(This article is part of a series. If you missed the first part, here it is.)
So, now that we know what the formulas are, let’s apply it to our own work. Take a look at all the stuff you’ve done and see if it’s following one of the formulas.
What Formula Am I?
The Last Golden Dragon is a Golden Fleece quest. Aine sets out to find the last golden dragon so she can hear his story and go tell the tale around the country. You find out during this quest that she is stubbornly independent and not content with a normal woman’s life. But during her quest, she learns that love and marriage doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where all her hopes are dashed and she lives in a cage; love means both partners give so that they can be happy both as a couple and as individuals. She ends up not only fulfilling her quest, but finding much more than she was looking for.
However, the (as of yet unpublished) sequel, The Return of the Dragons, is a Buddy Love story, because it’s about the maturation of Aine and Eamonn’s relationship. I’m contemplating writing a sequel to that which would probably be a Rites of Passage, because it would about Aine having to come to terms with the fact that she can’t have everything she wants at once, and that she’s going to decide what’s more important to her and give up the other thing (at least temporarily).
(In other words, your sequels don’t necessarily have to follow the same formula as the original story. After all, how many times can one person go on a quest of introspection and self-discovery? If you’re following the life of one character over a period of time, you might want to change up the formula, because in life, we go through periods where we’re questing, but not all the time; we have problems that we need to fix, but not all the time; we have buddy love, but that typically comes and goes as friends and lovers come and go; we’re part of the institution, but usually only when we’re in school; etc.)
The Widow is an example of Bubby Love. Carol is trapped in her grief and can’t move on with her life—even though it’s past time for her to do so. Daniel acts primarily as a friend to help draw her out and get her functioning normally again. He is the person who is constant and acts as a catalyst while she is the one that does the changing.
The Flames of Prague is a Dude with a Problem story. First, Jakub’s problem is that he’s getting too old to fight and he doesn’t know what to do with himself; he’s facing his remaining years being a bored homebody. Then he meets a girl and he thinks his problem is solved; he’ll marry her, have children, and have a purpose again! Then he finds out there’s a problem with her: she’s a Jew. He has no solution to this, so he goes back to being bored—plus he’s now lovesick as well. Then he gets a new problem when he finds out that people are killing Jews and his love-interest is in danger. Does he risk his life to save her? And if he saves her, then what? He still has the problem of her being a Jew, but if he doesn’t overcome that problem, he’s left with the problem of being lonely and purposeless. The book concludes with him solving his various problems—sometimes with brute force and sometimes just by deciding that a “problem” is really just a design feature.
The sequel, The Children of Israel is the same thing, only there are 2-3 dudes with problems because I tell the story from the POV of two different characters. Samuel has to deal with the problem that his wife was raped prior to their marriage and she’s terrified for him to touch her. His sister has to deal with the fact that her parents can’t seem to arrange a marriage for her, but then she finds out her father’s man-at-arms is in love with her. And although she finds herself feeling the same way about him, they have the old problem of she’s a Jew and he’s not. And then Jakub has to deal with the problem that his family has been denounced as Jews and there are people who want to kill them. (His problem, however, gets taken up by Samuel, so Samuel is the one who has to find a solution to it.)
I’m contemplating a sequel to that which will follow another child of Jakub’s, and it will also be the same dude-with-a-problem format in that Jonatan has to deal with two sides of his family being at odds with one another and arguing over what he should or should not do, and later someone kidnaps his woman and he has to get those warring family members to unite to help him get her back.
(Unlike my dragon series, this series has a different main character(s) each time (albeit all from one family), and it’s about how each of them deals with their own unique problems. In each book, the reader is rooting for the character to win, but overall, she is rooting for the entire family to win. So, in this case, repeating the formula works.)
The Bloodsuckers is one long Dude With a Problem story. It is all about Scott and all the things he has to undergo and how he overcomes them.
Even my Zelda fanfiction follows a formula—and is, in fact, a perfect textbook example of the Golden Fleece quest. Link and Zelda have to go on a literal quest to find the necessary magical items needed to defeat all of the bosses, culminating with the defeat of the final bad guy and the saving of the world. But, along this long (long) journey, the two of them change rather significantly.
My Problem Child
So, that was easy; all of those stories are pretty clear-cut. Yes, there are some places where they sort of overlap with other formulas—quests can have romantic/buddy love subplots, etc.—but the main plot is clearly one specific format.
