Writing Formulas and Formulaic Writing

Recently, John C. Wright blogged about the formula used by Lester Dent to write the Doc Savage stories. He began his post with this defense of writing formulas:

There are people who object to formula fiction. Myself, I like formula fiction much better than experimental fiction, because the formula at least means the story will be workmanlike. Some complain formulas make yarns too predictable. But that is like saying the recipe for cheesecake is predictable: depends on well the cook uses the recipe, does it not?

As a small aside, though in the main Mr. Wright’s point about cheesecake is well made, there are—I get the impression—far more people who like to be surprised by fiction than like to be surprised by food. This may be related to the relative difficulty of finding new fiction to finding new foods, but at least I’ve never encountered a restaurant review which gave spoiler warnings so one could avoid hearing about what the food tastes like. Or perhaps a better analogy would be that very few people go to a winery and refuse to avoid the wine tastings because they don’t want to tarnish the experience of drinking the wine they are going to buy with the knowledge of what it tastes like. For people who thus primarily enjoy surprise in fiction, formula fiction is somewhat poorly suited. Being more a re-reader than a reader of new things I’m not very familiar with this, but I’ve heard that there are such people in the world—from their own lips, on some occasions.

Not long after Mr. Wright published his post, Brian Niemeier blogged about writing formulas, linking Mr. Wright’s blog post. Something in it caught my eye, and seemed related to what Mr. Wright said:

A long-running controversy in writing circles rages around the validity of formulas. Keep in mind that I don’t mean formulaic writing, which is just predictable and derivative.

The interplay of the two is this: formulas that work to make enjoyable stories will—with certainty, and possibly of necessity—result in more stories which are predictable and derivative. It will do this because it will result in more stories by fixing other aspects of the stories that otherwise would have died still-born on their author’s fingers or the editor’s in-box. This is in no way a criticism of formulas, but rather an entry-point into considering what it is that formulas actually do.

There are many ways in which a story can be good or bad. One dimension of good stories is characters. Specifically, are they interesting people? Does the story show off their virtues realistically? The wrong character in an interesting situation will be uninteresting because none of their virtues (especially natural virtues) will be relevant and they will remain background non-entities or automatons moved about because the plot requires it and for no other reason. A formula is not likely to help much with this.

Another dimension of good stories is the narration. A good narrator makes observations about human nature that are interesting to read. A formula will not help with this at all, and this is perhaps one of the most neglected aspects of story telling. But consider such amazing narration as you find in Pride & Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Or again:

“[Miss Bingley speaking at length to Mr. Darcy, criticizing every feature of Elizabeth.]”

Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected.

Or again:

Miss Darcy and her brother appeared, and this formidable introduction took place. With astonishment did Elizabeth see that her new acquaintance was at least as much embarrassed as herself. Since her being at Lambton, she had heard that Miss Darcy was exceedingly proud; but the observation of a very few minutes convinced her that she was only exceedingly shy.

Fresh observations on human nature cannot be taught by formula, but only by extensive education and observation.

Another dimension of good stories is expression. This can be word choice, but it also is related to the judgment of what to describe and what not to; using an apt quotation in place of a lengthy explanation. Formulas cannot teach one a wealth of quotations and which are apt, and when a character might use a quotation rather than an explanation.

Another dimension of writing quality is whether the author as written something the reader did not expect. As Chesterton observed (I can’t find the quote with more than a little googling, unfortunately), the only reason to read anything is to read something one did not expect to read. I think in the original context he said that the only reason to listen to a man is because one expects him to say something one did not expect him to say. Otherwise you could leave off listening and still know what he said. This is why I find it so annoying whenever a hero has been all but utterly defeated by insurmountable numbers of enemies and all he has is a baseball bat and his baseball bat just broke. We know that on the next page—since it is not the last page—that either his friends will show up or the magic amulet he’s been wearing will start to glow and imbue him with the power to defeat all his foes, depending on whether he’s been wearing a magic amulet. This is why I think it’s such a mistake to raise the stakes so much that they die of asphyxiation. The corpse of the stakes is very predictable, in the sense that one need not see how the author wrote the story to know how it was written. There was only one way to write it, excepting a deus-ex-machina which is pure cheating and worse than the predictable next scene. Formulas can help with this, in that a well-designed formula can keep a writer from getting into a situation in which there is only one way out, but it needs to be a very well designed formula to do that. And as a practical matter, it should be noted that formulas do seem especially attractive to people who have a hard time thinking of one way out of the situations they’ve gotten their characters into, but that’s just from my personal experience of a not very representative sample of people.

