Sunday, January 2, 2011

Writing Weekend: On Formulas

Recently while about a third of the way through a romance novel that shall remain nameless, I thought, "I know exactly where this is going, and I really can't bring myself to care enough to read another couple hundred pages just to watch it get there." So I closed that file on my Kindle and picked something else, because life is too short to read books that aren't working for you.

A few days before, Mr. Fraser and I had taken advantage of free babysitting and an AMC gift certificate (both courtesy of my mother-in-law, while we were visiting Oklahoma over the holidays) to go see The King's Speech. It's a delightful, intimate period piece...and I knew exactly where it was going from the very first scene and enjoyed every step of the journey.

Both stories followed a formula. I think that's a good thing. I don't always or even usually want to be surprised by what I read or watch. I want good to triumph, whether that means a couple finding true love and committing to a lifetime together, or a murderer being brought to justice, or a tyrant being overthrown, or even a king who stutters figuring out how to give his subjects an inspiring speech. What makes a story stand out is how well it executes its particular formula, in the form of good acting, writing that makes the characters come to life on the page, little surprises in the plot twists on the way to the good side's triumph, and so on.

So what went wrong with the book I didn't finish? Lots of little things. On several occasions, I found myself questioning the author's research. She may well have been right, but she didn't make her world convincing enough that I believed her when characters acted contrary to my expectations. The hero and heroine seemed more like types than people, with the actions chosen to convince me they were sympathetic striking me as a bit too obvious and paint-by-numbers. And they were both the type who spent more time navel-gazing about their feelings than doing anything about them or just doing something, period...which obviously pleases enough readers to make it common in the romance genre, but annoys me to no end.

What made The King's Speech work for me? Again, little things. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush's performances. Bertie's quiet determination to do his duty even when he HATED it and looked like the worse possible person for the job, in contrast to his older brother's feckless irresponsibility. The wry humor throughout. And the formula--the comfort of knowing it'd all turn out OK in the end.

What about you? How do you feel about formulas? When do they work or fail for you?


  1. Wow, that's a tough one. I'm going to have to think about it, because right now all I've got is "I know it when I see it" and I feel confident I can do better. Because I adore formulas, Slings & Arrows, a show I love about a Shakespearean repertory company, a critic says, "I've seen this Dream 100 times. And I don't just mean the play. I mean this Dream." Which is it, right? I don't mind seeing "A Midsummer Night's Dream" a hundred times, but I want it to be different each time.

    But as for what makes it different enough, I got nothing.

  2. Yeah, it's very much a "know it when I see it" thing.

    And one issue I didn't mention is how fresh a particular formula is for that reader. Like, the first marriage of convenience story you ever read could seem startlingly original to you even if the book is actually pedestrian and derivative. OTOH, if you've just read five MOCs in a row, you could pick up another one that's actually fresh and unique and think, "What, AGAIN?! Not another MOC!"