Back to Formula?
Posted July 21, 2010on:
In Spiderman, Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn utters this exclamation while murdering an employee in a most spectacular ‘roid rage.
Mr. Osborn doesn’t like formula very much. And neither do Twitter pals Trisha (@trishaleighKC) and Matt (@mattdelman). Trisha brought up Nicholas Sparks and we exchanged some tweets about our favorite stories. When she said she no longer reads Sparks because he’s resorted to formula, I wondered why that’s a bad thing. A Google search suggests she is not alone.
Sure, formula can mean predictable but I think the expectations and anticipation that arise from the predictability in a story are the very reasons I choose one title or one author from among all the possibilities available. Romances comprise a huge segment of the book-buying market. Girl meets boy, usually hates him at first and then falls in love. Something happens to break up Girl and Boy. But the end? It’s always happily ever after and I like that. Whodunits always have a dead body and a detective – amateur or professional – to name the killer. I like that, too. Didn’t every Nancy Drew ever published have a Nancy-in-peril scene? Couldn’t our choice of genre, I argued, indicate our preference for adherence to formula?
I had to get back to work, but our Twitter conversation simmered on the back brain all afternoon and I considered blogging about the topic (and I have to thank Sean Ferrell for urging me on). When I got home, I discussed it with my sons. Chris, son #2 (which indicates birth order, not preference) suggested that formula is essential when you’re just starting out, a lesson I learned the hard way with my current WIP, SEND. I finished SEND earlier this year and started querying it as a YA romance. But my lead characters were twenty-two. Characters in YA need to be in their teens and preferably, still in high school, which is how I am writing this version.
Not only a clear case where one must actually know the rules before breaking them, but also… Formula.
We talked further about these rules and Chris brought up Harry Potter. The books follow a pattern: Harry goes to school, learns some cool magic spells, battles evil, returns to an unhappy home. For six books, this was the pattern established and followed. But in the seventh and final book, Harry does not return to school. The pattern is disrupted and because of it, the book is that much more compelling.
(Mom boast: Yes. This is my 15-year-old, folks!)
Patterns? Hm. Matt and Trisha made almost the same point. Patterns are good depending on how popular a writer you are and how many releases you’re expected to deliver. I realized then that I hadn’t read a Nick Sparks book in years. It was never a conscious decision on my part. There are just so many extra dollars I have at any given point in time and I’d begun spending them on other fiction. But when forced to consider why, I am also forced to agree with Trisha: Sparks has resorted to formula. I’ve read four or five books and they are all THE SAME STORY.
I never consciously noticed this, other than I had grown bored. I had the same impression with Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol. It was like DaVinci Code 2, yet I really enjoyed Angels & Demons and Deception Point.
Trisha and Matt helped me realize that writing to formula may start out as following established and favorite patterns but can quickly become a limiting trap.
So, what say you? Is writing to genre inherently formulaic? Better yet, give me your examples of titles where the patterns were disrupted. I’d love to check them out.