July 17 – 23: “How hard do you work to avoid ‘formula’ writing?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5How hard do you work to avoid “formula” writing? That’s the question this week for ITW Members Keith Dixon, Alison Morton, Kfir Luzzatto, Holly Seddon, Richard Rowland Billingsley, Billy Lyons, Brian Klingborg and Peter James.

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Peter James is one of the UK’s biggest selling crime thriller writers. He’s had eleven consecutive Sunday Times No 1 bestsellers with his Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series, published in 37 languages in 52 countries, with world sales of 18m copies. He is the recipient of the 2016 CWA Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence, and in 2015 was publicly voted by WH Smith readers as the Best Crime Author of All Time. He lives with his wife, Lara, and a menagerie of animals near Brighton in Sussex, where he was born and raised, and in Notting Hill, London.

 

Holly Seddon is a full time writer, living slap bang in the middle of Amsterdam with her husband, James and a house full of children and pets. Holly has written for newspapers, websites and magazines since her early 20s after growing up in the English countryside, obsessed with music and books. Her first novel Try Not to Breathe was published worldwide in 2016 and became a domestic and international bestseller. Don’t Close Your Eyes is her second novel.

 

Billy Lyons became an avid reader and writer of horror fiction in early childhood. He is the author of two published short stories. “Cell 334” was published in the November 2014 edition of Another Realm Magazine. “Black-Eyed Children, Blue-Eyed Child” was published in High Strange Horror, a horror anthology published in 2015 by Muzzleland Press, where Billy is a contributing writer of book and magazine reviews. Blood and Needles is his debut novel.

 

Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She put this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, a masters’ in history and an over-vivid imagination. She blogs, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

 

Richard Rowland Billingsley is the author of weird fiction. He is from Austin Texas and lives in Fayetteville Arkansas. He is a member of both the Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers. His book, Trance Logic was published by New Pulp Press. Trance Logic is the first book in a continuing series about Rainbeaux Le Blanc, a psychic spy demon fighter. 

 

Brian Klingborg has lived and worked in the U.S., Asia and Europe.  He has written for television and authored books and articles on the Chinese martial arts.  He lives in New York City, but still considers himself a Californian at heart.

 

 

Keith Dixon was born in Yorkshire and grew up in the Midlands. He’s been writing since he was 13 years old in a number of different genres: thriller, espionage, science fiction, literary. He’s the author of seven novels in the Sam Dyke Investigation series and two other non-crime works, as well as two collections of blog posts on the craft of writing. When he’s not writing he enjoys reading, learning the guitar, watching movies and binge-inhaling great TV series. He’s currently spending more time in France than is probably good for him.

 

Kfir Luzzatto is the author of seven novels, several short stories and two non-fiction books. Kfir was born and raised in Italy, and moved to Israel as a teenager. He acquired the love for the English language from his father, a former U.S. soldier, a voracious reader, and a prolific writer. Kfir has a PhD in chemical engineering and works as a patent attorney. He lives in Omer, Israel, with his full-time partner, Esther, their four children, Michal, Lilach, Tamar, and Yonatan, and the dog, Elvis. Kfir has published extensively in the professional and general press over the years. For almost four years he wrote a weekly “Patents” column in Globes (Israel’s financial newspaper). His most recent nonfiction book, FUN WITH PATENTS—The Irreverent Guide for the Investor, the Entrepreneur and the Inventor, was published in 2016. He is an HWA (Horror Writers Association) and ITW (International Thriller Writers) member.

 

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19 Comments
  1. Before we can talk about “formula writing”, we must make sure that we are not confusing the term with “story structure”, as is done sometimes in blogs and such. A story needs a structure, but that doesn’t make it automatically formulaic. Nevertheless, there are genres in which formula writing is the rule. If you write romance, for instance, you must follow a strict set of rules, or your audience will run away. In contrast, you can have great fun putting some romance in a thriller or in a horror book that romance readers are unlikely to pick up.

