Friday, October 28, 2011

When does it become formulaic?

I've often heard the term used in a derogatory tone, and to be certain about its  meaning, I looked it up. The best explanation came from .  Ah, a standard set of plots, characters, and so on. Yes, I've read many. I still dislike the word. It's in the same category as "literary." Literary is often used to imply that other styles of writing are somehow lacking in quality or generally unworthy.  Then again, used by genre writers, "literary" may mean plotless. (I've heard it described as self-absorbed and about as exciting as watching paint dry.) We seem to need something or someone to look down upon--one of our less desirable human traits.
Considering the number of books on the market and how many I read, I'm bound to recognize elements of the story. So does that make the book formulaic?  Perhaps, but that doesn’t necessarily cause me to reject it. What allows me to overlook the commonplace, what sets many of them apart, is the writing. If it flows well and the characters are believable and likeable—or at least interesting—I'm halfway there. Sometimes the plot falls apart for me—too many convenient events that don't tie in to the story, as if hurled from the heavens by a capricious diety solely to cause problems. Still, I've read many a good book that others consider formulaic (always described with a little disdain).
How far down into the story do you have to go to decide whether a story is formulaic? Take this as an example: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, crisis occurs, boy gets girl. There's a formula that's been used more than once, but is it bad? The treatment of the story, the setting, and the characters can make it all seem new—something to read with pleasure and enthusiasm. You could go down another layer and see if there are still tried and true (or tired and overworked) secondary characters and situations. But it can still be fun to read. It depends on the pacing, the way the story unfolds, and how much we care about the characters.
When does it become a formula?
For me, the biggest challenge to my reading pleasure comes in the second phase—boy loses girl. The conflict is often artificial and contrived, but I think it's that old round hole thing—writers are forced to shove and squeeze their oddly shaped stories into that rigid mold. If it's formulaic, who can blame them? How many ways can you create enough conflict to keep apart otherwise sensible people who are attracted to each other? Personally, I'd like to see a little flexibility in that one. A little more credibility and realism would be a welcome change. Shakespeare handled it well, but I like happy endings. How often can a theme be used before it becomes trite? Is frequency the only measure?
I'll admit some books are so familiar that I can't remember whether I've read them before. I don't usually finish them. But I find "formulaic" applied to many that seem quite good to me. I'd have to go several layers down to reject a book because it's been done to often. Maybe I just don't have a discerning eye.
Every genre and just as many mainstream and literary stories follow some basic  theme or idea. Does it bother you? Do you see it? Do you look for something totally different? Do you consider many books formulaic?


Bren Fousek Bowman said...

Cosy mystery series are often formulaic. Same basic characters, same setting. As long as they are well written I don't mind. In fact, that's what draws me back. It's like going home.
All depends on the writing. Doesn't that describe every book?

Ellis Vidler said...

To me it does, Bren. If characters and so on are repeated often, it must mean they were successful. So if the writing is good and I like the characters, I don't have a problem with it.

Una Tiers said...

I like formulas with seeds like Grafton uses. She set up the central characters past and unraveled the details over many books.

Ellis Vidler said...

I remember bits of Kinsey's past. Grafton did that well, just tossing in snippets as they were needed. Not only that, it left a lot of room for new things to come out in each book.

Donnell said...

Such an interesting post, Ellis! Admittedly formulas are part of every story. Without conflict you don't have one and readers may enjoy the author's writing but they'll probably say not much happened here.

I'm playing with a new novel right now, and I was reviewing the set up with a friend, and she said, your setups wrong. Who is your main character going to be, and you must tell the reader who to follow. I said I don't want to stick to the sam old formula storytelling and she said, it's not formula, it's a craft issue.

What are your thoughts there? Thanks for a very interesting post, and I'd never hear anyone explain literary the way you do until now.

VR Barkowski said...

Beautifully said, Ellis!

Formula is indeed part of every story. There are only so many plots floating around out there. As a reader, I agree with Bren, there's nothing wrong with formula. I've read many enjoyable formula books. If they're well-written and draw me in, that's all I ask for.

I, too, have heard literary described as plotless. That's genre insecurity speaking, that ever-present need to look down on someone else. Truth is, plotless isn't literary, it's self-indulgent no matter how talented the writer. Name one literary masterpiece sans plot.

As a writer, I detest formula because it aritifically circumscribes genre. I'm constantly being told I can't write this or can't do that. Why can't I? If I do it well and I bring the reader along with me, why can't I?

Donnell, there's little about writing and process I'm certain of, but this much I know for sure: feedback should address your writing, not your story. Never let anyone, no matter how trusted, tell you how to write your story. Your work belongs to you alone. If you are writing to rules, you ARE writing to formula, it has nothing to do with craft.

Polly said...

Oh dear. This is a tough one. In GENRE fiction, you know pretty much what you're going to read before you read it. Not all the time, so don't hold me to this. I'm speaking generally. Most romances have a HEA. (Two people wind up together at the end.) Thrillers should keep you turning the pages to find out that the world isn't going to end. (You know it's not.) Mysteries solve a crime and catch a criminal. (How clever is it?) Those are standard, no? BUT, is the book well-written? Do the characters draw you in? Is the story compelling. Those are the metrics by which most of us judge a book. Do the same things appeal to every reader? Rarely.

Ellis Vidler said...

I dislike the restrictions on genre too. I want to tell the story the way I see it, and if it crosses lines, why not? If I write it well and the characters and plot draw you in, what's wrong?

I don't like being different for the sake of being different, but if it suits the story, give it a try.

Ellis Vidler said...

Donnell, I like breaking some rules, but generally I'd like to know the main character (or two). But then, I've read some very good books that switched between three or four main characters, often by chapters or sometimes by dividing the book into parts.

If that's the story you want to tell, go for it. There are no hard and fast rules, only, as you said, craft issues, and those are taken care of in the writing.