I’ve studied and taught Three Act Structure, the Hero’s Journey, Nine Point Structure, etc, etc… (we’ll get to these by and by) and usually I never get to the end of a session without someone saying either:-
“I don’t want to write formulaically.”
“Rules are made to be broken.”
The usually mean well, so turning round and yelling: “What rules!? Do you know these rules?” isn’t nice or constructive.
I have a box here, wooden with a brass clasp, which is nothing that fancy and it belies its secret contents. Here, let me open it for you. See inside, snug within the felt surround is a vial of liquid, not just any liquid, but the Elixir of Calliope. I’ll take it out so you can examine it more closely, see how it catches the light. I’ll remove the glass stopper and let the faint aroma of genius drift into the air. This, yes this, will enable you, yes you, to write that epic novel, the play that changes the world or the poem to move men’s souls. Here, take a sip, just the tinniest sip…
Of course you would. Anyone would. You’d be a fool not to. But, and here’s the kicker, this magical potion is a straight forward chemical that has a formula.
The serious point is that everything has a form. We hear about there being three stories (or eight, twelve, pi…) and two of those are “Cinderella”. If you were to write a story so original, so unique, so mould breaking, then that ‘form’ would simply be added to the latest editions of the ‘How To Write Books’ and there would be four stories (or nine, thirteen, pi+1…) and two of those are “Cinderella”. You can’t win this one and nor should you try.
The objection is not formula, but cliché.
Fairy Tales, for example, follow this formula: “Once Upon A Time, there was a little girl called Little Red Riding Hood, who strayed off the path and blah-blah-blah and at the end the moral of the story: do as you are told!!!”
After a while, you grow out of that and think that, say, the following is fresh and new: “Space the Final Frontier, these are the voyages, etc, etc, blah-blah-blah, and finally at the end Kirk, Spock and McCoy gather on the bridge to discuss what happened.”
In Star Trek, the final scene was usually humorous, with a joke at Spock’s expense, but the form was still there. It’s better written, arguably, than a Fairy Tale. Even so, that little scene, is still the “…and the moral is…” element from the formula. And then that in itself became cliché. People would say “that’s formulaic” when they meant “oh no, not this again”.
Endings should be “inevitable but unexpected” as Aristotle put it and I’ll choose to interpret that here as “formula but not cliché”. You want the audience to go “Ooh! Ah!” (surprise followed by realisation). You don’t want them to go “Hmm… Dur.” (boredom followed by more boredom) or even “Eh! What?” (incredulity followed by confusion).
To paraphrase that Fairy Tale that started “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, use the form, Luke.
Therefore, formula good; cliché, bad.