    I have nothing against escapist books—they are easy reads with which you can spend a few light hours, and sometimes that’s what you need. They have a place in our library, because they are formulaic. However, with very few exceptions (think of a genius like P. G. Wodehouse,) reading formulaic books bores me to death and I can’t imagine that I will ever write one.

    Before I put the first word of a novel to paper (or, to PC) I must have the plot clear in my head, and I need to know how I can reconcile a structure that works well with the genre in which I am writing, with the unconventional and the surprising—the elements that make a reader turn the page. That is the hardest part of the work: starting on the right foot, with a few breaking points ready along the story to keep me from committing the sin of formula writing. That’s also the fun of writing across genres as I do, and taking liberties with them.

    I must admit that the temptation exists, to give the readers what they want, that which is familiar to him or her and makes them feel at home. One reads the advice about “researching your market” and learning the perfect formula to an instant super bestseller, and wonders. Luckily, I find it easy to resist the temptation, because I got it into my head (rightly or wrongly) that taking that approach to writing would turn me into a word technician. I would perhaps wind up being a rich technician, but I still prefer to be a writer.

  2. I think it’s useful to discriminate between ‘formula’ and ‘structure’ in thinking about this subject. Most people know now that good stories have a scaffolding that first interests readers, then engages them, then excites them and—hopefully—leaves them wanting more. The scaffolding is more than just a simple description, like comedy or tragedy or farce … it’s a practical way of showing your protagonist in action, demonstrating how she becomes involved in the plot, learns what she has to do to solve the ‘problem’ she’s presented with, and finally overcomes the antagonist to return the world to balance.

    So what’s the difference between this structure and a ‘formula’? Why would I use one but want to shy away from the other? Well, a few years ago a good friend of mine, an elderly lady of taste and refinement, was participating in a book group discussion. I wasn’t there, but it was reported later that her opinion of the book wasn’t particularly high, because: “There weren’t enough surprises”.

    That comment has stuck with me because I think with a formula there are few if any surprises—the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen as soon as they’ve identified the protagonist, the antagonist and the bit-players. So I’ve come to the conclusion the job of the writer is to be aware of how structure can help draw the reader in and satisfy her—because the story mechanisms do their job—while at the same time trying to provide enough variety, and surprises, so that the reader doesn’t realise they’re being directed towards an ending that’s both obvious and unexpected. Afterwards the reader may believe the conclusion was inevitable, because the genre demanded it. But as a writer I work hard to make the scaffolding invisible and the plot interesting (and surprising) enough to distract readers from thinking too much about the route they’ve taken to get there.

  3. As the others have said, particularly clearly Keith, stories need some kind of structure/scaffold/wireframe/skeleton. Without one, they’ll go wandering off in a drunken sprawl and irritate, possibly confuse, the reader. It would certainly confuse me as the writer as I usually have a large cast of characters to keep tabs on. Once, two of them got away from me and ended up in a completely inappropriate and rather raunchy romantic interlude that sabotaged the story. I poured cold water on them, got my story back on track which became a great deal stronger as a result. (I did save the scene for another time!)

    Formulaic writing is boring writing and we should avoid it; I don’t think many writers would disagree. Formulaic plotting is lazy. Here comes the girl, she’s the investigator’s love interest, roll in the hay, he leaves the next morning to go on his mission, stern, but dutiful and she cries into the bed sheets. But suppose it’s she who is the investigator, she arrests him in the morning, in come the forensic team to take his flat apart. He asks her why she slept with him and she says, ‘Because I fancied you.’ How much more exciting and startling in a good way that would be for the reader. Yet it could be an entirely integral part of the overall plot.

    So, as I tend to do, I’d say surprise the reader, but keep your plot tight.

