Formula for Disaster

by Pari Noskin Taichert

One of the most damning criticisms reviewers and readers can lob is: "It’s too formulaic." The opposite of this dig seems to be the tired "transcends the genre" comment — as if that’s a good thing.

I used to think I knew what these meant. That was in the beginning of my career as a novelist. Those were the same years when I fought the subgenre in which I’d chosen to base my series.

Now, the more I learn, the more I’m confused. You see, I think just about every kind of fiction is formulaic.

First of all, there’s the little question of beginning-middle-end.
Then there’s protagonist-must-grow.
What about there-must-be-conflict?
Could a good thriller not contain hero-must-be-in-danger?
How about dialogue-must-move-the-story-forward?

From where I sit, formulas are everywhere.

IMHO, we bemoan predictability while actually craving it. That’s why genres and subgenres exist in the first place.

We know that in traditional romances, a man and woman meet. They don’t like each other. Something happens to change this initial response. Love blooms. Happy ending (with sex thrown in, please).

That’s why people read romances; they know what’s going to happen. Is there something wrong with that? Does the predictability make the read any less valid or pleasurable? Why does it earn our scorn?

In traditional mysteries, someone is murdered (or there’s another compelling crime). An amateur sleuth rises to the challenge and hunts down clues. He or she figures out who did it. Justice is served. Happy ending.

Opps. Sorry. Too formulaic.

In thrillers, we expect the David-Goliath set up: common man/woman against EVIL. The action, and there’s plenty of it, ratchets up until the breath-taking climax. Little David saves the day, exposes the conspiracy, prevents the virus from being released into the general population. We want that.

In noir, we’re guaranteed that awful things happen in weird ways. They spiral downward and won’t get better (ennui and world-weariness always add good spice here). We want this off-kilter reflection of our world.

Private investigators and policemen (and coroners and forensics experts) take cases and, most often, solve them. We want the experts, the skilled and knowledgeable, to succeed.

Where’s the formula crime perpetrated? In the writing? In the genre? In the plot?

I know that some books, like movies, leave me cold when I can predict the next scene or plot point. For some reason, I don’t want predictability on that smaller level. But if I’m reading or going to a comedy, I sure as hell expect to laugh during the experience.

"It’s too formulaic." What do we really mean by that?

Is there some kind of distinction we draw between micro and macro formulaic-ness? Where, in the work, is the sin committed that merits this horrid condemnation? Why do some books attract that odd praise about transcendence?

I’d love to hear from you about this; it truly fascinates me . . .

18 thoughts on “Formula for Disaster

  1. toni mcgee causey

    The problem may be that we have used “formulaic” when what you’re really describing above is more about “conventions” or “expectations” of good story-telling. The negative connotation of the formulaic pronouncement means, of course, that it was predictable–bland, even. There were no surprises within the conventions, no twists, nothing to capture us and transport us into the story, whether that is good writing, great characterization, surprising (but organic) twists to the story-path. There are a lot of writers who treat the conventions as a by-rote formula, and they write-by-numbers within that formula. They make the conventions the end-point. There many who look at the conventions as general guidelines. The conventions are the starting point, and they work hard to make their stories work while still being surprising and creative.

    I’m reminded of the funny line in Pirates of the Carribbean, where the pirates have a Pirate Code that they’re supposed to all adhere to, and they do, consistently, until someone points out the irony that criminals are adhering to anything and tries to get the other pirates to break them, because they’re “just guidelines, really.” (Too tired this a.m. to go in search of the dialog, which is much better than I’m showing.)

    I think writers and, perhaps more importantly, reviewers, need to make the distinction between a story that works using (or breaking) conventions vs. a story which fails because it religiously clings to them as a formula.

  2. pari

    Toni,The distinction you draw is important. I do think that few people take the time — as readers or reviewers — to bring such clarity to the issue.

    Conventions = guidelinesFormulas = recipes

    Of course, I’m a person who has never, in her life, followed any recipe to the letter . . . (and that’s NOT always a good thing)

  3. Mike MacLean

    Great post Pari,

    I’m not sure what I can add to Toni’s insightful response.

    Have you ever finished a book and said, “Something was missing”? What is often missing is one of those conventions you mentioned. Nothing important was revealed at the midpoint. There was no big gloom before the rising action. The danger didn’t increasingly loom larger and larger.

    Formula despite its bad connotations is not a four-letter word. It keeps us from getting lost in a sea of intricate plots and complex characters. Yet as readers, we don’t want to be consciously aware of it.

  4. billie

    I’ve been in writing groups with folks who adhere to “the formula” with such fervor you can see it/hear it in the story to the point of distraction. For me, that’s formulaic.

    I know all stories have structure – but I want it to be seamless and invisible – if I can detect it, I’ve been taken quite solidly out of the “vivid continuous dream” and it will be hard to get back there.

    I spent a couple of years writing screenplays and it has ruined me for a lot of films – I only really enjoy the ones that are written so well I either don’t see the structure showing through – or forget to look b/c I’m so absorbed.

    Like you, Pari, I’m fascinated by this stuff. I know there’s a fine line between satisfying the reader with a form that works and doing it to the point it is so blatant it turns them off… throw in the mix that every reader is different and you have one heck of a task ahead of you as a writer.

    But that makes it fun, right? 🙂

  5. pari

    Mike,Your comment about the positive side of formulas is spot-on.

    I don’t want to get into Lit.Fiction bashing, but do find that many of the writers who are heralded as being “fresh” — eschew structure and that I dislike their works because of it. I want a good story, damnit.

    Billie,I know what you mean re: certain writing critique groups. It’s so convenient to find a particular label and adhere to it no matter what.

