Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Formula

First off, and as an aside, happy birthday to both H. G. Wells and Joe Strummer of the Clash, both folk I've really enjoyed and been somewhat influenced by. So yay.

My gut instinct is to say it will probably come as a surprise for me to say so, but honestly I've been very wrong about a lot of things this week, so I guess I wouldn't be surprised if no one was surprised by the confession, but: I actually put a lot of stock in using formulas in writing.

Not to the extent, for example, that I have a checklist of things I feel each story must have and go through and mechanically plug things in, but definitely the flow and rhythm of three act (establishment, complication/rising action, and resolution) or five act structure, things like try-fail cycles (to build dramatic tension for an important achievement, a character should take at least two actions that fail and make the situation worse before eventually winning out), and archetypal plots (the chosen one, the rescue, the big heist, boy meets girl, the who done it?).

I think it helps to begin with at least a rough scaffolding of what kind of story you're trying to tell- it will very much help you determine which parts of the story you want to emphasize, even with interchangeable plot elements. I've been talking about this quite a bit with a friend whose novel I've been beta reading, as it's a story that has both a romantic plot and a fantasy adventure plot, and there's a question of what proportion of the time gets devoted to each and what that leads me as a reader to expect from the rest of the story. Something similar happened to me with last year's national novel writing month novel, where I had elements of both mystery and... I guess we'd call it political action? I had to deal with the question of whether the murder that begins the book was really a mystery or just a macguffin, or somewhere in between, and until I did the whole thing felt very muddled (it's a macguffin, by the way. The situations of the murder are complicated enough to warrant a mystery, but what's important to the book is the fallout and other unrelated events that take place after. I'd certainly like you to care who killed her, but that's not what the book's about in the final tally).

Formulas are a good jumping off point. Obviously the goal is not to create something formula perfect, because that's not really a story so much as the end result of an algorithm (which I think by definition tends to be less interesting than the algorithm itself), but if you look at what resonates about a story formula, I think it's hard not to pick up some good ideas not just about how to follow it, but how to deviate from it. I have a good friend who's working on a young adult chosen one story, except that the moral certainty is removed and there is so far no objective way to tell within the story whether the chosen one will be a savior or a destroyer, and the story has to deal with that lack of righteous confidence. It's something that's in conversation with our expectation of a formula, which of course couldn't happen if that formula weren't there and well known.

I tend to view story structure and formula the same way I view grammar- as a set of conventions that facilitate ease of the transfer of a message, which can be messed with and selectively ignored to great effect by conscious choice. Unfortunately if you don't have them or you screw with them without considering the outcome, what you get is kind of an incomprehensible mess. (Mess kind gotten An of is non-I-pronoun, conditional).

My two cents, anyway.

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