And finally one dimension of good writing is a plot that holds together. A series of events with no rational relationship to each other is not interesting to read, at least for those who are sober. There is nothing in them to engage the rational mind. And this is where a formula can greatly improve writing. Formulas can help a great deal with structure, and keep the author from writing the protagonist into a corner, and thus keep the author from merely teleporting the protagonist to a new location. I mean a good formula, of course. A bad formula will not keep the author from writing the protagonist into a corner, but then a bad crutch will not support a man’s weight. That does not mean that crutches are a bad idea for a man with a broken leg, and equally it doesn’t mean that formulas are a bad idea for a writer. All tools must be judged by good examples of the tool, not the worst versions of them. Judging all formulas by a bad formula is as much a mistake as judging all saws by a dull saw.

But human nature being what it is, the ability to make a story good in several dimensions tends to go together. This is related in part to the many effects of intelligence and education, but in any event it will be rare to find a man who can write excellent characters, can write fascinating insights into human nature, can do all this with language that is well suited to the needs of the moment (tight in action, luxurious in moments of leisure, and so on), and can always foresee the possibilities of his present course to ensure that there are always multiple viable paths ahead, but who can’t for the life of him come up with a way to get his characters to do what they need to do. Such a man is not impossible, but he is uncommon. By contrast, a man who can’t write characters very well, can’t say much about human nature worth reading, can barely put words together grammatically, to say nothing of concisely and clearly, and who can’t foresee the present course enough to stock the future with possibilities, but who can follow a formula in order to come up with a plot that at least has his characters acting like human beings and connecting his scenes in some sort of rational way—such a man is far more common.

The upshot of this is that if good writing formulas are well known and widely used, it will result in writing which is more predictable and derivative, because while it will elevate the occasional good writing into very good writing, and some mediocre writing into good writing, it will elevate far more bad writing into mediocre writing. And the thing is—contrary to what snobs say—mediocre is not the same thing as bad, and mediocre writing is worth reading.

Now, it should be noted that I am not at all saying that formulas will turn good writing into mediocre writing. Such a thing is, I suppose, not entirely outside of the realm of possibility, but I think it very unlikely. My point is that writing formulas, by their very function of improving writing, will—because they improve it unevenly—result in more mediocre writing. But, like the doctrine of purgatory carves a chunk of hell off and results in fewer people being damned—if, in a sense, it does lower the average quality of the blessed—a writing formula which improves writing will carve a chunk out of terrible writing and make it mediocre. This is in no way a criticism of writing formulas, but instead a studious in how counter-intuitive results can be. Perhaps it can be called a study in the law of unintended consequences.

So again, to be crystal clear—since writing formulas come under a lot of probably undeserved criticism—nothing in what I said is an argument against using writing formulas. At most, it is an argument for trying to improve one’s writing in more ways than just using a writing formula. And that, I suspect, no fool ever doubted. And certainly the men whose blog posts I linked above are no fools.

Glory to God in the highest.

4 thoughts on “Writing Formulas and Formulaic Writing

  1. Pingback: Predictability vs. Recognizability – Chris Lansdown

  2. Mary

    That’s because Chesterton said it about speakers, not writers. It’s from Heretics.

    “He also says, in the article I am now discussing, that Mr. Shaw has the reputation of deliberately saying everything which his hearers do not expect him to say. I need not labour the inconclusiveness and weakness of this, because it has already been dealt with in my remarks on Mr. Bernard Shaw. Suffice it to say here that the only serious reason which I can imagine inducing any one person to listen to any other is, that the first person looks to the second person with an ardent faith and a fixed attention, expecting him to say what he does not expect him to say. It may be a paradox, but that is because paradoxes are true. It may not be rational, but that is because rationalism is wrong. But clearly it is quite true that whenever we go to hear a prophet or teacher we may or may not expect wit, we may or may not expect eloquence, but we do expect what we do not expect. We may not expect the true, we may not even expect the wise, but we do expect the unexpected. If we do not expect the unexpected, why do we go there at all? If we expect the expected, why do we not sit at home and expect it by ourselves?”


  3. Pingback: Murder, She Wrote & Stereotypes – Chris Lansdown

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