort returning, Harry’s life, and the life of one of his close friends (or surrogate family members); the third book the stakes are Voldemort returning, Harry’s life, and the truth about his family’s murders. Etc., etc.
      Nicholas Sparks books are, quite literally, the same story every time, because the stakes are the same every time, and never grow beyond the scope of the love story.

  2. Much to think about. Great topic. I think every story is somewhat formulaic, which is why it is so hard to be original. The most fresh and unique story I’ve read recently is – YA – Dust of a Hundred Dogs by A.S. King. I absolutely loved it.

    • Patty says:

      That was partially my point, Laura… but Hilary’s comment really puts it into perspective. It’s about the stakes. Thanks for the recommendation. Will check it out!

  3. Sean says:

    This is a really great post. You’re spot on: write until things become second nature, then break out. Excellent analysis, and Chris sounds like he should be attending writing seminars. As a teacher.

  4. Right on, Chris.

    I don’t like formula myself. I like it when a book (or any form of story, including movies, visual art, etc.) surprises me, when it speaks truth in a way that slips past my expectations.

    “Is writing to genre inherently formulaic?” This makes me wonder. If your genre is “fiction”, I’d say no. If one of the more specific genres, maybe so. Maybe that’s why new genres keep getting created. Sci-fi and fantasy are relatively new – and sub-genres keep getting added within them. Slipstream is a word I learned in the last year myself – . I love it.

    • Patty says:

      Slipstream. Hm. Interesting. Thanks for commenting, Beth. I tried to do that with SEND. I thought aging the characters are few years would give them that lens of maturity from which they could look back on their teens and see the mistakes made. So the message seems to be, ‘dazzle us but not too much’.

  5. Could we say that all fiction writing is formulaic? Why stop at genre writing? Most novels follow the classic story arc, eh? Would that be considered its formula?

    I think a formula is almost required in good genre writing. Readers expect it to an extent. The more hidden it is, though, the better the writing.

    Although I don’t read much literary fiction. Perhaps none of this applies. But as a genre reader and writer, I like the general formulas of genre fiction. I just don’t want them poorly used and obvious.

  6. Patty says:

    Thanks, Michelle… I think that was the biggest criticism I’d read re: Nicholas Sparks’ stories… he relies too heavily on previously used stories and it’s become obvious.

  7. Harley May says:

    This is great, Patty.

    I’m racking my brain, trying to think of films that break out of the box. Zac Snyder’s movies come to mind. I love everything he does.

    Thanks for writing this. I’m a fan.

    • Patty says:

      Thanks, Harley! The original discussion and all the comments have really helped me better grasp the reasons why formula is bad. I don’t even know who Zac Snyder is, but I’ll find out. Love it!

  8. Linda G. says:

    Oh, great post! And particularly timely for me, as I’m writing the second in what I hope will be a series, and am madly trying to avoid formula ruts.

    Really, though, I think “formula” has been over-demonized. The same formula can be the framework for either mediocrity or literary brilliance, depending on the writer, just like a good recipe can produce a delectable dish or an inedible mess, depending on the cook.

    (Ha! Imagine that. Me, using a cooking metaphor.)

    BTW, your son is brilliant. :)

    • Patty says:

      Thanks, Linda. I think he’s kinda brilliant, too. Must have got it from me. :)

      I think your mediocrity vs. literary brilliance comment is what prompted this post for me. I’d always thought writing to some ideal vision was the right thing to do until this exchange on Twitter opened my eyes. Framework, yes! But rut? Uh uh.

      It’s a tight rope, isn’t it?