The idea of formulas in writing always makes my nose wrinkle. Because to me, formula means repetition…and repetition in writing could very well lead to boredom. Have you ever had that? Followed an author you’ve loved for years only to find that by their tenth or fifteenth book you can finish it for them, because you already know how they roll and what they’re going to do with their characters?
That always frustrates me, and as a writer I have tried my very best not to fall into this trap. That’s partly why I write in a variety of genres. I never want to be thought of as the author who regurgitates the same old stuff.
But the truth is…there are formulas in writing and whether we like that fact or not, we must accept it, because the right formula can make for a brilliant book, just like the wrong formula can make for pages of drivel.
So, what is the right formula?
Well, I’m not saying there’s just one, but there are two formulas that I repeat in every novel: good character profiling and solid story structure.
Now, pantsers may disagree with me here, but for me, I need to know my characters really well and basically have the story written in my brain before I can write the first line. If I take the time to do this, writing the first draft is a breeze.
Let’s talk about character development first.
I have a process when writing, and the first thing I start with is character profiling. I answer an intensive interview questionnaire for my main characters and a slightly smaller version for my minor characters. I find pictures of actors who could play the roles of my characters and post them on my writing wall. I like to do this because it helps me figure out how they move and talk. It helps me create a sense of who they are before I start writing. Sometimes little details change, but the backbone of who they are is developed during this process and more often than not, story threads are developed during this phase. A character’s backstory has huge influence over how they behave. Knowing this stuff before I start writing helps me create a full picture and I never have to stop and think about how my character will react in a situation, because I already know how they’ll react. It’s through character profiling that you find your character’s true voice: a vital element in any story, no matter what point of view you’re writing from.
Once I know who my characters are — their flaws, strengths, weaknesses and desires, I can now work on my story structure. I’m a firm believer that every book should have some form of character growth and having profiled my main characters thoroughly, I can then go through and make sure the plot allows for this growth.
I think of story structure like the foundations of a house. There are fundamental principles that work when constructing a house otherwise it will collapse. The same applies to stories. Having a formula for good structure allows you to create a book that will suck your readers in and they won’t be able to let go until they’ve reached the end.
So, what is good structure?
Well, I’ve studied a variety of books and most of them say the same thing, but Story by Robert McKee and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler were the two that I found most helpful. They are thick, intense books containing pure gold on structure and substance. Between these two masterminds, I have created a planning formula that helps me construct my books, and although it can be a little tedious, I force myself to take the time to do this…and I never regret it.
Before I start writing chapter one, I do some seriously thorough planning. Sometimes these plans will deviate a little, but eighty percent of my first draft sticks within the original plan and makes my editing process a million times faster. I hardly ever have to delete chapters or do major rewrites, because all of that happens during my planning stages.
My formula is based on a three-act structure, which takes characters from their original world and sets them on a journey that will involve at least three crisis points. Each crisis point is worse than the one before, leading to the ultimate point where they make their final, big character shift and come out the other side having learned and become better people. The measure of growth depends on the type of journey they take and the type of genre you write in, but in order for a character to grow, a journey must be taken.
Once I have my skeletal structure in place, I then take things a step further and break my outline down into three acts, to make sure my flow works and the story builds at the right pace. If you watch any movie or analyze some of your favorite books, you will see the three-act structure. It is used all the time, because it works.
After my acts are set in place, I then divide those into sequences, which then get divided into individual scenes. For each scene, I write a paragraph, sometimes including chunks of dialogue that have come to me. Beneath my description, I also include my character’s motivation and any subtext that may be going on. The reader doesn’t need to know all the inner workings of your character, but you do, because this needs to subtly come through in your writing so that your characters become real people that readers can relate to. I also include if the scene is going from a negative to positive tone or vice versa, because you want the book to be like a roller coaster ride. You can’t have scene after scene after scene of positivity and the same goes the other way. Ups and downs and intrigues are what keep the reader flipping the pages.
So there you have it, that’s my formula in a nutshell. Do you have any go-to formulas when it comes to writing?
15 thoughts on “Do You Write With a Formula?”
This is wonderful for those who need structure to write. As you mentioned, pantsers won’t use this. For myself, I have my characters basic personalities (in my head) as well as a beginning, and and a few main plot points in between to keep things on track. If I did more than that I would feel boxed in and my writing would come to an abrupt wall.
Isn’t it great that we have so many different ways of getting from A to B?
Absolutely. Whenever I try to panster, I feel so completely lost and I feel like I end up writing total drivel. LOL 😀
I don’t know how you pansters do it. I’m always very impressed.
Neat article. Irony – I find myself gradually doing less plotting as I grow in writing experience. Instead, I often am “writing into the dark” more. My current novel’s plot had an outline of twelve sentence fragments, a far cry from the paragraph or more per scene I used to write!
I don’t think I am eschewing formula as I change my process, though. Rather, I think I have increased my deep understanding of how story works to the level where I don’t need the crutches of the outline anymore (or as much as I used to, anyway!).
The formulas – really, what we’re talking about here is “how stories work” – are inherent to everything we write, read, or watch in theater and film. They’re the fundamentals of how good stories are told, the skeletons upon which we build the actual stories.
The better we understand them, the more intuitively we know them, the less we need to pre-plan, and the more openly creative we can afford to be when working.
