April 20 – 26: “How hard it is to avoid “formula” writing?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Thrillers. Mysteries. Crime fiction. They all follow a well-established formula…or do they? This week we’re joined by ITW members Jennifer J. Chow, Cara Putman, Tim Waggoner, Richard Z. Santos, Katharine Schellman, Geoff Hyatt, Elizabeth Goddard and Melissa Kosciuszko as they discuss how hard it is to avoid “formula” writing. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss it!

 

Cara Putman is the author of more than thirty legal thrillers, historical romances, and romantic suspense novels. She has won or been a finalist for honors including the ACFW Book of the Year and the Christian Retailing’s BEST Award. Cara graduated high school at sixteen, college at twenty, completed her law degree at twenty-seven, and received her MBA. She is a practicing attorney and teaches undergraduate and graduate law courses at a Big Ten business school.

 

Tim Waggoner has published nearly fifty novels and seven collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, the Horror Writers Association’s Mentor of the Year Award, and he’s been a multiple finalist for both the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.

 

Jennifer J. Chow writes the #ownvoices Sassy Cat mystery series (Berkley/Penguin Random House). She also published the Winston Wong Cozy Mysteries under J. J. Chow. Her short fiction has been featured in Over My Dead Body! magazine.

 

 

Richard Z. Santos received an MFA from Texas State University. He is a board member of The National Book Critics Circle, and his fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in multiple publications, including The San Antonio Express-News, Kirkus Reviews, The Rumpus, The Morning News and The Texas Observer. Previously, he was a political campaign operative. A high school English teacher in Austin, Texas, this is his first novel.

 

Elizabeth Goddard has sold over one million books and is the bestselling, award-winning author of more than forty romance novels and counting, including the romantic mystery The Camera Never Lies—a 2011 Carol Award winner. Her Mountain Cove series books have been finalists in the Daphne du Maurier Awards and the Carol Awards.

 

Geoff Hyatt is the author of the novels Follow You Down and Birch Hills at World’s End. In his spare time, he collects vintage toys, psychedelic posters, and horror comics. A Michigan native, he now lives in Chicago with his wife and an assortment of personal demons.

 

 

Katharine Schellman lives and writes in the mountains of Virginia in the company of her husband, preschooler, and the many houseplants she keeps accidentally murdering. She was named one of BookPage’s 16 Women to Watch in 2020.   The Body in the Garden is her debut novel.

 

 

Melissa Kosci is a fourth-degree black belt in and certified instructor of Songahm Taekwondo. In her day job as a commercial property manager, she secretly notes personal quirks and funny situations, ready to tweak them into colorful additions for her books. She and Corey, her husband of twenty years, live in Florida, where they do their best not to melt in the sun.

 

 

36 Comments
  1. To be honest, I’m not opposed to formula writing. All good stories follow a basic structure—no matter the “formula”—just like life. We’re born. We live. We die. Even our lives have “formulas,” if you will. But it’s the journey between those events that makes it interesting. Learning and mastering story structure is important for aspiring writers. That said, once you know the rules, then you can break them! Ha! I’ve heard that so often it’s almost cliché. But it’s truth. Writing for category romance I’m required to follow not only the romance formula, but the voice-and-feel “formula” of the publisher’s line as well. I had worried that I would struggle when I branched out to write for trade, but that wasn’t the case. I found it to be a freeing experience. I could spread my wings and fly, and write the story like Steve James says in “Story Trumps Structure.” After years of writing novels, you develop an innate sense of how stories should unfold, and you develop the ability to branch out and create above and beyond formulaic writing.

    1. Absolutely! I think romance is another great example of the power of formula. The big question isn’t what constraints are you working in — there are always constraints! What you do within those constraints is what makes for a great story.

      I like to think of “formula” for genre fiction like the rules for writing poetry. Just because you wrote a sonnet doesn’t mean it’s like every other sonnet out there! What do you do within those rules? How do you bend them or change them or do something unexpected while still writing a sonnet?

      1. I totally agree, Katharine! I love how you compare the formula to rules in poetry.

        In some ways, you have to be more creative when writing to guidelines to make the story unique and different.

        1. I think that’s absolutely true, Jennifer. Working within certain constraints often makes you *more* creative, not less.

          Just like sticking with a word count!

          It’s easy to write a twisty, surprising, unpredictable story if you can make it as long as you want. But writing something twisty, surprising, and unpredictable (that still makes sense and feels satisfying) in 90k words is much harder but ultimately more satisfying for the reader.

    2. Good point Elizabeth! I think there are classic formulas because they just work. I think a writer’s job is to honor those formulas (and thereby satisfy audience expectations) but to also learn where to subvert those formulas (leading to much more satisfying experiences).