  4. How hard do I work to avoid “formula” writing? My answer is a “yes sort of”. The reason to avoid formula is avoid boring your readers. However, I love thrillers, noir, and horror. When I read a noir, for instance, I want to see some familiar tropes. So I use the tropes, the formulas, the devices of these genres. Yet to me, a thriller is a character driven story. And characters, well developed characters anyway, offer surprises. I like stories where the character defines the action. So I do avoid writing according to a formula. While I don’t.

    I hope that clears that up.

  5. As writers, we are told by the “gatekeepers” of our profession — that is, agents and editors — to produce something new and fresh and innovative. But judging from the NY Times Bestseller list, readers enjoy stories that are in many respects formulaic and “comfortable.”

    Why are mystery and thrillers series so popular? Because once a reader discovers a character and setting they enjoy, they want to visit it again and again, and follow along as the protagonist, who they now feel is something akin to an old pal, a family member, a fishing buddy, a romantic crush, does that particular thing he or she does to solve the crime/mystery/world domination plot.

    As a result, writers are torn in two directions. Do we go out on a limb and try something completely out of the ordinary, only to spend a year or more scribbling away and then have our publisher possibly reject our manuscript? Or do we create something for a mainstream audience that seems to crave the familiar and, yes, the formulaic?

    Take, for example, the much maligned, but incredibly successful The Da Vinci Code. Formulaic in the sense that the protagonist and bad guys are one-dimensional, the dialogue is utilitarian, and each chapter is carefully massaged so that it ends on a cliffhanger? Yes! Did I love it? Yes! More importantly, did readers love it? Hell, yes, they did.

    I think the secret is, as the other commenters touched upon, to be formulaic in structure — have clear plot points, a contrast between action and lull periods, and a slow increase in dramatic tension. But within that structure, shock and surprise and inform and amaze the reader. Some nice descriptions and snappy dialogue don’t hurt, either.

    By the way, that’s a lot harder than it sounds!

    1. I agree, Brian. As a writer, I view doing the same old thing as an almost unpardonable sin. As a reader, however, it’s the opposite. I adore serial mysteries because I know that each story will be familiar and comfortable, like a favorite old hat.

        1. Add money into the mix, and the line gets blurrier. It’s easy for me, as a new author, to talk about the importance of being original, but what if I knew I could use a formula to earn big bucks and enjoy a constant fan base? My point of view might change.

  6. I think you make a very fine point, Brian. When you look at the NYTimes or UK Sunday Times bestseller lists they are partly made of authors delivering what their readers love, their serial characters, such as Jack Reacher doing what the fans like, finding trouble, sorting it out, moving on. But it is the novels that break with the format – such as Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Girl On The Train that sometimes really break out.

    For years the British crime genre was extremely formulaic – the classic Agatha Christie kind of set up is to have a dead body (preferably in the library of a country house) in chapter one, and the rest of the book is the puzzle to solve it The principal characters, such as Poirot or Miss Marple, are exactly the same at the end of each book as they are at the beginning, they don’t change. The UK crime writer, Ian Rankin, keeps his series fresh by ageing his character Rebus by a one year with each book. He hits retirement age, panic. Then the Scottish retirement age for cops is raised and he can continue again. So there is constant drama with what happens with his main character.

    I think that history shows in fiction that fortune does favour the brave. I consider the greatest British crime novel every written and one which was a huge influence on me, to be Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. Written in 1937 it is still fresh today. Hardly any police involvement at all, the central character is a 17 year old nasty creature, called Pinky, in charge of a bunch of middle-aged misfits, all second-rate criminals. Pinky is a killer, yet he is a devout Catholic, terrified of eternal damnation. Another book, which I personally rate as the greatest US crime thriller of the past 50 years is Silence Of The Lambs in which Thomas Harris tore up the rule book and instead of good versus evil, we had bad versus evil – the monsters Hannibal Lecter actually being a kind of hero agains the even bigger monster, Buffalo Bill. So writing the same book over and over in a series is a fan-pleaser, but it is the truly innovate ones that will often take a writer into the stratosphere.

