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 . . .