In another of my writing circles, once again the dreaded specter of “formula fiction” has been conjured. The idea is that many genres–at least in commercial fiction, and (so the rumor goes) especially romance and fantasy (the target tends to move to a different genre based on whichever you are writing in)–are dominated by a formula which is required in order to sell. And if a book sells well, that is usually taken as evidence that it was, indeed, written to formula. It’s a tautology, but one you’ll often find repeated, whether in a derisive review or grumbled by less successful peers in the same genre. Of course that work succeeded–the author just relied on the formula!
Some people outside the genres will even sniff that the publishers demand the said formula, and that it’s laid out by page count: kiss on page three, quest engagement in chapter two, or what have you.
First of all, if the publishers are requiring certain page counts and formulas, they haven’t informed the authors, much less provided us with a template for stamping out successful novels. But wait, points out the nay-sayer, so many books in X genre are so similar! That’s clear evidence that authors are just filling in the blanks. Or is it?
I think part of the problem lies in the origins of this term “formula.” Formula is associated with science, more precisely, with chemistry. The idea is that you take certain items in very specific ratios, blended according to strict guidelines, and you will achieve a very specific result. One third adventure, one third sexual tension, one third Strunk and White, voila! a bestseller. Boy, if I could buy that formula, I’d use it. The trouble is, it doesn’t exist.
In fiction, what we have are not formulas–rigid lists of pure chemicals to be compounded by following strict rules–what we have are recipes. A recipe gives you a list of ingredients and the steps to follow–isn’t that the same as the dreaded formula? Here’s the thing, recipes vary. The same recipe produced by different cooks gets a different result because the cook knows they can add a little more spice, or bake for less time and create their own variation on what their diners enjoy.
Like cooks, authors have an audience to please. Sure, we want to pursue our own artistic goals for our careers and for any given work, but writing is a collaboration between the author and the reader, who will receive and interpret the result. Readers can be grouped in many different ways. Some love fantasy no matter what, and some prefer contemporary or epic fantasy, fantasy about women or about dragons.
There are certain elements of story-telling that are more likely to appeal to a wider audience. Adventure, love, character growth, a moment when much can be won or lost, the moment when a character is redeemed and the audience cheers. That’s not a formula–it’s a list of ingredients, and each cook, each writer, can play with them to create their individual work. A quick google search shows me 3.8 million recipes for chocolate cake, 3.8 million variations, some subtle and some vast, all resulting in a dessert that some people felt was tasty and worth sharing. There are at least 3.8 million recipes for a fantasy novel as well. Beginning with a basic set of ingredients, and an image of that desired result, the author creates their own recipe.
Rather than dismissing the work of an author or a complete genre as driven by formula, let’s think of them as being guided by a recipe–and if one author’s chocolate cake doesn’t please, there’s probably another one that will. Or maybe you’re looking for lemon cake, or custard tart, or. . . okay, now I’m just making myself hungry.
The same basic ingredients combine to create a thousand different experiences–as if by magic.