      1. The classic formulas are definitely there, and many times readers WANT them. That’s why they keep picking up a genre!

        I also think subverting a formula JUST for the sake of subverting it doesn’t necessarily make a satisfying story. A lot of times, the formula exists because it works and makes sense.

        It’s only very recently in the history of storytelling that “originality” became something to strive for. For a long time, what mattered wasn’t who told the most unique story. What mattered was who told the story everyone knew in the best and more interesting way possible! Think about Shakespeare — almost none of his plays were what we would consider “original” stories, and many of them follow very predictable storylines and plot beats. But the way he told them, and the language he used, was unlike anything his peers were doing, and that’s why they have such staying power.

    3. It is true. There are only so many different types of stories. And readers have expectations in a genre, that if you don’t hit, they’ll let you know.

      I think what is challenging is following the formula without it feeling formulaic. How do we keep it feeling fresh. I realized last week as I was working on macroedits for my next book, that my last five books have had kids in them/kid related themes. Does that mean I have to fold something like that into my next nove? I hope not! But it did make me stop and think about whether my readers would come to expect that.

  2. Crime fiction caters to a few essential tastes that writers must satisfy, but at the same time, they need to avoid making the same boring dish everyone’s had before. Nobody wants to order a slice of pie and get a fish stew instead, but you can work with within a genre and still bring something new to it. The secret is in finding ways to enhance the recipe without undermining what made it great to begin with.

    That’s what I set out to do with Follow You Down. It has amateur schemers in over their heads, wronged loners out for revenge, tenacious investigators who won’t quit—all that good stuff. But I riff on those classic elements through two alternating points of view that investigate the same crime. My main characters, Meg and Russ, in some ways represent two different types of crime narrative at odds with each other: a search for justice versus a quest for revenge. This complicated by the fact that Meg, a weathered, tough-as-hell deputy, is justice-minded, while Russ, an inquisitive and sensitive adolescent, is vengeful. Their desires are not aligned with their dispositions, and this led to developments that surprised me as a writer—and I hope move beyond predictable formulas.

    1. Sounds like a great way to add your own twist to the conventions, Geoff. Your comment is all about characters, and without solid, interesting characters then those formulas we follow (or don’t follow) just don’t matter. With my students I’m always bringing up the Marvel movies because everyone’s seen them. Pretty much all those movies follow the same formula but the scripts are good, the characters are compelling (or at least over 10 years of films we come to understand them) and no one notices that they’re pretty much all the same.

      1. One of the ways I’ve done this same thing, Geoff, is to make sure in this current series that none of the heroes or heroines are traditional law enforcement. In fact, the heroes have been anything but. One ran a nonprofit working with recent immigrants, another is a financial advisor to the wealthy, the current runs a group foster child home. The heroines are all attorneys, but none of them have involved a traditional criminal trial. So that’s one way I’ve taken the formula and made a change to it.

        1. Engaging and interesting characters and locales can go a long way to shake things up, for sure. Take a step beyond what you’d expect that conventional character to be doing. Way back when, sitting in a theater and seeing Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, two stock crime heavies, BS in the car on the way to a job was a moment where I was like, wow, a conventional character with nuance is unconventional.

          I think that what we’re talking about also ties into the “write what you know” (or, more accurately, “write what you can”) adage. Pike Lake in Follow You Down is based on some of the long-suffering Midwestern towns I knew growing up, set right on the cusp of the opioid/heroin epidemic. Meg was inspired by the chatty local cop who frequented a gas station I hung out at in my youth (my friend was the clerk), who I one day realized was using us to keep tabs on town gossip and people’s comings and goings. Chances are, your personal experiences or interests, beyond what you’ve consumed in fiction, afford you an opportunity to weave in variations on themes that will connect with readers and move beyond the expected.

  3. I write cozies, and they’re a very specialized genre. That means it’s hard to avoid formula writing in some ways. For example, there can’t be gore on the page. There’s also frequently a hook, whether that’s crafting, cooking, or pets—this provides books within a series a strong thematic tie.

    Despite these guidelines, though, I think cozy authors do try to push the boundaries and introduce timely topics. For example, Kate Lansing’s upcoming debut, Killer Chardonnay, depicts a social media firestorm. Also, protagonists in cozies can offer unique perspectives, like Mimi Lee, my mixed race protagonist in the Sassy Cat mysteries. Plus, the voice of different authors varies greatly. I can definitely tell the difference between Naomi Hirahara’s cantankerous Mas Arai and Laura Levine’s hilarious Jaine Austen.

    My belief is that even though genres carry certain restrictions, every author can still create a customized story that offers new and exciting elements.

    1. Jennifer, you’ve hit on a key element: voice. We all write differently. If we were given a set of items or people that had to be in a novel or short story, each of ours would be very unique because of voice. One we allow ourselves to write in our own unique way, then voice can shine and set each book apart.