Then there’s Acceptance.
When I originally came up with the idea of vampires in Tennessee (this was even before I had the idea to have Jewish vampires in Tennessee), the (short) story was supposed to be a sort of supernatural mystery (Monster in the House formula). Kalyn (who is an adult) is out on a dark, snowy night and gets stuck in a ditch. While she’s sitting there, trying to figure out what to do, a guy appears and takes her out of the car. She then enters a period where she feels as if she is in a dream and isn’t really in control of herself. She gets taken to a cave that people—strange people—appear to be living in. The man with her bites her and she finds herself—perhaps of her own choice, perhaps not—giving herself to him fully. At some point, she passes out or falls asleep, and the next thing she knows, it’s morning and she’s back in her car. She looks for some evidence that she was kidnapped by a vampire, but can’t find any (but also can’t find any confirmation that she was in her car all night, either). So was it real or just a dream? She can’t be sure and neither can the reader.
But, somewhere in writing that, I decided that I wanted to know more about her and especially about the vampire with her. So the story morphed away from the monster formula to a romance/buddy love. Ciaran and the Imuechmehah were introduced and Kalyn found herself entering this strange vampire world just when they’re getting caught up in a war between two vampire races.
I wrote quite a bit of that novel, but became increasingly unhappy with it, primarily because Kalyn had no personality and I didn’t know how to give her one. (Also, she and Anselm only seemed to be in love because I said they should be; there was no natural development of their relationship.) I ended up scrapping it and I didn’t look at it again for nine years.
When I decided to resurrect my story, I started from scratch and put Kalyn in the vampire’s world from the very beginning. But instead of being an (adult) outsider being introduced to the vampire’s culture, she is a teenager getting introduced via a rite of passage.
I set out with the intention of writing a romance novel, and that’s what the story had been in its previous incarnation. Acceptance and its sequels were going to be all about Kalyn and Anselm’s relationship.
I’m not sure where I lost control of that formula… or if I ever really had control over it. But when I take a hard look at Acceptance and where its sequels are going, it is not a romance because it’s not primarily about Kalyn and Anselm’s relationship; there are too many other things going on and too many other characters winding their way in and out of the story with important stories of their own. There is no focus on just the two of them, the way there is in The Widow.
Okay, so what is it? Is it Institutionalized? After all, Kalyn is part of a group (her local group, the Yaechahre group, and the vampire/human group—all three come into play in different ways) and she has to learn how to work within all of those groups and she has to fight to save all of those groups. And yet, through all of that, she stays true to herself and her own moral compass—even when she has to go against the groups’ social customs. She becomes a reformer of sorts—a light showing a better path for other people in the group.
But is that really what the story is about, or is it another subplot? I really didn’t set out to write a story about a group of vampires and the human who teaches them a lesson. And, in fact, Kalyn’s not the only rebel in that regard; her friends in her local group share her desire for more integration between human and vampire. Even Joshua, the leader of their people, is supportive of her and is the first person to hold her up as a good example.
I think the institution is a subplot.
Is it a Whydunit? In all of the books, there is the underlying question of where the Imuechmehah came from and why they want to kill the Canichmehah. And we eventually see who is behind the murders and sort of why (as much as you can ever understand why someone is evil). But the real revelation is that all of the death and misery could have been prevented if, at a single moment in time, the Canichmehah had chosen to do what was morally right, even if it was technically illegal. When they decide that the law has supremacy over morality, they set in motion their own destruction.
While that’s a pretty dark revelation, the Whydunit isn’t really driving the plot. The characters are being taken towards it without their knowledge (unlike a detective in a mystery who actively follows the trail). So I think that’s another subplot.
Is it a Golden Fleece quest? Kalyn doesn’t know it in the beginning, but she’s destined to be the savior of her people and she will the ultimate righter of an old wrong. Her quest, in short, is to fight the Imuechmehah and save her people. And she certainly changes along the way and learns things about herself.
But she never realizes she’s on this quest and she never really has a revelation at the end of the story, like you would expect with a roadtripping story. She doesn’t undergo a life-altering change; instead, she just grows up, little by little, along the way.