    Your comment about getting thrown out of the story because you’re aware of the formula/structure is mighty insightful. I think that happens to me, but I’m not always able to put my finger on it.

    In a way, your comment and Mike’s are mirrors of each other.

    * Not enough of a nod to convention and something is lacking* Too much adherence and it becomes uninspiring

    very cool discussion.

  6. Louise Ure

    For me, the conventions or tropes of mystery writing are good things. They’re the reason that I veered toward crime fiction when I first started writing. They gave me structure.

    But the formulas are not good. They make books derivative.

    And my least favorite? “Justice is served. Happy ending.” I find this to be more important in American literature than in novels from other countries, and it smacks of pandering to the rosy-glasses set. Things don’t always work out for the best, and I sometimes want that view expressed in the books I read.

  7. Alex Sokoloff

    I wish some writers would adhere more to structural formulas – I read too many books that ramble off in all kinds of directions. Of course I hate cliched writing, in plot or character

    I agree with Louise – the happy, all loose-ends-neatly-tied-up ending is probably my least favorite in my own genre.

  8. Naomi

    I enjoy the good execution of a standard formula. But I won’t want to spend too much money or time with such books. Maybe that’s why reviewers and readers of many books get so vitriolic about formula–they read one after another book that have interchangeable plots and characters.

    I think that each writer develops his or her internal formula or pattern–how else is a reader going to follow a ground-breaking work? I’m thinking about the LIFE OF PI (I couldn’t finish, BTW, but my friends love it!), THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE, etc. Jacqueline Winspear experimented with structure in MAISIE DOBBS, and her experimentation was rewarded. I was going to write that it all starts with character and that we should follow the character rather than order the character around, but I think MAISIE DOBBS shows that the author can make unconventional literary decisions in order to advance her story.

  9. pari

    hmmmmm . . . formula = cliche

    That might be the where the problem is.

    Re: loose ends tied up:

    that’s pretty much your traditional mystery right there.

    Both Alex and Louise avoid that in their own writing. I tend to tie up those ends because that’s part of the convention in traditional mysteries — though my endings tend not to be quite so hunky-dory (or at least not expectedly so). And, with my new series, there’s going to be alot more left hanging.

    Naomi, is right about developing your own internal formula, absolutely right. Thank you for this insight and such good examples.

  10. simon

    i think it’s a great compliment when someone takes a formula and you don’t even recognize it. Someone the other told me their favorite zombie novel was Stephen King’s Pet Semetery. I’d never even thought about it in those terms before.

  11. Carstairs38

    I always think of formulaic as something where I am a scene or two or ten ahead of the action. This is especially true if I know the ending after the first 15 minutes. (I usually run into this in movies not books.)

    Of course, if I am having fun, I don’t care that it is formulaic.

    It’s funny this came up today because I was having a conversation with a friend this weekend about the very subject. He was proposing an idea that would turn a romantic comedy into a serial killer mystery. I tried to explain to him that there are formulas for a reason and he’d make his audience mad with something like that. And I do think that is part of it. If I go into a movie or start a book expecting A and wind up getting B, I will probably be disappointed.

    Twists and surprises for their own sake are no better then formula.


  12. Alex Sokoloff

    Hmm, Mark, that makes total sense.

    All of drama is about playing with expectations. It’s a game with the audience – you want to trick them, but it has to be something that they COULD have guessed or anticipated… in other words, you can trick people, but not CHEAT people.

  13. pari

    Oh, I like this idea of surprise — of tricking w/o cheating.

    The other night, I watched that new TV show RAINES. At first, I was thinking, “Yeah, okay, this is a nice vehicle for Jeff Goldblum,” but not much more. (Oh, well, I was also thinking, “Hey, Sasha hallucinates the dead — how come no one has offered me a television contact?” heh heh heh)

    Anyway, the ending had a nice little zinger that put a beautiful cap on the show. I felt it was unexpected in the same way that the ending of THE SIXTH SENSE was. Either production would have stood without the final touches, but they added that element of surprise that made marvelous sense and made the entire show more satisfying.

  14. JT Ellison

    As long as I don’t know what’s coming on the next page, a novel can stick to whatever formula it needs to. But when it’s a dead giveaway, that’s no fun!

  15. pari

    Yep, J.T.,I’m with you on that one.

    Probably all this angst about formula and being formulaic is merely shorthand for what J.T. said above.

    We certainly are a society of soundbites . . .

  16. Robert W. Walker

    I think of the formula for a novel or recipe and ingredients as the ENVELOPE, and I always, always work hard to push the envelope. There are obligatory “conventions” in every genre that define that genre but those boundaries need be crossed, frontiers need to be explored. Push it everyone! Challenge the formulaic, challenge the recipe, challenge yourself as you challenge the genre.

  17. pari

    Thanks for the comment, Rob.

    I have a sort of “yes and no” response to it. To me, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the boundaries of most genres. Sometimes a perfectly wonderful book can fit the recipe and not seem stale.

    Pushing the boundaries is good too. But I still flinch at the idea of “transcending” the genre as either a compliment or a goal.

    To me, that’s not where the energy should be focused. If you tell a good story well, it shouldn’t seem formulaic no matter how closely the recipe was followed.

  18. Rob Gregory Browne

    I’m coming in late here, but the “transcends the genre” comments always struck me as a form of snobbery. Who says the genre NEEDS transcending?

    Do Connelly’s books transcend the genre? No, I don’t think so. But they’re damn great books that stick to the conventions of the genre.

    So all this transcending stuff is a slap in the face of those who don’t transcend the genre, even though they might be writing perfectly wonderful books.


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