    2. Such a good point about voice! When you think about it, it’s impossible for two writers to write the same story, even if they are given the exact same formulas and parameters, because they will use such different and unique voices.

  4. I think the best method is to channel Socrates and question everything. Almost never accept the first thought when plotting a story. Question not only “Is that believable?” but also “Has that been done before?” “Can I think of something more unique?” “Have I already hit on that theme in my other books?”
    And just making characters quirky isn’t enough. Are they quirky in a unique way?
    I also think we need to remember unique doesn’t always mean negative. Characters don’t have to be a total mess to be interesting.
    Readers are smart. If we want to surprise them, we really need to push ourselves.

    1. I agree that being able to question your own work helps elevate it. Even at the earliest phases, questions like “Why do I want to write this story?” to “What sets this apart from other stories like it?” help you find purpose and vitality. Some of my favorite novels seem to question or rearrange the genre formulas themselves in one way or another. Take something like True Grit, for example: “What if you take Western bounty hunter tale and stick an uptight 14-year-old churchgoer at the center of it?” You get this Sunday-school teacher, proper voice juxtaposed with this crazy frontier violence, and it’s a hoot, that’s what.

      1. Ah, you just used one of my absolute favorite words: juxtapose. It’s a favorite not just because of how it sounds and how it rolls (or trips) off the tongue, but because of the meaning. I also love putting very different things together and seeing how it comes out.

  5. I think it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between “formula” and “cliché.” Often, when readers pick up genre fiction like a thriller or mystery, part of what they want is the formula — they like the conventions of the genre, and that’s why they read it. But within that formula, there’s a lot writers can do that is unpredictable, original, or creative.

    Yes, there’s a murder — but who was the actual victim? Is it the type of person who is always a victim or someone unexpected? There’s a murderer — is it the same boring cliché about who becomes a murderer and why? Or are there interesting character choices and motivations going on? Are certain types of characters (women, queer folk, people of color) around just to be victimized and provide motivation to the main characters? Or do they have meaningful interior lives and a variety of characterizations? Are they the main characters themselves?

    Formula in itself isn’t bad. Formula is just a broad outline and structure that you can choose to use in either familiar or unexpected ways. I think what writers do within formula is what makes a story unique and interesting.

    1. Katharine, you’re absolutely right in that there is a formula, but the pieces we put in it are what make each book uniquely ours. It’s one reason I’ve set my legal suspense in DC. There are lots of lawyers there, but there are also lots of different types of jobs in different settings within that area. So there’s a formula, but I can keep moving the pieces around and making each story feel fresh. That was a high priority for me as I was brainstorming this set of books. If I get bored, the reader will definitely be bored.

      1. Yes, definitely! Formula gives you a broad outline for plot beats. But there are SO many more elements that go into storytelling than that. And mixing them up, or trying on that seems out of left field, is a great way to create a story that feels unique even if it hits all those expected beats.

    2. As I read your comment, an analogy came to me. It’s like baking cookies. There are tons of ways to make them unique and interesting, but they are all cookies. The reader expects cookies, and that’s what we give them, but maybe…they didn’t expect the gooey chocolate center. And they rejoice in the deliciousness. LOL

  6. Absolutely! I think romance is another great example of the power of formula. The big question isn’t what constraints are you working in — there are always constraints! What you do within those constraints is what makes for a great story.

    I like to think of “formula” for genre fiction like the rules for writing poetry. Just because you wrote a sonnet doesn’t mean it’s like every other sonnet out there! What do you do within those rules? How do you bend them or change them or do something unexpected while still writing a sonnet?

