Don’t Stray from the Formula!—Part III

(This article is part of a series. Missed Part I or Part II?)

Hopefully you will choose (preferably consciously, but maybe unconsciously) what formula your story will follow before you start writing it. And hopefully, once you start writing it, it stays in its pre-selected category.

But if it changes, you need to realize that it’s changed, and then you either need to scrap it and try again (if it really matters to you that it follow a particular formula) or you need to fully and whole-heartedly embrace the change.

Summarize the Story from the POV of the Formula

As I covered last time, the formula for the Acceptance series changed on me; it’s no longer a romance. My problem has been that I haven’t recognized that. When I tried to summarize my story (or especially if I tried to distill it to a one- or two-line “elevator pitch”), I found myself going in multiple directions, because when I tried to start with the romance angle, I found other elements that were just as important (a good indication that you’re describing multiple subplots, but not the overarching formula).

I became very frustrated because I knew that my response was scattered (and I certainly couldn’t get the story down to a single line!). I felt like the story in my books worked, but for some reason I couldn’t tell anyone what the story was in less than 109,000 words.

That’s because I didn’t identify what the story was. The coming-of-age tale wasn’t a subplot, but the plot, and the romance—and everything else—are subplots.

When it comes to summarizing your book, tell the reader (or agent or publisher) what the book formula is from the get-go. Don’t mention the subplots much, if any, and they become like little surprise treats along the way because the reader isn’t expecting them and doesn’t know where they will go.

If you’re presenting a coming-of-age story, then you (and the reader) know what’s going to happen in the end: the main character is going to lose their innocence and learn to live in the real, adult world. If it’s a Dude with a Problem story, the end is inevitable: dude will solve his problem. Who wants to see a Western where the bad guy wins or the good guy dies senselessly, having accomplished nothing? That sort of thing is popular in art/indie films and some literature, where the creator wants you to feel that life makes no sense, or they just want you to feel uncomfortable and unfulfilled at the end because that’s somehow superior to walking away feeling fulfilled, but those kinds of movies and books are never terribly popular. Your average person wants you to follow the formula; they want the predictable ending to happen. Subplots are where unpredictable things happen, but the main plot should end predictably.

(I think this is why “serious” writers look down on “genre” writers. If it has a genre, it almost certainly follows a formula (although not all stories in the same genre follow the same formula). Many “serious” or “literary” writers think writing to a formula is too predictable, too déclassé; it’s writing for the unwashed masses. They want writing that’s full of symbolism, completely unpredictable, and maybe has no plot or purpose at all. But, in truth, this sort of post-modern literature, which exists only for its own sake, is a johnny-come-lately in the history of human literature. You can be sure that cavemen told stories about monsters around a campfire. They didn’t, however, ramble endlessly about characters who spend their time wrestling with the question of whether anything is really good or evil, or if anything can actually be true or untrue. There’s a reason why people continue to buy romance novels and watch action movies wherein dude has a problem that he fixes.)

Giving the Formula the Middle Finger

p167496_p_v7_aaSo here’s an example of a modern, artsy movie that just wanted to give the formula the middle finger: Atonement.

The story was about a rich English girl of good family who was in love with a common boy who was nonetheless trying to rise in the world with the hopes that he would be accepted by her family.

But the girl’s younger sister (who is telling the story) catches them doing the nasty in the library, and when her friend is raped soon after, she puts the two incidents together and decides that the boy is a rapist who not only assaulted her sister, but her friend, too. So she lies and says that she saw him raping her friend, because she thinks that she’s doing the just thing. So boy—who is really innocent—gets sent to jail and he loses his chance for a good future and marriage with his love interest.

Only later, when the narrator is older and she can look back on what she saw with adult eyes, does she realize how wrong she was to lie and ruin the boy’s life.

Meanwhile, we see sister trying to make her way in life while pining for her love, and we see him released from jail in exchange for being drafted into WWII. He gets injured in France, ends up recovering from his injuries, returns to England, and he and his love finally get their long-overdue reunion. They even get their opportunity to vent their anger on the now-grown sister who tries to apologize for ruining his life and their romance.

That’s a Buddy Love/romance story, right? Lovers are separated wrongly. Eventually wrongs get righted and the two lovers get one another in the end. Everyone walks away happy.

Then the screenwriter decided to give the formula the middle finger. Instead of stopping the story there, it cuts to the narrator, who is now an old woman and we find out that she’s a writer who just published this story as an autobiography. Only she confesses in an interview that she lied about how the story ended. It did not end happily ever after. The boy died of his injuries at Dunkirk and her sister died during the bombing of London. She wrote a happy ending to the story because that’s what she wanted to happen; she wanted to be able to make amends, make things come out right, and be free of her guilt. But the moral of the story is that some things can never be put right.

While that may be true in life, what a horribly depressing sentiment for a movie! I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to movies (or read books) to learn that other people have lives as horrible as or even worse than mine and they never get a resolution, or find a happy ending, or improve their lot in any way. Yes, people die bitter and unfulfilled all the time, but I don’t want to know about them; their stories give me nothing but depression. (My husband declared that Atonement, “made me angry. I wanted those two hours of my life back! I felt like I had been cheated.)

Personally, I want a positive message that makes me feel better about myself and my life; I want something that actually improves me or motivates me. I want to know that true love can really exist. I want to know that no matter how bad my life is, it can get better because people who were in worse shape have managed to turn themselves around. I want to know that hard work and unwavering belief in my dreams can make me successful and prosperous.

If you’ve got nothing to give me but unresolved issues or the message that life sometimes (or even often) sucks, then I’ll give you the middle finger and walk away.

