Thursday 15 September 2011

The Story Equation

They say there are only 22 variation of plot. Actually they say there are seven basic plots. Well to be honest it comes down to three types of story: this guy does something, this girl does something, or this thing does something.

When you come right down to it, every story has a formula. They all follow the same basic pattern: beginning, middle, end. Even when some bright spark decides to reinvent the wheel, all they’re really doing is leaving bits off or switching them round. But you can still see the same basic equation at the heart of things. Formulaic writing is seen as a bad thing, but this formula is far from simple.

Formula in writing is not like a basic mathematic equation, a+b=c. It isn’t fixed like that. The brain is a sophisticated piece of kit and can hold more than one idea at a time, even when those ideas seem to contradict each other. Thing is, even though we can operate on a very complex level, we have to simplify those ideas when we try to explain them to someone else. Paper, with its two dimensions, can’t contain a formula that might be: (a + or – b) before or after x divided by and then appearing to be multiplied by but really to the power of z, which secretly appeared before a, or so it seems...

All variables are flexible and all points are floating. In our heads we can switch them round on the fly, without needing to rigorously test their logic, because we do it naturally. You can see that’s true just in the way we tell each other stories. Not when we write them down and try to sell them, just when we speak to each other about the events of the day. 

We know where to start the story (You’ll never guess what happened to Dave...), and if we realise we’ve started in the wrong place, we automatically know how to self-correct (actually, first I should tell you...). We can slip in sub-stories (of course, what he didn’t know was...), we can introduce characters and fill in backstory for them (You know, Mike’s cousin, the one with the eye-patch), and we can keep all the balls up in the air effortlessly.

We are telling stories to a formula. Beginning, middle and end, although not necessarily in that order. And no matter how much we mess with the formula, how complicated we make it, what specifics we insist are necessary and which aren't, it’s still instantly recognisable. You still know a murder-mystery when you see one, whether it’s horribly clichéd or pretentiously avant-garde. Not because it follows some simplistic pattern (which it might) but because the human brain operates on a far more complicated level, and by contrast to all the crazy shit we deal with on a daily basis, stories seem simple and easy to break down into building blocks.

This means the same basic formula can give you a story about a man who saves a child and dies in the process and the meaning of the story can be cynical and about how no good deed goes unpunished, or it could be life affirming about the power of love and sacrifice. Or it could be both at the same time, depending on the reader’s state of mind when she reads it.

Formula isn’t limiting, it’s freeing and each variable is open to an infinite number of possibilities. But formula also isn’t a fixed, short list of instructions in some book on how to get on the Kindle best sellers list. It gives you a direction to head in, but you don’t have to stay on course, and you don’t have to end up at a particular destination.

So, if the genre you write in appears to have certain ‘rules’ that seem to preclude the stuff you’re writing, don’t worry about it too much. The rules as put down on paper can never hold the whole of the formula you’re writing to, and when the story you write reads well and catches the reader’s attention, the formula will magically adjust to include it. In fact it always did. 

Do you feel forced to  include certain tropes in your stories because they're expected?

If you found this post interesting, lease retweet it. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Not forced, but I was compelled to add a female character to my second book.

Donna K. Weaver said...

My first project is an adventure romance. It was just to be something fun to see if I could actually complete a full-length novel. But it's in first person. I was told by a critique partner that I could have problems with it because it doesn't fit the formula: one chapter from her view, one chapter from his, alternating. I tried writing it in third person at first but it didn't work. But now I wonder if I'm going to get slammed because it's not "formula". *sigh*

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I don't mind formulaic writing. What I mind is when someone tells you that a certain story has to be a certain formula in order to get published because that is the only thing that will sell.

Anonymous said...

I do. People have a right to expect certain elements in a genre they pay money for. So I happy to give it to them. I like to add elements from additional genres too, just to keep things interesting and hopefully appeal to a wider audience.

Suze said...


Jen said...

True--it is freeing. It took me a long time to learn that, though.

No, I don't feel compelled to include anything (except conflict... damn conflict.)

mooderino said...

@alex-well, I think that's probably a good thing.

@Donna-If each chapter is engaging, whatever the pov, I think you might get away with it. I hope.