  7. The issue of formula writing in popular fiction is a tricky one. The old joke is that editors and agents — not to mention readers — want “more of the same, only different.” If you’re writing in a recognizable genre, then you’re already working with a collection of shared tropes in terms of storytelling. You want to give readers what they’re looking for while at the same time not merely repeating what’s been done to death in your genre. If you follow a formula too slavishly, your work — assuming it’s published at all — will elicit a yawn from all but the most undemanding of readers. And if you’re work is too original in terms of character, plot, and style, genre readers may find it too different — and perhaps requiring more effort to read — and pass it by. The trick, I think, is to first determine what you love about what you read. I’m drawn to fast-paced narratives that also feature immersive character work. On the surface, it seems an odd balance, but I love the combination. I’m also drawn to stories that stimulate my imagination, so simple, prosaic stories of people living everyday lives don’t hold much appeal for me. I also like stories that put new and different spins on genre tropes. For example, the blind seer is a common trope in fantasy. But what if instead the seer was mute and unable to communicate his or her prophecies, perhaps being unable to write them down as well? (Hey, with magic, anything’s possible!) What would this seer need to do in order to act on his or her visions of the future? How would he or she avert a potential disaster or help an ally? Another example of a common trope — this one in thriller and crime fiction — is the assassin who’s not such a bad person at their core. To put a spin on this trope, I’d make the assassin a cold-blooded killer who loves his or her work and has absolutely no redeeming features, but who’s had a near-death experience in which a divine presence made the price of the assassin returning to Earth a vow that he or she will never kill again. The assassin honors this vow, but not being able to kill isn’t the same as not injuring people very, very badly. So now we have a character constrained — and often frustrated — not by morality but by a paranormal experience that may or may not have been genuine, but who can still kick ass and has to find ways other than murder to solve problems. You can put spins on narrative tropes as well. The ticking clock effect in the movie DOA — in which a man has been poisoned and has 48 hours to find his murderer before he dies — makes for a strong suspense story. But what if your character has been exposed to a disease that, while he’s immune, makes him highly contagious for the next 48 hours? Maybe he’s frantic to remain apart from others to avoid infecting them. Maybe he’s a horrible human being who sees this as his opportunity to murder a lot of people without anyone suspecting he’s doing it on purpose. Maybe his condition is like a temporary super power, and he can go after bad guys who are terrified of being anywhere near him. So I combine the things I love about stories — fast-paced narrative, immersive character work, stimulation of imagination — with spins on familiar tropes in order to create what I hope is genre fiction that, while satisfying to readers, doesn’t seem like the same old, same old.

    1. Tim, I think one of the keys you hit was that of reading. We have to know what works as a reader…then we can learn to incorporate it into our writing. I read voraciously across many genres in part to learn what’s working in other genres that I might be able to pull into my writing. What pulls me into a story? What keeps the pages turning? What makes it easy for me to walk away from a story?

      When I switched from historical WWII and cozy mysteries to legal suspense, one of the first things I did was a chapter by chapter analysis of three of my go-to authors in that genre or a closely related one. It helped me see why I loved their books and what made them unique. I still go back to the exercise when trying to up the ante in my own books.

  8. This question makes me think of a classic Chandler-ism. At this point it’s probably apocryphal but whenever he got stuck in a story he just had someone with a gun kick down the door. Really this is just a comment on keeping tension in your story–whether it’s a cozy, detective, or any genre at all really.

    The novelist and screenwriter Jardine Libaire (White Fur) writes novels that can’t be called “crime fiction” at all, but she says she thinks about this quote all the time and generally tries to follow crime/pulp plot structures. End a chapter with an ending. What is the metaphorical door about to be kicked down? Who has a secret in this chapter?

    So really formulas can be used outside of genres also.

  9. I love this discussion where writers use the word formula without all the innuendo I hear from non writers. I started out in sweet romance land and my first publisher had quite strict guidelines regarding swearing, excessive drinking and sex–as in none of that, thank you very much. It just happened to suit what I was writing back then and with a few tweaks my stories were ready to go and some titles are still selling twelve years later. I’m asked many times things such as: Did the publisher give you a formula to follow? They have a formula for those books, don’t they? Oh, formula writing. I guess you can crank them out, eh? Romance? Oh that’s easy, you just follow a formula.

    Romance writers hate the term with a passion and come up with all sorts of pithy responses. My reply now is ‘Yes, my formula is to put one letter after another and make a word and then repeat till I finish the story.’

    I must say though, since I began writing romantic suspense the formula cracks have died down a bit and people seem more impressed that I’m a published author. Crime is clearly more socially acceptable than love. 🙂

  10. Elisabeth, I hear you! There is such a negative stigma to romance out there, which is funny because it sells so darn well. It is sad that “crime is more socially acceptable than love.” Although, I have to admit I love writing a good fight scene. 🙂

  11. Melissa, the theory is that romance is traditionally read and written by women so not as valid as words written or read by men. I must say I do love a good murder!

    Back to the topic…I’ve been reading Agatha Christie. She nailed the murder mystery formula and my goodness they’re good reads. Some better than others but very intricately plotted with a slew of characters all with their own plans and motivations. I’m really loving the peek into the social aspects of the day. Nothing beats reading a book written at the time it is set. 1930 in The Murder at the Vicarage, the first Miss Marple.

    I just love the way the police in these old stories are all Constable Plods and welcome the advice and help of Miss Marple or Poirot. She’s also very good at characterisations and often very funny. The vicarage maid is an example. She’s a terrible cook and hopeless cleaner but the vicar’s wife points out that if she was better at it she’d go somewhere else and earn more money than they can afford to pay her. So she stays.

        1. Me too! And she apparently cranked them out a week at a time because she knew her formula and what do to with it. Formula works, you just have to have good writing and interesting ideas to back it up!

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