Think of all the stories you love the most. How do they begin? Does a guy meet a girl, and the unlikely pair fall in love? Is a hero is called to adventure, or is the world in perilous danger? Throughout genre fiction, when you strip a story down to its bones, there are usually similarities to be found. These books are commonly described as formulaic.
The difference between formulaic and predictable
One of the biggest myths a writer encounters is that formulaic fiction is a negative thing. Here’s the issue: when a book is described as formulaic, it’s easy for people to take that to mean that the story is predictable. The truth is, these are two different concepts.
If you were to ask an author what one of the most difficult hurdles of writing is, they might tell you that it’s the quest to find an original idea. The problem is, even the most original idea can be predictable. A predictable book isn’t great—you definitely don’t want a reader guessing every twist and every character development before it happens. A predictable book doesn’t enthrall a reader because nothing surprises them. A formulaic book, however, can be a good thing.
Formulaic books stick to expectations. No matter the genre, no matter how original an idea a book may present, there are formulas in each genre that pave the way to a story’s success. While some might say that sticking to expectations makes the book predictable and therefore boring, a formula doesn’t dictate detail. Instead, the part of the book that is formulaic is the narrative structure.
Think of your book as a body. While everyone has different body features, underneath we all have a skeleton. The narrative structure is the skeleton of your story. In each genre, you can count on books sharing a similar skeleton. That’s not to say that your book can’t be original. The details, characters, setting, and story can be original while your book’s skeleton stays formulaic. The formula may call for a twist, but you’re the one who decides what that twist is.
Take two of the most popular series ever written: Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Both have a protagonist that starts their story living normal lives. Then someone comes and disrupts what they know: Hagrid comes with a letter from Hogwarts, and Gandalf tells Frodo he has to destroy the One Ring. Harry and Frodo both go on adventures, all the while overcoming monsters, facing enemies, and making new friends. Eventually, at the end of their respective series, the heroes face their biggest foes, win the day, and save the world.
When it comes down to the bare bones of these two stories, they essentially have the same exact formula. Despite that, these two stories aren’t branded as boring because they used a successful narrative structure without tipping into predictability.
Why do formulaic books work?
Formula is formula for a reason—it works, and people like it. We like knowing what to expect. If you pick up a romance novel, most of the time, you generally know what you’re getting: one person falls in love with another and they need to overcome obstacles in order to stay together. It’s a given that some sort of misunderstanding or outside force will drive them apart for a time, but then they’ll come back to each other for a happily ever after. If you pick up a high fantasy or sci-fi novel, you can expect that the protagonist will go on some variation of the Hero’s Journey. In horror, a reader expects a big, horrifying twist.
When a reader picks up a book, particularly a genre book, they have a motivation behind choosing that read. Maybe they want to be scared for the adrenaline high. Perhaps they broke up with their significant other and want to be comforted by a happy ending. Or, maybe they’re bored and want to take off with characters on a high-stakes adventure. Whatever the motivation, when a reader picks up a book, they have set expectations for what they’re about to read. Of course they want to be surprised and enthralled, but when it comes down to it, they picked up the book because they believe that it will satisfy what they’re looking for.
Keeping formula fresh
Formulas can help a reader find the story they’re craving, but they can also help a writer get out of a creative rut.
When writing, look at formulas as a help, not as a hindrance. Read books with the formula you want to write with. If you look at the structure as a guide, you can more easily fill out the story with your original ideas. The end result is a book that is engaging and fulfills expectations while still coming across as unique.