@Michael-if you look at the number of books the industry puts out, and how many of them do well, clearly following a formula isn't the deciding factor. Most don't sell very well, and most of them do follow the formula.

@Stephen-I think if it's well written it can be very enjoyable. There are plenty of genre books I love.


@Jen-a lot of what we think of as formula is just stuff people have found out works over the millenia, like conflict (damn conflict).

Zan Marie said...

LOL! I have the 22 plots all nicely printed out to refer to as I concoct new stories! You're right, we tell stories all the time and we inately know how to do it. Now why can't I do that as smoothly on paper? ; )

I'm following you now and thanks for following me at In the Shade of the Cherry Tree.

Matthew MacNish said...

I don't really feel forced, but I suppose I probably do adhere to certain aspects of the formula you describe. It's never really bothered me.

Crystal said...

I can't say I've ever felt forced to include certain things in a story because it's what the genre expects. I tend to go by the axiom of writing the story you want to write. That said, I do agree with you that a general formula can be very freeing, giving you a direction to head in, even if the variables are too numerous to mention!

Cheryl said...

I could have sworn I'd replied to this post last night. Maybe I just thought I did or forgot to hit the post comment button. I'm a little ditzy at times. I blame my age.

I don't think I feel forced. I write the kind of stories that I like to read, so I suppose I'm already unconsciously using the formulas I've picked up from my reading habits.

I have to admit to disliking the word 'forumlaic' because it is often used in derision, but when it comes down to it, even the order in which we put the words is a formula in itself. I won't write certain genres because I don't like the formula they require. But I've never felt as though I had to add something I didn't want, in order to write in the genres I like.

LD Masterson said...

Not forced but I do try to keep in mind what the readers of whatever genre I'm in are looking for and make sure I provide it.

Paula Martin said...

If a the formula for a romance story consists of boy meets girl (or meets again after a shared past), and they then deal with various internal or external conflicts/obstacle before reaching their HEA ending, then I write to a formula. But I don't think of it as such. Their characters and circumstances, plus the conflicts they face make each story very different.

Misha Gerrick said...

I do sometimes add tropes, but then I have fun tearing them down, lampshading them or making them new in some way... :-)

Shallee said...

I love that writing has a formula, and that the more you know about it, the more you can use it to your advantage in a story. You're right, it's very freeing!

mooderino said...

@Zan Marie-when we tell a story verbally we already know the detaisl and select which bits to relay and which not to as we go. When writing as tory we have to make the details up and start doubting oursleves. I'm guessing. And welcome!

@Matthew-I think that's what you're supposed to do, use the formula the way it suits you.

@Cheryl-the thing that can be most paralysing is complete freedom, you can just end up with chaos. Or poetry.

@paula-pretty much the same as the formula to life, and that can end up in all sorts of interesting variations.

@LD-it's hard to please everyone though, and readers often don't know what they want until they get it. It's tricky.

@Misha- don't know what lampshding is, but it sounds violent...

@Shallee-I think it's a powerful tool you can use to build whatever you want.

thanks for the comments and the RT's, much appreciated.

Jason Runnels said...

I found your blog via Twitter. I like it and will join.

I think good writing fits into a formula whether the author is conscious of it or not. A good story will have all of the necessary variables but the author can be free to write their own formula to their liking. I totally agree that once you recognize this it is freeing. Just because a story has a beginning, middle, and an ending, it does not mean the timeline of the story has to be linear for example.

Another set of three variables for a great story are: conflict, a struggle, and a resolution. It took me a while with my writing to really understand what this whole "beginning, middle, and ending" business was all about. Now I feel freer to experiment with these basic ingredients until I am satisfied with my story.

By the way, I happened to have published a post on this very idea earlier this year:

Sylvia said...

What a great post. I love all your variations of plot and story. It's true, you can find all this advice in hundreds of different books on the craft of writing and it gets confusing for the novice writer.

I can't say I've tried to force something into a story because it should be there, but I do try to write to genre expectations, which may be similar.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I always write for an audience, because I so want my stories to please the reader, for this reason I think I do fall back on the 'rules' but occasionally break one of two to try to surprise.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

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