What's the difference between time-tested and formulaic?


Maybe this is all in my head, but it seems that novel writing for a lot of genres has become mainstreamed to the point of formula. We have articles, podcasts, and books telling us how to:

  • Create likeable characters by increasing their sympathy, competence, and humor sliders
  • Invent just enough worldbuilding details to suggest a bigger world
  • Write a hero's journey

And then once stories started feeling cliche, we added a new objective: subvert tropes by not adhering to formula.

Is this a sign that we've taken things too far? I'm all for analyzing why writing works, and I'm a die-hard plotter who loves a good 3-act structure. But I feel that there's a point at which we're writing to check boxes, not to build compelling stories. A point at which we've focsued-tested the art away.

I'm looking for smarter minds than my own to comment upon this: how do we determine the difference between something universal - an archetype, a useful pattern - and plain formula? How do we know whether the specific technique we're using serves the story or just appeases that one writing blog we read last week?

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4 answers


I think that the answer, broadly, is that structure is necessary but not sufficient. You need both structure and vision.

Yes, you can have works that don't follow conventional structures, or don't do so in obvious ways, but their appeal tends to be limited.

It is also true that there are some readers who are less interested in the quality of the story than in how well it aligns with their political prejudices. But so what? Either you align with those prejudices or you don't, and chances are a good story that aligns with those prejudices will still sell better than a bad story that does.

So that leaves us with the mainstream appeal, the appeal of story itself. And the structure of story can certainly be described and defined and detected in successful works. The definitions and the formulas can certainly be taken too far. If anyone is telling you that a particular event has to happen at the 62.5% mark of your manuscript, back slowly out of the room being careful not to make eye contact. But the general formulation of story structure, I believe, is fundamentally sound.

But structure is not enough. You need another ingredient, and I believe that ingredient is vision. You need to see something interesting and compelling about the world and the human experience. It does not have to be a new discovery, but it needs to be keenly observed. Without this, your characters will seem flat and their motivations unconvincing. A story is an experience, and that experience is born of the vision of the author. A formula may tell you how the experience progresses, but a formula can't make the experience convincing in the first place. For that you need vision.

Why don't the books talk about vision? Because you can't teach vision. There is no formula for vision. You either have it or you don't. I'm not saying you can't develop it, though we don't seem to know how exactly. Actually reading great literature may help a lot. It is notable how many of the most successful popular authors read the classics assiduously. Reading people of great vision may well be a way to acquire vision yourself.

But if you don't have vision, no amount of technique is going to make your story compelling. The definition of formulaic, I would suggest, is a work that is all formula and no vision.



For me, time-tested and formulaic are equivalent; and equate to a lack of surprises, at least for a jaded consumer of fiction.

I am a jaded consumer of Television entertainment. I know the formulas, often when watching a movie, hour long or half hour long show, I know who the villain is when they first appear. Especially if they look like a walk on that has more than one line that doesn't advance the plot; we don't have a friendly four line conversation with the janitor for nothing.

I know when the twist is coming, so I recognize it. Everybody knew doctor House's Fail-Fail-Brilliant Insight formula.

So most TV is formulaic to me, and I could easily be bored by it, but even when a show follows the formula, I can be entertained by the writer's originality in hiding the villain, or in the twist, or just in their pause-the-show-to-laugh-out-loud humor.

That is what I am entertained by, an original and unexpected surprise in the craft. It's clever, it's funny, it's surprisingly heart-breaking. For example, I was caught completely flat-footed by The Sixth Sense. It was formulaic all the way through, I knew there had to be a twist but couldn't figure out what it was. Then boom goes the dynamite! It was both obvious in retrospect and completely unexpected. I had to watch it again, immediately, to see if they cheated! Nope, not once. Legitimate props.

Formulaic will entertain some people, especially young people that haven't picked up on the patterns yet, and adults that are not very analytically minded so they don't realize there are patterns manipulating them. They want to be manipulated, that's the point of fiction. And that's the reason to use time-tested formulas.

But if you want something that is going to make a splash, you need to put some effort (or natural born talent) into creating satisfying surprises. I don't see much point in straying very far from the time-tested structures. There are several, it is not just the Hero's Journey. But it is important to realize that just like Campbell's Hero's Journey, that was not invented by him, it was a distillation of his study of thousands of myths in many cultures. It represents a common skeleton of stories that last and are retold for hundreds or thousands of years.

The same is true for the Three Act Structure and its turning points. (I am a fan of the Four Act structure, nearly identical but it split the 2nd Act in half.) It is the result of studying already successful stories, and distilling out their commonalities.

So it is saying "Successful stories have these things in common."

It is NOT saying "If you ensure these commonalities are present, your story will be successful."

You just increase your chances of having a successful story by loosely following the time-tested structure. (Loosely, because the turning points are averages, not hard and fast rules. e.g. an Inciting Incident should occur somewhere early, typically near 12.5%, but it can vary from half that to twice that, depending on what the story needs for it to make sense.)

Just using the structure doesn't guarantee anything. What will set you apart is NOT the time-tested part, but the originality, the surprise punches you can throw while working within that structure.



Without looking at the other answers, I'd say it depends on audience. Some people are happy with formulaic. Write what they want, regardless of it being a formula, and they are happy to buy it and read it.

To a certain extent, I'd say the publishing world runs on marketing. Maybe it was not always like that? But for this audience, it seems "okay" to write to formula.