So we can approach the issue from both directions! People who outline are teaching themselves plot structure and story technique – eventually they will understand those things well enough that they can plot less. And those who write into the dark would do well to work on learning formula and structure, because a deep understanding of those things is crucial to the method. The one informs the other, in both cases. 🙂
Excellent comments, Kevin. Very well said 🙂
Wow, you do a ton of work before you start writing! Good for you. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool panster, so doing all this prep work would drive me nuts; once I have a story idea firmly in mind, I can’t wait to start getting it down on paper. I also really like having my subconscious play a part; I believe letting the story grow organically makes it more alive. It’s not unusual for me to have no idea where I’m going in a particular scene, but eventually it’ll become clear–to me and to my readers! Great post. And I agree with Yvonne; it’s it amazing how we can use such diverse methods to tell great stories?
Yes – I agree. Diversity is what makes writing interesting. I’ve always been a slightly mathematical person, so I wonder if that’s why I prefer the hard-core planning.
But we definitely to do what works for us, otherwise the writing becomes stunted or forced.
I’ve never done the kind of planning you’re talking about, Melissa, but I’ve tried both “writing into the dark” and having an idea where I’m going before I start. In general, I do a bit of both: loose, creative writing at the beginning to get my ideas going, then gradually shoe-horning it into the three-act structure as I write more and more. “Save the Cat,” while aimed at the very formulaic Hollywood movie script, is great for giving the structural elements.
I wouldn’t call this “formula writing.” At most I’d put it far to the less-boring end of the spectrum. I mean, you gotta have some structure. Sentences, paragraphs, and chapters of similar length, for example 🙂
If you have a standard plot device that you use in every novel (Agatha Christie’s “Poirot ending”), now that’s formula writing!
Haha. Very true!
I don’t like any kind of formula writing that’s repetitive or over-used…but structural formula…that’s important.
It’s always interesting to see how other writers do what they do. 🙂
I don’t go to the lengths you do, Melissa. Instead, I write a beats-style outline for each of my books. Essentially, I write a paragraph for each chapter, more or less. This gives me an idea of what I want to accomplish in that chapter and helps me keep the story on track, while also giving my characters some space to be themselves.
I’m not sure whether I stick to a strict three-act story structure, mainly because I’ve never taken the time to figure it out. However, I do have a sense when I’m writing my outline-ish thing 😉 about when I need to introduce a new complication or setback to the plot. So maybe I’m doing three acts without realizing it….
You probably are. Three acts tend to happen quite naturally in a story and the more you do it, the more it just sort of happens 🙂
I’m impressed by how much planning you do – and I’m an ex-engineer and USAF officer – so that’s saying something. I write a one page outline for my stories restricting entire scenes or chapters to a one line summary. I use that to get started and fill in the blanks as I go. Those fill-ins provide some of my more creative characters, twists, and solutions. I will admit that I do get stuck at times and can go weeks without making much progress. Getting away and concentrating on other things helps recharge my creativity – remember I’m just an engineer writing fantasy. I suspect that you run into those types of issues earlier in the process, while you’re planning. That might be more efficient, but something about the full writing process unlocks my creativity better than planning. Thanks for sharing your perspective on the creative process.
Thanks for sharing yours 😀 It’s really interesting to find out how other people work.
Wow!… So much planning… I get it, I really do, and when you say that you are a mathematician I get it even more. I could never remember math formula at school; I’d learn it and use it, effectively during that phase; however, once we moved on to some other sets of formulae, I’d promptly forget it. Suffice to say that I am not, nor have I ever been, a mathematician.
I believe that what you write, Melissa, is not formula stories but formulae within the stories and, as many who have agreed here, that’s fine for those who do that. I don’t think there are many hard and fast ‘work to formulae’ or work completely without, but I would definitely be one of the pantsers. My characters seem to introduce themselves to me almost fully formed, I used to wonder about that but didn’t question it too much; many years ago a very smart acquaintance of mine said, “If something works, artistically, don’t try to analyse it too much, or you risk completely dismantling it.” I have since, however, worked out that they are all characters, the good and the bad, that I have come across in my life.
The closest I have come to physically plotting, prior to actually starting a story, was for my historical fiction, Terra Nullius, which is more of a dramatisation of historical facts. That worked quite well. I think it’s more a case of ‘if the cap fits wear it’.
Excellent post, Melissa.
Absolutely. I don’t think you should try to become something you’re not in writing. I used to be a panster until I read a few awesome books on structure in writing and it totally changed my view. I started planning and it opened up a whole new world for me and I enjoy this process so much more now, because I’ve found something that suits my style 😀
There’s a confusion between “style” and “formula” here–there almost always is. Sci-fi is sci-fi, mystery is mystery, but each author’s style is different. Mine is probably different for sci-fi, thrillers, and mysteries, and is certainly a mishmash when I combine those genres (I often do). My C&C mystery/suspense/thriller ebooks are often “hard-boiled,” which is another way of saying minimalist writing, but the sci-fi novels have a lot of world-building, which one agent criticized as “too much narrative.”
However, the only place I use formulas is when I put those final copy-edits in an MS–I have “formulas” to detect my quirks and fix them (e.g. overuse of “the” and “that” because I used to write science-oriented stuff). An author will find that accessing her/his list of what-ifs, settings, plot and character ideas, and never repeating them will usually avoid the pejorative “formulaic writing.” Not setting out to write a short story, novella, or novel, letting the story define itself, and not outlining so your story grows organically (GMO?), will also help.
I know I’ll get a lot of flack for this, but these are my opinions.
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