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Are Formulaic Stories Good Or Bad?

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

KWE Publishing Newsletter - 05/25/23

When you're writing, you're leaving a piece of yourself on the page. You get to express your creativity, share important messages with readers, and show your story to the world. So when you hear the word "formula," you might raise your eyebrows or cringe. What the heck do formulas have to do with writing?

Well, whether you know it or not, you've been exposed to quite a few writing formulas in your life! From story structures to themes, there are certain patterns or formulas that many writers end up following.

And many writers might not like the idea of creating a formulaic story. After all, you want your story to be unique! And isn't writing all about freedom and a lack of structure and patterns?

In reality, using certain formulas in your books isn't always a bad thing. So before you throw out the idea of following a single formula or rule, keep reading to learn a little more about whether or not you should stick to a formula when writing.

Consider that formulas exist for a reason.

One of the major reasons formulas exist is because they tend to work, at least in part.

If you're anti-formulas, stay with me for a second! This doesn't mean that you have to follow every formula for book-writing to the letter. (For one, there are too many to follow all in one book!)

That just means that there are certain elements of formulas for your story that can set you up for success. For example, if you present the primary conflict on page one of your book, readers might feel like the remainder of the book is dragging on because all of the action has already happened. For. your book, sticking to a formula of "introduction, rising action, conflict/climax, falling action, and resolution" might be the best choice (though it's certainly not the only choice!).

Think about what formula your reader expects and what your book needs.

It's important to understand that any reader will start reading a book with certain expectations. These expectations, in large part, will be based on what they've read in the genre before. As an author, it's your job to either meet or subvert your readers' expectations.

When do you follow the readers' expectations by sticking to a formula, and when do you subvert those expectations? The good and bad news is that there is no singular answer I can give you to answer that. But, don't worry, there is some advice I can offer.

View your book holistically. What does your book need in order to be the book you want it to be? A certain character? A particular scene? A unique world? A hard-hitting message? Whatever your book needs to be uniquely yours and to get across your theme or message, include it.

Now, take a step back. What will your reader expect based on the title, blurb, cover, and genre of your book? Likely, if you're writing in a certain genre, you can answer some of these questions yourself. Consider what things should be included. A cozy mystery, for example, should have a compelling, but not gory, mystery that needs to be solved; your reader would feel tricked if you subverted their expectations by presenting your book as a cozy mystery but making it a dark, twisted fantasy novel. In this case, you will want to follow certain formulas and conventions related to the genre. However, your theme, characters, and setting can subvert the readers' expectations enough to keep them engaged.

Know that you can break the rules.

On the flip side of following a certain structure or formula for a story to the letter, you always have the option to break the rules. Some of the best books do!

As we talked about above, the trick is to find a balance that suits your book. Breaking every convention and writing rule, abandoning all sense of structure, and tossing out your dictionary might not be the best idea. But that doesn't mean you have to be strict as a writer.

I find that picking and choosing when to break the rules and which rules to break can make a book incredibly powerful. A character that was framed as a protagonist being morally ambiguous, an unexpected theme, or a surprising twist can have readers quickly flipping the pages, desperate to find out what happens next.

At the end of the day (or at the end of the chapter), no one can tell you which writing formulas or rules to follow. That's the wonderful (and sometimes daunting!) thing about writing a book—it's yours, so you make the call. So don't be afraid to play around with what works and throw in a few surprises for the reader and yourself. You never know what will work until you try writing it!

What formulas, patterns, or writing conventions do you ignore, and which do you prefer to follow? Reach out and share your thoughts; we love hearing from you!

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