Formula fiction? Me? Never!

Okay, not never. In fact, always. Why? ‘Cause it works.

There are certain things fiction readers crave, but the item sitting at the top of the list is simply this: a rousing good tale. It needn’t even be original. But it must be evocative enough to transport the reader away from whatever is their daily norm. Genre is far less important than the power of the story to make the reader suspend disbelief, whether the action takes place on another planet, in a high school gym, under a cabbage leaf, or anywhere else.

How does a writer accomplish that? Surely a formula can’t be the answer, or we’d all be writing bestsellers every time. That presumes, of course, that we’re all using the same formula. Far too many wannabe writers have no idea what’s in the formula, and yet they’re adamant about NOT using it. Somewhere along the line, “formulaic” became a bad word.

What a bunch of horse piddle. The formula I use requires:

  • Sympathetic characters
  • Conflict
  • Meaningful motives
  • Surprises
  • Conflict
  • Verisimilitude
  • Conflict
  • Experiential settings
  • Variation in pacing and structure

And did I mention conflict?

Writing with a formula in mind isn’t restrictive; it’s liberating. As pointed out long ago, (here, in fact) it requires some pretty basic stuff: an opening consisting of a Person, in a Place, with a Problem; a middle consisting of Try/Fails, and an ending which includes both a Climax and a Denouement. See the link for details.

The formula doesn’t provide a checklist of things you can dump into a recipe like garlic salt or bacon bits. You still have to write intelligently. You still need to understand proper punctuation and grammar. Fortunately, those things can still be learned if you somehow avoided the information in grade school.

The stories I find most interesting, and the kind I try to create, are those featuring a cast with conflicting goals. (Note the root word of the adjective describing goals.) This is the heart of the story. It’s made up of the actions and the consequences of those actions, which the characters employ to achieve their ends. Readers don’t much care whether or not the players achieve intermediate goals; what they want to see is how the characters handle adversity, success, fame, and/or failure. That’s where they’re more likely to find parallels in their own lives.

In order to get started, you need a character with a conflict. (There’s that word again!) He wants or needs something, but there’s an obstacle in the way. I find it easier to work from a scenario where another character either is or represents that obstacle. Instantly, I have two plot lines: he wants it; no, she wants it.

If all I intend to do is write a short story, I’ve got plenty to work with. Novels require more. So instead of having the two characters with conflicting goals go at each other in the beginning, I’ll throw some other obstacles in their way first. Joe wants to drive to Iowa to claim his inheritance? Fine. I’ll have someone steal his car, or blow it up, or force it off the road, or just let him run out of gas. Any of those things, and about million others, will present opportunities for spinning Joe’s tale. Maybe he gets mugged while hiking to a gas station, or maybe he tries a short cut and gets kidnapped by crooks, or aliens, Amazonian warrior babes, or rabid fairies.

The other protagonist, I’ll call her Pearl, can’t afford to let Joe claim his inheritance because doing so will reveal some horrible secret, probably but not necessarily, about her. Fortunately, she already lives in Iowa and knows the attorney settling the estate. Her task then becomes getting her hands on the damning document (book, video, manuscript, carving, Voodoo death charm or whatever) before Joe does. Slowing her down is as easy as breaking her leg, arresting her for being drunk and disorderly, or running her out of town for preaching without a license. (I’m told they have some bizarre laws in Iowa.)

If that isn’t enough, I can always toss in a love interest for one of them or maybe add an incensed bureaucrat, a bipolar athlete, or a deranged urban outdoors-man, and suddenly I have the makings for a real page-burner. Er, turner.

All that lovely conflict will provide opportunities to show what the players are made of, what drives them, and how far they’ll go to achieve their aims. It includes all the non-conflict stuff in the list I posted above. You’ll need to include all that, too. Luckily, having all that conflict to work with should make it fairly easy.




About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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4 Responses to Formula fiction? Me? Never!

  1. There’s that word – verisimilitude! Glad to see it again – lol. Good article. Lisa L.

  2. Vikki Yoder says:

    Yes, I had to pause everything to look up that “V” word; and consequently, lost the page I was reading. I caused my own “conflict” attempting to become knowledgeable of every unknown word facing me!!

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