What’s so bad about a formulaic story?

It’s a criticism leveled all the time at writers of genre fiction: the story was formulaic. But is it so bad to know what to expect from a certain kind of story?

People sometimes confuse “formulaic” with “predictable”. Predictability is bad, but having genre expectations met is another matter entirely.

For example, in an Agatha Christie murder mystery one expects a murder with a fiendishly clever solution. However, if you can predict the murderer before the dénouement much of the fun is lost. The formula isn’t what’s wrong with the story, predictability is the problem.

I have long held the view that it is important, especially in genre fiction, to give the reader what they want but not the way they expect it. Genre writers understand this and write accordingly. Agatha Christie’s novels and much of crime fiction is hugely formulaic, but it is also very difficult to write well and like most genre fiction becomes an easy target for literary snobs.

To take an example from another genre, consider JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The first six books follow a very set formula. Darkly comical incidents at the Dursleys followed by a trip to Diagon Alley, the Hogwarts Express, magical classes, a new Defence Against the Dark Arts Teacher, Quidditch and so on with a big central mystery forming the main plot. Yet each novel felt fresh, unpredictable and fun. It was only when Rowling diverted from the formula in book seven with all that moping about in the tent looking for Horcruxes that I began to get somewhat fed up. Thankfully they did get back to Hogwarts eventually, but my goodness me did I miss the formula in that book.

Whilst I was at University, one of our lecturers asked our writing group what we thought of Mills and Boon. We all answered somewhat predictably and snobbishly that we thought they were rubbish, so he gave us a challenge: write a Mills and Boon story. None of us could do it. His point? Writing formulaic genre fiction – especially in areas traditionally considered lowbrow – is very, very difficult.

I am not at all ashamed to admit that George goes to Titan, my sequel to George goes to Mars, follows a similar formula to that first book. And why shouldn’t it? As long as I can maintain unpredictability whilst meeting reader expectations, it is a formula worth sticking to – or so those who have read the books tell me.

Because I stuck to formula, George goes to Titan did not need a great deal of rewriting from first to final draft as far as the basic plot was concerned. By contrast, I am presently engaged in a page one rewrite of the second book in a trilogy of novels I wrote some years ago. The reason? In my initial draft I foolishly decided to completely abandon the formula of the first installment. I was determined to do something new and different, but that isn’t always a good idea with a sequel. One has to remember what readers liked about the original and try to build on that. By writing something so utterly different to the first part of the trilogy I effectively took out everything that readers liked about the story in the first place.

One lives and learns, and that is why I am rewriting the entire second and a good chunk of the third books in this particular series. The lesson is clear: whilst predictability is to be avoided, formulas are there for a reason. The only reason to break a good set of rules is to replace them with something better (a point I will expound on in a later post). If you can’t do that, stick with what you have, but present the new material in a fresh, interesting and unexpected way within the confines of the formula.

UPDATE: Here’s another good example: Never Let Me Go. This intriguing, “light” science fiction novel by Kazuo Ishiguro has a fascinating premise which I won’t spoil. It belongs to a particular future shock subgenre with a long history dating back to Orwell’s seminal 1984. But for a story of this nature to be truly satisfying, it really needs to culminate in some act of rebellion (which can either succeed or fail). The protagonists in Never Let Me Go simply accept their fate, which may be realistic and believable, but it isn’t satisfying.

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