The (Not So) Secret Formulas of Fiction

To call a story formulaic, whether it be short story, novel, or even a movie is in most cases not a compliment. It tends to mean that a story is predictable and obvious. A consumer of such stories might say “I could see it coming from a mile away.”

That’s not to say that formulaic fiction is never popular. Throughout history many bestselling novels and movies have in fact been highly formulaic without shame. And people eat them up. (Dan Brown novels, particularly the Langdon series, are a prime example.) More discerning or literary readers may either dismiss such romps in fiction, or may enjoy them from time to time as a so-called “guilty pleasure.” I venture to guess that in any case nobody, including the authors of such guilty pleasures would associate their work with high art, or even with experimentation.

But say you yourself seek to write something more than a formulaic romance or connect-the-dots police procedural. Suppose your goal is to write gripping, surprising or challenging fiction. Perhaps you even aspire to that most elusive of undefined genres, literary fiction. Have you anything to gain from these “formulaics”?


While I personally don’t think stringent, Aristotle-based plot structure is as important as it used to be when writing fiction, much can still be gained from same.  That’s because many good stories that are not described as formulaic do nonetheless follow a basic plot formula. We just don’t notice the formula because quality writing allows it to recede into the background for the reader; it becomes the skeleton that holds up the tale, and not the raison d’être.  So if, like me, plotting is not one of your automatic strengths as a writer, you could probably stand to brush up on the nature of such skeletons. What better way to do that than by reading/watching formulaic stories that are almost all skeleton?

Average, or even B-Movie Westerns from the 1950’s through 1970’s are good examples. Pick up a few of these on Netflix sometime, and see how the skeleton appears over and over again. Or have Encore Westerns on in the middle of the night, as I sometimes do.  These will of course each have their Westerns conventions, but surrounding those are basic plot skeletons, and they won’t be difficult to find. Eventually you’ll pick up the patterns and will be able to use them in your own stuff. (attaching flesh, muscle and spirit to them as desired.)

Westerns not your thing, even as an exercise? Watch a Law and Order or any other crime procedural. Or, if you must, (and have the stomach for it), turn on either Hallmark or Lifetime movies. Those are so formulaic you don’t get anymore from the movie than you do the trailer itself in many cases. But is easily defined plot structure present? Oh, yeah. In spades.

Then there are the previously mentioned Dan Brown books, and other airport fiction. Pick up a few of those and watch the paint drip right onto the numbers every time.

There are plenty of other examples out there.  If you don’t watch or read such things for guilty pleasure, consider doing so as a study in structure. You may not  feel artistic, enlightened or deep when you do so, but you’ve got Sundance and Cannes indies and Pushcart Prize-winners for all of that sort of soul wrenching self-discovery. Feed your craft at its most basic level sometimes, and immerse yourself, without distraction, in the not so secret formulas once in a while.


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