Beyond Formula And Into Literature

There's another advantage of looking hard into your story's heart and bones to create mirrors and echoes based on what's gone before. It can help you use but transcend formula, ifyou're working in one of the genres with a fairly rigid and restrictive set of rules about how stories can acceptably be shaped. Detective/ mystery fiction is one; gothic and romance fiction are others. Gothic, for instance, absolutely requires a female protagonist menaced/wooed by a dominating male. Yet within this restriction, wonderful and individual fiction has been written. The same is true of the other formulaic genres.

Finally, formulas are only as limiting as you let them be. There are few formats as rigid as sonnet form, but great diversity is possible within it.

You don't (and shouldn't) violate or ignore the formulas— not if you intend your work to be published. Instead, fulfill and go beyond them, making your stories uniquely themselves.

One way to seek and create that specialness is to look to your story itself, stage by stage, for its shape, its proper development. Use it as your crystal ball, to see the shapes of what's to come. Make your story grow from what it, in part, already is. Then no matter what restrictions you're working within, your story can't possibly turn out to be like a hundred others.

Look in. Also look out—to the world of literature, myth, and legend. Many stories are structured as quest/adventures. That too is a kind of formula, even if it's one you choose. Other stories hark back to the classics—West Side Story to Romeo andJu-liet, for instance—and embody their essential truths in new flesh, new events. Other stories draw on myth and religion—the Greek story of Pygmalion is the foundation of My Fair Lady; Paradise Lost and East of Eden draw on Biblical sources. John Cheever's "Metamorphoses" translates legends from Ovid into Westchester settings. The travels of Odysseus are one foundation of Joyce's Ulysses, with specific events and characters reappearing in fresh guises. But I don't believe I've ever heard Ulysses referred to as "formula fiction."

Sometimes what's mirrored in your story won't only be what's in it: you may, like Joyce, choose some external source as the formula to honor in the way your fiction is constructed. For instance, I patterned a science fiction novel concerning a husband's attempts to revive a dead wife on the myth of Orpheus' attempt to rescue Eurydice from the underworld, which seemed to me a natural connection that might give my imagined world greater power, significance, and emotional depth. If readers notice the implicit connections, fine; if they don't, still fine: the "Orpheus formula" had already done its job in guiding and helping me in making tough narrative choices as the book was written. Such a formula isn't a code to be broken but a set of guidelines, a shape to reflect in a new mirror.

Formula, choosing or accepting some external guidelines for the shape or content of fiction, has been the basis of everything from the worst hokey imitative junk to the finest and most subtle literature. It's all a matter of technique, insight, and craft. The formulas are all there for you to breathe fresh life into, if you choose.

Learn to recognize your hidden, implicit fictional promises and do your best to keep them. Look hard and long into your mirrors, and fulfill and reinforce the recurrences you see there. Because in them, you can begin discovering the power beyond plot: pattern.

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Responses

  • Goytiom
    Is my fair lady a formula?
    8 years ago

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