The structure of every story follows the pattern of the average human emotional experience. That pattern is the same, whether it’s a first kiss, eating a chocolate bar, having sex, or reading a full-length novel. Hollywood scriptwriters have found this pattern, follow it, and often make great heaps of money for their producers by doing so.
But how does this help the novel writer? We’re all much more “seat of the pants,” aren’t we? Creative, innovative, never following the crowd? Well, yes, we all have an intuitive grasp of the idea, or we wouldn’t be writers. But my experience is that a formula helps you most when you discover you’ve screwed up. Be as creative as you want, but when you finish your first draft and discover it’s flat, boring, and takes too long to get anywhere, what do you do? You go to the formula to see what you missed. Because it will be there.
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.
Until I was about thirteen years old, I had regarded reading as something of a chore. Then, one summer, while visiting family, my cousin gave me some books to take home with me. On the ride back, I cracked one of them open – and ended up reading all four during our 800 mile drive. These books really lit me up against all of my own expectations.
The Bantam editions of the Doc Savage series are the books that really got me interested in exploring the possibilities of becoming an author. Over the next few years, I read seventy-two of these books. Bantam published over 180 of them, at one time putting out one title a month.
There is a complicated backstory about the Doc Savage books. The stories were originally published in pulp magazines in the 1930s and 40s. The author of the stories was listed as Kenneth Robeson, but that was actually just a house name. Though the preponderance of the stories were written by an author named Lester Dent, a number of other writers were involved and contributed to titles in the series.
Dent developed a master fiction plot, called the Lester Dent Formula. Essentially, his approach for producing highly salable 6,000 word stories was to divide the story into four 1500 word parts, each with steps for building the suspense and sense of menace to keep the reader engaged. Ironically, it was likely that formulaic approach that made it possible for other authors to step in and write additional Doc Savage adventures so seamlessly that the reader would never guess there was no Kenneth Robeson. Continue reading “Book Formula”