    1. Peter, very well put and I totally agree! But until one establishes a following and a readership, there is some pressure to stick to a safe formula. I think that’s just a very natural byproduct of how tough and unpredictable the market is. And the same reason movie sequels get made. I wrote some pretty out-there stuff to no avail, and it wasn’t until I made a conscious decision to write something genre specific and somewhat straightforward, although I don’t think I’d call it formulaic, that I managed to get published.

      I’d love to be a position where I produce a book in a series that has a fanbase on a regular schedule, and then shuffle in some more experimental and off the beaten track projects on the odd years. I believe you have done something similar to great success!

  7. Avoiding formula writing was very important to me as I was creating Blood and Needles. It’s a vampire story, after all, which has been done to death. Fortunately, my premise was bizarre enough to ensure that being different wasn’t all that difficult.

  8. This is such an interesting discussion and I really nod my head to all the points made about structure being different to formula. Keith, I particularly love your quote about the elderly lady wanting surprises, I will think of this a lot when writing in future. Using a framework and creating shocks within it.

    I think you need to really understand the expectations and characteristics of a genre to be able to subvert them and take readers’ breath away. I’m not sure how many of you (perhaps only my fellow Brits!) will be aware of a British comedian called Les Dawson. Dawson was a very gifted pianist and one of his funniest and most famous sketches was playing The Entertainer. He plays off-key in a way only a master of the instrument could do. (I don’t think I can embed it but here is a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWDphFwocAM

    My first book Try Not to Breathe was quite a straight forward whodunnit in many ways. I didn’t yet have the tools to subvert plot like a master, but I like to think where I rejected formula was with character. As Peter mentions, British mysteries mainly used to centre on a manor house crime with a standard cast of suspects. The suspects are as stereotypical as the principal. You’ll have the rich homeowner, the red-lipped seductive woman, the frumpy housekeeper, the feckless young guy with inherited wealth, often a vicar and so on.

    I really enjoy mysteries and thrillers where the characters are well rounded and utterly believable, while being surprising. Susie Steiner’s DI Manon is a recent example.

    1. I remember Les Dawson well! I like the idea of subverting plot (or even expectations of plot) with character. One of my favourite crime writers is Elmore Leonard, and what I particularly liked about his style was his ability to shift the plot in a different direction to what you expect because a character does something unexpected. You can find yourself shouting at the page (all right, perhaps only mentally) ‘Why are you doing that?!’ – but not because the character’s action is unbelievable – it’s usually perfectly in character – but because it imperils him or her or takes you into areas you weren’t anticipating. He definitely undermines formula even while he’s writing about heists, kidnappings, etc … all the trappings of the standard crime novel. My last two books are, in fact, attempts to channel some of that energy!

  9. Hi everyone (and thanks for your comments to me Brian and Holly. One thing to thrown in here on the formulaic v surprise argument is this – a bit from left field – but very significant. I have a friend, Bruce Katz, who is an Artificial Intelligence professor who wrote an academic book on whether a computer will ever be able to experience pleasure in the way we humans do! We met and became friends basck in the early 1990s when I wrote a standalone called Host about a computer scientist who wanted to live forever by having his brain downloaded into a computer and his body frozen. (It was made into a very bad mini series by ABC TV, with the title changed to Virtual Obsession – but don’t bother to watch it!) Bruce reckoned he had figured out, scientifically, what creates a high of pleasure in humans and that it happens when the brain gets confused. A classic is humour – most jokes are dependent on the listener expecting one thing and getting another, totally unexpected. Such as the old Marx Brothers gag: “Hey, the garbage man is here.” “Hey, go tell him we don’t need any today.” Bruce also reckoned that music does a similar thing to our brains, it takes us along in a rhythm and then suddenly changes and it is that moment of change that sends the pleasure chemicals – endorphines – racing through us. I do think there is something all writers can take from this theory. Those cliffhangers, twists, shocks, they are what lovers of our genre look for – and they can occur just as strongly within a formulaic book as in one that breaks all the rules, I feel.

