Formula: Fact or Fiction?

You don’t have to be a romance author to hear that your genre relies on formula, or pattern, for its plots. In mysteries the crime is solved, in horror good defeats evil, in westerns the white hat wins by sundown, in courtroom dramas justice is served and of course in romance, the main characters end up together in a loving relationship. In Christian fiction, faith is established or confirmed by the end of the book.

Penelope Stokes, in her “Complete Guide to Writing and Selling the Christian Novel,” recalls book shopping with a friend. Her friend muttered, “Genre fiction all looks alike to me.” And Penelope understood the comment, but explains why fiction writers should identify with a genre. Publishers need to market your book, booksellers need to sell your book, and readers buy the genre of their choice. So it’s to the novelist’s benefit to find a genre, their niche, to market themselves as a writer of that type of story. To learn that type of formula.

What about literary fiction, a genre not generally included under the “popular fiction” umbrella? Does it have a formula, leading readers to a satisfying conclusion if not a happy ending? Not always. And that is why the genre doesn’t appeal to everyone, it’s a matter of personal choice. For most readers, the formula works for a reason.

Why would readers want a story to be formulaic? The very concept goes against the idea of ‘creative’ writing. Yet can you imagine picking up a paperback mystery novel at the airport shop and reading through long hours of a turbulent flight only to find the murderer was never caught? That there’s no resolution for the characters or justice for the victim? You’d never buy that author’s work again, and you might just drop-kick the book into the plane’s trash receptacle. But does that mean readers want to know exactly what is going to happen in a genre story?

Not exactly.

They want to be assured that the story will have an ending which will satisfy their expectations. There needs to be a skeleton, or frame, but everything in between is up for grabs. The suspense of not knowing what will happen is satisfied during the unfolding of the plot, in the character’s choices and emotions.

Chances are you’ve never picked up a CBA novel and found the hero converts to a cult by the end. And aren’t the monsters/villains/evil robots always eventually defeated, even if a few characters are killed off along the way? So, what is this need for closure in fiction?

In his classic guide for writers, “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” Dwight Swain addresses this issue. “All stories are about the same thing: desire vs. danger. Your reader reads first and foremost for emotional stimulation. The most basic formula-beginning, middle and end equals story.” He outlines this formula:

1) an existing situation
2) a change in this situation
3) an affected character
4) consequences

“Your reader has emotional needs. One of the deepest of these is his desire to believe that there is order in the world; that life holds meaning. . . that cause leads to effect, that deed influences reward.”

Otherwise you leave your reader frustrated.

William Noble, in his book “Show, Don’t Tell,” advises “readers read to be entertained, and somewhere in there a level of satisfaction must be attained. An ending which leaves questions and uncertainties is one which leaves the reader dissatisfied. Readers have a right to expect fair treatment from writers, and one expectation is that endings will not bring confusion or guessing games.” He goes on to describe hopeful endings. “The key to making the hopeful ending a solid one lies in the drama we are able to develop. A mushy, inoffensive, directionless ending will have little or any drama. . . but the ending that is packed with drama (emotion) will give the reader a jolt and a memory, even if everything comes out all right.” Meaning, even following a loose formula, an ending can hold surprise and emotion for the reader. It’s up to the author to build a unique, compelling story along the way.

“The primary purpose in reading a novel is to experience at the emotional level the lives of the characters-to laugh with them, cry with them, suffer with them. Your primary object as a novelist is to move the reader emotionally,” says James N. Frey in “How to Write A Damn Good Novel.”
“Readers crave to see justice done. The climax-resolution should make the novel whole. A good climax leaves the reader feeling that the story is finished.” His formula:

1) Look for surprises
2) Exploit powerful emotions
3) Issue a verdict in the Court of Poetic Justice
4) Find new facets of character
5) The climax-resolution should make the novel whole.

He does advise against using stale images. “When ‘all’ the reader’s expectations about a character are fulfilled, where there are no contradictions or surprises in the character, you have a stereotyped character.” And that’s where genre fiction’s “formula” gets a bad name.

“The Christian writer, above all else, has certain responsibilities, both to the reader and to the work, to present a quality story. A story worth reading. A story not cheapened by easy answers or simplistic resolutions. A story rich in drama and satisfying in conclusion. A story marked by spiritual integrity, meticulously crafted and bearing eternal significance,” says Penelope Stokes.

If you keep these things in mind, your application of formula will be invisible in your genre story. You will leave your reader emotionally satisfied and looking for your next title. And that’s a fact.

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