And then, of course, our beloved Mark Baker once said: Write what has been written, only different. (or words to that effect.) So--I think that means a story should be recognizable and also somewhat new. Sort of what you are asking here. It is a useful idea.

Personally, I think a story needs a reason to exist. So if a story feels like a clone of something else, then it's not a story I want to tell. I want to play with stories that have layers of things going on. The one I'm working on at the moment is turning into something of an action story, but that's not why I'm writing it. That's just its form. It's got all the stuff I want it to have--an emphasis on climate change and people and so on--and it has characters and goals and actions toward goals and stakes and more. To some extent, it's formulaic. But those things are also good for holding interest, or at least for following an existing road map. And they provide another layer beyond 'action story.'

But until I found a question for the story to ask, it felt flat despite all that. Maybe that question I wanted in the story, is theme? I don't know. I realized I needed, in addition to the above, for this story to have a reason to exist. That came into being through ... theme. The question (theme) is whether we are more effective as many individuals taking individualized action, or as a unified whole agreeing to do a single thing. The answer really could go either way. So, that--a question of some sort woven through a story--is what makes something interesting to me.


I also, independently of all that, think that writing is a decent way for me, again personally, to learn some new tricks. Voice. Perspective. Persuasion. Dialog. Description. A little poetry. You might find writing satisfying if you are growing as a writer through doing it.

If you hate what you are writing, look at all the parts to it.

Last thing. No one asks why paint new paintings; why try to emulate the masters, why learn color balance and harmony and whatever when it comes to visual arts, in the form of paintings. I think the same applies here. Whatever passion or inspiration you imagine painters drawing upon to creat a new work of art, perhaps that is what is missing if you aren't feeling it for your 'word-painting.'

1 comment

+1 for "A story needs a reason to exist." That's the most concise way I've heard for determining if a story is meaningful or just checking boxes. ‭icanfathom‭ 8 months ago


One way to model the role of structure in storytelling is to think of "layers". For example, at some very-high-detail layers (which I would call the lowest layers) a story is made up of a sequence of words, or (even more detailed) letters. Obviously, using the same old 26 letters over and over again doesn't make your story good or bad, it's just your infrastructure. Some higher up layers (less detailed) get more interesting, but they still don't explain what makes a good story, e.g. good sentence structure vs. incomprehensible sentence structure: you still need good sentence structure, but you (probably) won't tell good stories if you care about nothing but sentence structure.

The previous examples were unrelated to storytelling, and so were extreme examples. Once you get to issues that do relate, specifically, to stories, the distinctions are less obvious, but the layering is still there. By the way, there isn't going to be a single, correct way to identify such layers, but there will always be ways to organise ideas into groups so that they relate to eachother in structured ways. For instance, I might define a lowest level of storytelling structure by identifying resources--your story will (probably) involve characters, locations, plot events, etc. We haven't brought these into relation with eachother, but that doesn't mean this layer only exists before you write or read the story: this layer is always there, it's the simple collection of the basic components of the story. Let's say the next layer is small-scale storytelling patterns such as the juxtaposition of character attributes like competence and sympathy, try-fail cycles, etc. And the next layer is entire-story-scale storytelling patterns such as the three act structure or hero's journey. What are you doing? You are starting from simpler materials and combining them to build more complicated and effective structures (like letters -> words -> sentences). You will often explain the qualities you want in one layer in terms of the lower layer whose elements are your building blocks, e.g. when you talk about economy of characters, you might say that if a character already existing in your lowest level (pool of resources) can fill a certain role in a storytelling pattern, use that character, rather than inventing a new one.

Now, your search for meaning and purpose in storytelling is fair. Your point can be expressed like this: using well-understood, traditional materials to build a new story isn't good enough; you still care about what you are building. There is a layer higher than all the layers mentioned so far, where we care about meaning, about vision as Mark Baker said in his answer. So your three act structure or hero's journey are tools and the question is: what are you using these tools to do? Just as incomprehensible sentence structure will make a story unreadable no matter how well you did in every other layer, so also incompetence in "storytelling craft" might derail your "vision", obscure your "meaning" (again, good structure is "necessary but not sufficient"). And just as beautiful vocabulary and intricate sentences will not make a good story, so also good play with storytelling structure can fail to produce a story that has any real reason to exist.

What does make a good story? That's obviously a tough question and I won't attempt to tackle it. But it will usually need to be competently built, from the grammar to the plot structure, and then you also need that extra magical sauce of having something important to talk about, or something funny, and so on.

An interesting final point is to consider what flaws in your tools will make the final construct less successful. There are actual mistakes: you can simply get your grammar wrong, however serious a problem (or not so much) that might be in each specific case. But in the higher layers, such as storytelling patterns, readers do start having a rather interesting response based on their familiarity with what you're doing: if the way you use your tools is too familiar, they detect a trope, and may dislike your story, but if what you do is too unfamiliar they may also dislike your story, finding it too strange, or confusing. And so, we have this endless hunt for interesting story structure, where we (often) want to use the historically successful tools, but also add just enough twists to keep things interesting (e.g., by subverting tropes). Nobody said mastering storytelling structure would be easy. But this still does not in any way equate storytelling structure with "meaning" or "vision": that other layer even higher up in the model is still there and still poses its own challenges.


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