    1. Cliffhangers, twists and shocks are expected, but so are familiar elements and tropes. I admit my Roma Nova alternative history thrillers set in an imaginary world are unusual(!), but I’m very careful to include familiar elements which readers love; a grumpy colleague, a smart-mouthed protagonist, a squad room, a car chase, clues, bosses who don’t understand, the need to go off-piste occasionally, etc.

      My ‘shock’ is the whole framework, a society governed by women where they have agency as of right, i.e. acting in traditional male roles, yet where Roman values underly everything. Within that gender-mirrored framework, the stories follow a traditional structure of inciting incident, three turning points, the black moment, climax and resolution. But as others have said, it’s about the characters, their outer actions and inner motivations, and how the readers engage with them. Good characterisation lifts even the most formulaic story out of the ordinary.

  10. What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
    [Ecclesiastes 1:9]

    It seems to me that we are in agreement that giving the reader something familiar, with basic elements that he expects to see in the genre, is a required scaffolding, as Keith mentioned. However, a good story builds seamlessly on that scaffolding so that on the one hand the reader treads on familiar grounds, but at the same time the story doesn’t feel stale or predictable.
    The problem starts when the author is tempted to build on the success of a first book. A good example is The Hunger Games trilogy. In my opinion, the first book was superb, the second was so-so, and the third was a disaster. The same happens when the book is not part of a series but simply tries to exploit a successful formula. The result is necessarily predictable and disappointing.

  11. There is a kind of irony that your fans do want you to keep writing the same book but equally they want something different and fresh at the same time. I’ve written thirteen books in my Roy Grace series to date and my readers have their favourite characters. If I kill one of them off I get a cry out outrage and equally if I leave one character out of a new book, I similarly get deluged with emails. So we need to be careful in how we do address this issue of avoiding formula writing. Successful authors today are “brands whether we like that word or not. And our readers to expect a certain “brand” consistency. For example an author of a series of historical crime fiction novels is not likely to get a great reception if he or she suddenly produced a romantic comedy.

    But there are authors who can break the mould. Ken Follett did it very successfully with his “cathedral” novels Jeffery Archer made a hugely successful transition from thrillers to sagas. Every couple of years I write a standalone, to explore issues that I could not within the confines of a crime thriller. But they are still thrillers.

    One of the most non-formulaic writers I know is William Boyd, who writes a very different kind of book each time. He has long been one of my favourite authors yet when he turned his hand to a crime thriller in Ordinary Thunderstorms I felt it was his least successful book. I had the feeling he had ventured into terrain he wasn’t really familiar with, because it was so different to the feel of the books he normally writes. Stephen King made the transition extremely well with his Mr Mercedes and subsequent two crime thrillers – but he has always been a supreme thriller writer.

    We do need constantly to try to raise the bar, to challenge ourselves and take risks. But always within the context of knowing the kind of storytelling we do best.

    1. Boyd is one of my favourite authors, too – in fact I’m currently reading Sweet Caress. He has a knack of making literary fiction very readable and moreish. However, I thought his Bond novel – Solo – was pretty dire. Perhaps because the parameters for a Bond novel are almost set in stone. I don’t know Ordinary Thunderstorms so I’ll have to check out how he copes with the ‘formula’ of crime fiction!

    2. I adore William Boyd’s work, particularly ‘Restless’ with two strong female leads. Eva and Ruth break the formula very successfully; precise, clever, pragmatic, almost passionless, yet Boyd makes them incredibly engaging. I know as a feminist, this is bound to gladden my little heart, but it’s an adventure and intrigue that anybody would enjoy.

      I enjoyed Ordinary Thunderstorms as it was more in the way of a ‘Bildungsroman’ yet showed how the other world underneath ours operates. And somehow humour does peep through here and there.

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