Monday, December 19, 2011

Making the Formula Work

What I'm reading: Pirate King, by Laurie R. King

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My recent reading has made me think about those who discount genre"fiction, or commercial fiction, or anything else not classified as literary fiction as predictable and formulaic.

This may be true in a sense. After all, in a mystery, the detective solves the crime, in a thriller, someone saves the world, and in a romance, the hero and heroine will get together in the end. (And probably have sex on page 191.)

However, it's not the destination but the journey that's important. And a skilled writer can make a reader forget that it's all going to work out in the end. Or at least have them wondering how, or if this might be the one book where things don't work out.

In a short story, the author had my heart pounding as her hero was in danger of drowning. Intellectually, I knew he'd be all right. He was one of the author's recurring characters, after all. So why was I trapped in the read the way the hero was trapped in the ocean?

Maybe it's because I have some deep-rooted fear of being helpless in the water that heightened the tension, but I was reading the story as my "fall asleep" read, and there was no way I was going to get to sleep after reading it. This is what good writing can do. It can make a reader forget the formula, not be sure the predictable outcome will actually happen. And even when the reader is aware of it, while they're reading, they're caught up enough not to care.

Another book I'm reading involves the clash of the Amish and "English" worlds. Given that it's a romance, I know the hero and heroine will get together. But the author does an excellent job of keeping the reader from being sure which way it will go until very near the end of the book. Which will make the drastic lifestyle change a relationship would require? And that's enough to keep the reader turning pages.

How can you avoid having your book appear formulaic? (And I don't like the term. I much prefer reader expectations.)

For me, it's making sure you've created characters your readers care about. The reader has to want the protagonist to save the world, solve the crime, or fall in love for that "happily ever after." After all, we read genre fiction to escape, and knowing that everything will work out in the end makes us look at our own lives through different eyes, if only for a little while. They want to believe there are people like that in the world, and they want to be able to join them solving the crime, saving the world, or falling in love.

It's not where you end up, it's how you get there. 

Tomorrow, my guest is editor Brittiany Koren. She's going to compare writing to baking bread. Be sure to come back.

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plblair said...

Terry, I absolutely agree with you. I read to escape - and I want happy endings (I write for the same goal). But as writers, we can put our main characters through the wringer - and make our readers wonder not "if" the character will survive, but ... "how."
I love putting my characters in tight spots. It creates suspense, which is what (I think) the reader really wants.

Anonymous said...

I want to choke those you describe in the beginning and say 'you try it, buster' -- especially Romance, which is lowest on the ladder even in genre fiction. Writing convincing emotion is HARD. If there's a formula that made this all easy, I've been an idiot and wasted lots of time :)

Seriously, though-- yes, it's the 'how' that will pull in the readers, and THAT part is what makes writing fun and challenging.

Paul McDermott said...

There's a world of difference between Charles Dickens writing a weekly chapter to meet the deadline imposed by the newspaper paying him a miserable stipend to put food on the table for the latest "formulaic" [???] episode of a serial ... and the scriptwriter of e.g. "Columbo" where the viewer knows from the start whodunnit and is supposed to realize how clever the detective is at the conclusion of a 60-min TV show.

"Formulas" sell more than just baby meals - they can also pay household bills ...

Paul McDermott said...
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Jacqueline Seewald said...

I read romance, romantic suspense, Regency, etc. because these novels entertain me. Yes, they are an escape from reality. They make life more enjoyable. I like knowing there will be a happy ending. But as you say, it's the journey, not the destination that matters most. I don't like "formula" fiction which uses cliches and I won't write it. I want to write something original and unique that still fits the genre. Journey forth!

Terry Odell said...

Plblair - Good points. It's the 'how' not the 'if'.

Angela - Yes, to listen to some, it's a matter of finding a free weekend and writing a romance. I agree--let 'em try!

Terry Odell said...

Paul - the popularity of the so-called "formula fiction" proves your point. I'm certainly not ashamed to be writing "those books."

Jacqueline - anyone who tries to write formula fiction will learn it's no simple task. Not if they expect readers to buy it.

Vonnie Davis said...

There is a lovely man in our writers' group who consistently says romance is just "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl." I want to wrap my fingers around his throat. Yet many feel that way. What they don't realize is that it's equally as hard to write to those "reader expectations" in a unique, pulse-pounding and interesting way than to write a story with all that literary purple prose.

Writing kissing and sex scenes that all sound different and yet sensual become harder with each book. Yet we keep stretching and reaching our goals.

Super post.

Terry Odell said...

Vonnie -- tell him to write one!

Rebecca said...

Great blog post! I agree that having a promise of a happy ending makes me pick up a book. Sure, I'll go for a wild ride on the way, but I want that HEA on the other side.

To stay on the ride, it has to be interesting and emotional. THere's no formula for that. :)

Happy Holidays!

Terry Odell said...

Rebecca - yep, execution is everything. Thanks for stopping by.

Susan Macatee said...

I read romance because I want that happy ending. But the writer can take me through as many twists and turns as it takes to get there, so long as the ending is satisfying. The last thing I need is a read that will leave me depressed in the end.

Katherine said...

I tend to avoid literary fiction because in my experience, more often than not, the story ends with the main character(s) miserable or in a worse position than when they started.

I like to read a wide variety of genres that can be described as being written to a formula but maybe that's one of the reasons I do. In a mystery, I know the killer will be revealed, but not necessarily caught and punished, at the end. In a romance novel, I know the hero and heroine will get the HEA they deserve and so on. As a writer, I like to see how different writers put their spins on those "formulas."

Calisa Rhose said...

I've read books like that. The one that, even though I know how it will end, I have to find out how they do it. I enjoy that kind of book most because it keeps the book from feeling formulaic. Thanks for something to think about the next time I'm getting ready to start a new project.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I always keep in mind something a professor told me when we were talking about literature. He said (and I agree) it's much harder to write a story that's already been told (a formula) than to create something new. First, there's nothing new to be created in literature--every story has been told--so the challenge is in how well you tell the old story to a new audience. Second, whatever you write is meant to entertain and inform (not lecture, just inform). We write to be read and enjoyed. Tell a good story however you want. That works for me.

Terry Odell said...

Susan M - I definitely don't want to finish a book and feel depressed.

Katherine - I totally agree. Knowing where you'll end up isn't knowing how you'll get there.

Calisa - good luck with your project. Glad to give you something to think about.

Susan O - very true. We're not reinventing the wheel, just shining it up a little.

Jess said...

I popped in because I'm looking for "a formula." :) Excellent post. When my Silhouette Romance came out, I heard all those comments. Even my own my mother asked, "You mean they have booksignings for those little books?"

Vonnie, yes, challenge him to write one but more than that... challenge him to sell it!

Terry Odell said...

Jess - "Those Little Books" sure sell a lot of copies!

Megan Johns said...

You are so right, Terry. It is the journey that matters. We might know our hero/heroine will survive, but we don't know how.
Excellent post as always

Karen C said...

I guess I've been lucky because I've read very few books that might be classified as "formulaic". I sure do like the journey I take when I read your books, Terry!!