The Formula of Writing

At the weekend I did a programme item at Satellite 4, the Eastercon, called “Improvisation for Writers”. I wanted to prove a point. I think I did. (Perhaps only to myself.)

At writers’ groups there’s always someone, usually near the back who starts this particular debate.

“Rules are made to be broken,” they say, “I don’t want to write formulaically.”

Everyone nods sagely, because honestly, who would want to write formulaically?

Well, actually, I would. Do. And so do you.

‘Rules are made to be broken’ is such a clever phrase. It sounds good, it makes the speaker seem like a rebel, their stories different from the usual mix. However, if you ask them what the rules are, then they’ve no idea. Except, of course, that they are made to be broken. And the formula? Well, they don’t know that either, and they don’t need to because they aren’t going to write that way anyway.

My theory is that all stories follow the ‘rules’ and the ‘formula’, no matter what, and my idea was to take a bunch of actors to improvise scenes to illustrate this. If you talk about story structure nowadays, you get caught by the fact that no-one has read or watched the same things. I mean, you can get Star Wars on DVD, for goodness sake. The first point of the improv was that everyone would be to generate something that everyone has seen.

The second point was to show that these stories, despite being created on the spot based on suggestions from the audience, followed the rules and were formulaic. It was a kind of scary leap into the unknown to depend upon unpredictable examples.

We did two games: ‘A-Z’, were the scene is improvised such that each line must start with the next letter of the alphabet, and the infamous ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’, where the actors take out a line written by the audience (or indeed, written by members of the convention during the day before). How, goes the argument, can they stick to the rules and the formula when they don’t know what’s coming next, cannot plan and indeed don’t know which letter comes after ‘J’? (For some reason, ‘K’ seemed to be a real stumbling block.)

So, our actors were in a gym, caught on a fishing boat in a storm, a meeting where evil reigns, sisters with a dreadful political secret and finally something quite bizarre involving shoes.

Did they follow the rules? Where the sketches formulaic?

Of course they were.

I went through each afterwards pointing out the steps along the Hero’s Journey (“The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell) and the points along Hollywood’s Nine Points. For one, I even did the ‘writer’s’ commentary as the sketch progressed. Next we’ll have the pinch…. and yes, the line starting with the next letter was indeed the pinch.

It is a very controversial point of view, and the Q and A at the end had a couple of people objecting with an argument that spilled into the bar to become quite a discussion.

There are two ways to see the word ‘formulaic’, either as an evil mad scientist mixing up the elixir of world domination, and really that’s not something we want. The other is a scientist going to the lab to make a substance and it having a chemical formula… well, of course it does.

People who don’t want to write ‘formulaically’ really mean that they don’t want to write badly. It’s a shame that bad writing (or more commonly a ‘lack of writing’) in Hollywood blockbusters have given the formulas a bad name. They are descriptions, useful tools and very handy checklists. Following the formula means a story is a story, not that it’s guaranteed to be good. Huge budgets and massive marketing campaigns mean that bad stories written using the formula have been successful, so, goes the thinking, all stories that slavishly follow the formula will be good without any writing being needed, as such.

Maybe ‘rules’ and ‘formulaic’ are misused words to the point of uselessness. Perhaps ‘patterns’ and ‘description’ might best describe the shape and structure that all stories have.

My message, and all stories should have a message, is that if you are writing something and spot something ‘formulaic’ appearing, don’t worry. Like chemistry, writing has formulas.


8 thoughts on “The Formula of Writing

  1. When I’m teaching creative writing, I always tell people that you can break any rule you like, but each one represents a challenge you’re taking on. Therefore it should not be done frivolously, but only when your story demands it. I agree that there is one dominant model of narrative, which works in all genres and styles, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one- see for example the abomination which was Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, forcing the story into three act structure, and in consequence removing almost all the charm and strangeness of the original.

    • That’s an interesting example and a counter might be that a meandering novel doesn’t translate into film. However, my thesis is that Carroll’s Alice does follow a beginning-middle-end structure (which is NOT three act structure, but that’s a whole other can of worms). It has to. It can’t not. Just because Tim Burton (or screen writer Linda Wolverton) didn’t adapt it well (in your opinion, because I’ve not seen it) doesn’t negate the structure. Without structure equals ‘bad’ writing, with structure equals ‘could be good’ writing.

  2. Without structure, nothing makes sense. It is just pretty lights on the wall.

    I’m an extreme plotter – I use Dramatica – but I find that the main result is to give me a solid foundation so that the writing works when it’s finally assembled.

    I’ll tell you later if it works, but it sure makes writing simpler for me.

    Some people don’t like structure because they say knowing the ending ruins the journey – I find that their journeys often don’t end anywhere I want to go.

    In any case, interesting example – improv. I like it. The brain instinctively wants to know what happens, and it should make sense. In my world, anyway.

      • I think the author should decide where that story is going to end – which makes it much easier, when writing, to decide what belongs in the story and what does not – rather than a character who takes the bit in his teeth halfway through.

        A bit less discovery, a lot more control – and less chance of readers throwing the book against the wall.

        Apparently, though, many people disagree with me, so I propose this now as my humble opinion, rather than Gospel truth.

        But I don’t buy the pantsers’ books. I don’t feel like reading the whole thing and also having to understand an ambiguous or disconnected ending. Not my job. IMHO

      • Should books have ingredients or warnings on the side: “written without a plan”, “only 30% structured”, “ending open to interpretation”, “plot holes beyond the recommended daily allowance”, “contains nuts”…

      • I am going to put somewhere, ‘plotted with Dramatica.’

        Or maybe I shouldn’t.

        Full disclosure. Hmmm.

        The plotting is only a PART of the writing. Many people claim they write the thing and then go back and smooth out all those connections and fill in the plot holes.

        I, enamored of my own writing when I finally finish it, am not so sure they will all have the intestinal fortitude to really discard what need discarding, and fill in what will then need filling.

        But I will support your proposal IF the %plotted is determined by a completely separate authority.

        Authors are liars. Yes, we are.

      • Pete: Writers give words meaning and truth. They lie-
        Oliver: Eh?
        Pete: They make stuff up.
        Oliver: Fair enough.
        Pete: But writers lie to reveal a deeper truth. Actors are truthful to that lie.
        Oliver: Actors are truthful to a lie that’s the truth.

        Lifelong Yearning by David Wake

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