Which leaves us with Rites of Passage. And I think that this is really what Acceptance and its sequels (both individually and as a collective whole) are about. Kalyn learns—usually the hard way—that there are bad people in the world. Some of them aren’t necessarily evil, but they make bad decisions that put them on the wrong side of morality. Maybe they can change, but they have to want to change. And some people are indeed evil, and you will never know why they’re evil and you will never get them to cease being evil. And being a good person is more than just not being evil or not making immoral choices; being a good person means actively fighting evil. Because if you don’t, it will grow and it will eventually come after you and after the people you love.
And other characters end up doing their own growing up alongside Kalyn. Micah has a particularly acute moment of revelation in the second book (I feel this is the best thing I have ever written) when he realizes that he became a vampire because he didn’t want to grow up and become a responsible adult; he had a Peter Pan moment where he ran off to Never Never Land with the intention of remaining young and carefree forever. But when he ends up spending a week essentially playing the role of husband and father, he realizes that not only does being responsible not suck, but it’s actually deeply rewarding and fulfilling. But, unfortunately, he can’t undo what he did to himself so long ago. He can never have biological children, and given that he looks like he’s a teenager, he’s not likely to find someone to settle down with. His revelation is bittersweet because, while it’s great he’s finally grown up mentally, he will never be able to grow up physically.
Anselm also has some personal demons he has to exorcise. For a man who doesn’t lack courage when it comes to breaking into a den of vampires and shooting all of them, he has little courage when it comes to Kalyn. He is attracted to her early on (and she’s certainly attracted to him), but he tries to deny this and keep her at arm’s length. He says that this is because Kalyn is too young, he’s her guardian, etc. but we eventually see that these are just excuses. In reality, he’s tormented by the memory of the first woman he loved and lost and he’s terrified that the same thing will happen to Kalyn. When he finally allows himself to open up to her, and then something bad happens to her, he sees it as a Divine Punishment for his actions and he retreats even further from her. He has to figure out that in trying to protect himself (and her) from loss, he’s creating a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby he loses her anyways. In short, he has to find the courage to love, even if he’s not guaranteed a happily ever after. (A basic life lesson that we all have to learn when we’re growing up.)
Which actually leads me back to the question of whether this is a Buddy Love story (but instead of it being about Anselm and Kalyn, it’s about the three of them). Or, perhaps, it’s a Rites of Passage tale that morphs into a Buddy Love story somewhere around the third book.
Or maybe I just don’t know and this is why I’m having trouble. What is my book about? You should be able to put that into a single sentence, but I really have trouble with that. It seems my book(s) are about a lot of things, and I have never been quite able to decide which thing I should emphasize.
I see now that’s because I can’t figure out which formula is driving the plot. Or maybe it’s because I’m trying to apply a single formula to four books about one main character and that’s not reasonable. After all, as I seemed to have intuitively grasped in my dragon stories, it makes sense for the formula to change in subsequent stories about the same character because different formulas rule different parts of our lives. If we aren’t following one formula constantly, why should a character?
I’m almost positive that Acceptance is a Rites of Passage formula. Kalyn has a literal rite of passage, inducting her into the world of vampires and their human counterparts. She has to deal with loss. She has to deal with being personally assaulted. She watches as people are killed. She learns that vampire justice is not the kind you see in Law & Order, and she has to come to terms with that. She also faces a bit of existential disappointment when she realizes that the image she has of Anselm in her mind isn’t who he is in reality. Probably the best piece of writing in that book is when Kalyn finds herself staring at him “across a gulf that seemed much wider than a few yards of poured concrete.” She sees that, for all his outward appearances of modernity—his cell phone, car, guns, etc.—he is, in reality, a product of the middle ages, where torture and execution justice could be executed without batting an eye. And she has to decide if she can accept a man who is, to modern standards, violent, but only for good and moral reasons (i.e. he’s a vigilante, of the Western hero variety).
If I accept that Acceptance is a Rites of Passage story, it makes it easier for me to describe the book, because I need to describe the characters and all the action from that point-of-view: it’s a coming-of-age story. Everything else is a subplot that the reader can discover on their own.
Now, as I’m piecing together the various parts of the second book, I need to decide which theme it should convey. I’m leaning towards it also being a Rites of Passage, but that might have moved to a subplot. So I need to read what I have and decide what story it’s telling. (And I may need to edit out bits that make the subplot too strong and muddy the actual plot formula.)
Next time, I’ll cover why it’s important for your novel to follow the formulas (and not just because it makes life easier on you when it comes to distilling your novel into a one- or two-line elevator pitch).