And that’s true of the vast majority of other people. There’s a reason why stories that follow the formula tend to be hits, while the things that exist just to give the formula the finger aren’t popular with anyone but hipsters who live to give everyone the finger.

Think about stream-of-consciousness writing. Who wants to read that? There is no plot or formula. It doesn’t matter how poetically you may describe what you’re seeing or feeling, if there’s no larger point to the project, your average reader is not going to want to read it.

This is also the reason why Renaissance art is more popular than modern art. Renaissance paintings teach a moral or tell a story or illustrate a human condition or maybe even show us something universal and emotional in a stranger’s face. Art has its own formulas which art, since the beginning of homo sapiens up to about the Impressionists, has followed. Then modern art came along and it was all about giving the formulas the finger. Now, the purpose of art is to have no purpose. It can be splatters of paint on canvas. It can be an uncarved rock. It can be a blank canvas with no paint on it at all. You no longer need to have any talent or years of experience to be an artist; if you can make something exist, then that’s enough.

(I really like the explanation given by artist and professor Robert Florczak on “Why is Modern Art so Bad?”)


Notice the stalks of grass beside and in front of the horse; it’s running through tall grass on the plains.

There’s a reason why most people ridicule modern and post-modern art. Even people who have no art education understand, at least subconsciously, that art should be about something—should have a purpose—that it should follow a formula. You can look at the paintings in Lascaux cave and see the world of our caveman ancestors. You can almost see the horses and animals that the artist saw moving across the plain. You are looking back into time, into another world. The artist gives you that.

You do not get any of that when you look at a painting that’s just a bunch of paint splatters on canvas. Sure, you might see hints of shapes in the splatter, but you can see shapes in clouds, too; that doesn’t make clouds art. And most people understand that. They don’t want to see weird shit that means nothing; they want to see things they already know. Or, as Blake Snyder puts it, they want to see the same thing, only different. This is why there are hundreds of thousands cheap romance and Western novels in existence. You don’t reinvent the formula; you just change the characters and the setting and the subplots. There’s infinite variety in those three things while staying true to the underlying formula.

Legitimate Twists to the Formula

So, your task now is to figure out what formula each of your stories most closely follows. If you can’t tell, then you almost certainly have a plot problem (as we’ve discussed, nobody wants to read a story that meanders around, directionless, accomplishing nothing) and you can fix it by bringing your story into line with one of the formulas. (It is possible that you have followed a formula that’s not covered here, but make really, really sure that’s the case and that you’re not just wandering in and out of other formulas at random.)

If you have followed the formula right up to the end, then inserted a surprise twist that causes the story to jump into another formula or into no formula at all, then you need to seriously, seriously reconsider that. As I’ve pointed out, that’s never popular. A surprise twist needs to stay within the formula.

Look at Titanic. That’s a Buddy Love story, because it’s exclusively about Jack & Rose’s relationship. But the twist is that Jack dies at the end. Normally, buddies either survive together or die together; one living and one dying is normally against the formula. But the twist works for two reasons: one, we’re warned about it from the very beginning when we find out that Old Rose had a relationship before she married the man who would be her husband for the rest of her life—so we know she doesn’t get her happily-ever-after with Jack; and two, we see in the epilogue that Rose kept Jack alive in her heart by doing all the things they had planned to do together, so in a way, he was always with her. And when she (presumably) dies, she goes back to the ship and finally joins him again, so they’ll have a heavenly sort of existence where they will never be parted again. So she loses him, but not really. If James Cameron had cut out the epilogue part, so that we never see Rose’s pictures telling the story of her life post-Jack, and we didn’t see her reunite with him in death, then people would have been angry and the movie would have flopped. We want to know that our hearts will go on, damnit, and that you really can love one person for your whole life.

Or, if you’re doing the Monster in the House scenario and your character battles the monster and finally prevails, the twist can be showing the reader that the protagonist wasn’t battling the real monster at all; the real monster still lurks in the shadows, waiting for the next victim. (In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector escapes at the end, so one monster is defeated just as another one gets loose.) Or maybe the heroine escapes, but we see that she’s infected or has set loose the monster’s progeny, so we see that one head has been cut off the hydra, but another one will grow back in its place. The formula calls for the monster to die or the protagonist to escape (Jurassic Park is a good example of when people escape and leave the monsters to rule the house). You must follow that formula. But it’s okay to leave an opening so that the monster can come back or start over in a new place. That’s a twist, but still within the original formula.

What’s not okay is to tamper with the formula. My dad used to be a professional comedian, and he had a joke about why you never see rednecks in horror movies: because rednecks always have a gun handy.

“Oh, you’re a scary booger!”
“Call the coroner because this booger’s dead.”
End of movie.

Or, “You always see people screaming when the booger jumps on the hood of their car and they panic and jump out of the car. Me, I want Jason on the hood of my car. I’ll gun the engine and he’ll have to throw away the knife to hang onto the wiper blades with both hands. And I’m going to run through every barbed wire fence and briar patch in the county. He’ll eventually jump off and limp back home to lick his nuts like a wounded dog.”

My dad always got huge laughs with his routine.

Exposing the formula and talking about breaking it is funny. But you wouldn’t actually go see a movie where the protagonist killed the monster in the first fifteen minutes, then spent the rest of the movie lying on the couch and drinking beer. You would be constantly waiting for the monster to resurrect or for its kin to come and avenge it. And if the movie ends without any of that happening, you would feel very cheated and declare it the worst movie ever.

Don’t give the formula the middle finger. As Blake states, pretty much all of these formulas are so primal, so part of the human condition, a caveman could follow the story.

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