Monday, June 18, 2012


A formula is a language of elements and symbols, chosen to produce a governable result.  Although there are areas of similarity between formula and recipe, including an outcome, you could say without too many accusations of reductionism that recipe, if followed, will produce corn bread.  Formula, if it is followed, will lead you to the solution of a problem.

Both terms have application to story. 

You write a story to solve an inchoate problem that wants to be articulated, addressed, then brought to some settlement. Within the context of story, each term—formula and recipe--gets something of a bad rap.  Boy plus girl plus cute meeting is a recipe for many of the early Hollywood comedy romances that were themselves ingredients used to great success by that paradigm of novelists, Jane Austen.  A story, whether filmed, dramatized, or printed, that delivers an outcome with no surprises or reversals or, as your new publisher choses to call the trope, turns, is said to be predictable or formulaic.  Predictability in fiction has become the literary equivalent of immigration among politicians, suspect and controversial due to the belief that the audience wants to have predictability to boo and hiss the way they once booed and hissed the villain in the melodrama.

Your association with formula is not so different from many aspiring writers; you studied the various genera, identifying the implicit promises each offered the reader.  In some cases, during the heyday of the massmarket paperback explosion, when there were such giants as Bantam and Dell and New American Library, Popular Library, Lion, Gold Medal, Pocket Books, and at least a dozen more, you could actually write to such a publisher for their genre guidelines.

Through your undergraduate years, you were an avid reader of science fiction to the point where you had a plausible enough feel for its formulae.  Your true love was the mystery, however, but one serious problem stood in your way before you could make your way down its mean streets. 

You were unable to have one of your characters kill another one of your characters.  This was not because of your pacifist nature, because you had no such nature.  You were unable to convince yourself a character had sufficient motive to kill another.  How many years did you need to come up with a motive you could believe?  And when you had the motive—fear of a closely guarded secret being revealed—how many novels could you do without repeating yourself?

Which brings you back to the problem you never solved to your satisfaction:  Formula meant to you a set of conditions you could use ad infinitum to produce story.  There went a few more years of frustration and crumpled sheets of early draft manuscript paper.

Whether the story is set within a genre that is fraught with obligations to the audience or is of a more contemplative, shall we say literary, approach, it has as an absolute requirement the need for characters the reader will care about.

When you make this observation before a larger group, someone in the audience is sure to ask, “How do I make readers care about my characters?”

At one point, during a presentation, one of the first questions in the Q and A was that very question.  Your reply was certain to have been grumpy.  “It starts with you.  You have to care more about them than you do about getting published.  Stop thinking about getting published and think more about creating worthwhile characters.”

 To a growing tide of foot shuffling and muttering, you went on, perhaps to save the day.  “Characters are your tools.  You don’t use a ripsaw to cut across the grain.  You don’t use a cheap knife to dice vegetables.  Get yourself a character with some background—someone who has fears and hopes and blind sides and one or two questionable moral values. Get yourself a character who has a weakness for a particular other person or a particular thing that is not healthy.  Get yourself a character or two who are tired of being losers and now see a chance to make something of themselves, provided they’re willing to cut a few corners.  Get yourself a character who’d rather tend bar in an Alaska saloon than practice law in Boston. Get yourself characters--”the glimmer of an idea was coming through. “—get yourself a set of characters who’ll do things that surprise you, and don’t ask me how to do that.  The way to do that is to stop telling them what to do and start listening to them, which means you’ve got to let them talk more, which means you’ve got to ramp and amp, and don’t ask me what that means.  That means they’ve got to be more confrontational when they talk.”

You’d begun to feel like a circuit-riding preacher on a Sunday afternoon, unsure where his next chicken dinner invitation was coming from.  You also noticed there were scattered “yes” and vigorous nods of approval in the group.

You never know how effective those outbursts are or what results they produce in your audience, although you do want them to get it, your impatience with them being a mere reflection of your own impatience with yourself and such technique as you may have.  Whatever that is, it is not enough to suit you.

Your frustration comes from the simultaneous wanting of and recognition of the impossibility of discovering the philosopher’s stone, that alchemical equivalent of the holy grail, the formula for story.

Aristotle did not compose his Poetics in vain; he dissected story to the point where he could.  The rest is up to you and your sister and brother writers who would send story rushing out into the streets like Paul Revere, warning not against the impending arrival of the Red Coats, but of boredom, of plainness, of niceness.

Formula will take you so far, then, with an enormous heave; it bucks you off its back, into the air for a brief moment or two.  There you are, no longer on your high horse, rather an immediate martyr to the laws of gravity.

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