Formula Fiction

It’s usually a pejorative term, said with an implied or even audible sneer, but why should it be? After all, formal poetry is generally accorded respect.

Both formula fiction and formal poetry employ a template for their construction. In the case of poetry, the template is often very strict. Writing a proper sonnet involves a specific number of lines, each with a set number of syllables, deployed in a strict meter with a specific rhyming scheme. How formulaic can you get?

Formula fiction is usually considered formulaic because of its plot. Certain events are supposed to occur in a certain sequence with certain consequences and a prescribed ending. Hmmm. Sounds a lot like a set of rules for creating a story, kind of like the sonnet has a set of rules for creating poetry.

In both cases, fiction and poetry, the form or the formula is not the point of the writing. Forms and formulae are stages upon which writers work their magic. They are ritualized ways of telling a story or making a poem.

In fact, maybe we should be calling it “ritual fiction” instead. I’m ready if you are.

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6 Responses to Formula Fiction

  1. midiguru says:

    Your analogy between the sonnet and (for instance) the mystery novel is provocative. You may even be right. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Can you write a novel, or cite one written by someone else, that supports your thesis?

    Great writing reveals truths of the human heart. A sonnet can do that because the formula is entirely distinct from the content. In a mystery novel, the formula is NOT distinct from the content; it dictates the content.

    I suspect that’s a significant difference.

    –Jim Aikin (

  2. Mario says:

    I would argue that both formula fiction templates and formal poetry templates dictate content to one degree or another. What they don’t dictate is subtext, and that’s where the meaning of a story or a poem lies.

    For one example of formula fiction with meaningful subtext, how about the Sherlock Holmes stories by Doyle? I believe those stories speak to the human heart very eloquently. Holmes is one of the most alive characters ever created. He means a lot to a lot of people and I don’t think it has much to do with the formulaic mysteries he solves. It has everything to do with him as a character.

    More recent examples: John Le Carre’s cold war thrillers and the novels of P. D. James.

  3. Stephanie says:

    This topic is one of my top five favorites to discuss. There IS a difference between Beethoven and Kenny G, but what is that difference? After all, Shakespeare and Puccini were just doing pop art – one for the hoi polloi and one for the richer folk. So the difference cannot be “formal” vs. “formula.” It has to be something else.

    But I like the term “ritual fiction.” I like that a lot!

  4. Mario says:

    A vote for “ritual fiction!” Yes! It’s already going viral.

    I guess in the end it all comes down to the vision and skill of the writer/composer/artist etc. Good ones can work with forms or without them.

    I was just trying to point out the fact that merely because something is made according to formula does not mean it is necessarily inferior. Or even trash (however one wishes to define that.) And conversely, employing a form does not necessarily insure quality. There are a lot of unreadable sonnets written all the time.

  5. Stephanie says:

    Lordy, yes! Unreadable sonnets, unwatchable movies (formulaic and avant garde), and heaven knows most of the music on the radio is pablum of the worst description. (Yesterday, a member of this household who shall here remain unnamed mentioned the aggravating fact that there is a thousand years worth of music for the “classical” station, and yet you turn on the radio, and hear the same eight or ten selections over and over.)

    I am beginning to suspect that there are at least a couple of things in play here.

    First, people are nearly universally allergic to the unfamiliar – so some “form” has to be followed or people will not abide the thing. If it’s not at least minimally familiar, it won’t be seen or heard at all.

    Second, there is beauty in skillful expression – formulaic or otherwise. There is beauty in the now defunct perfect, locked down, rule-bound “figure 8” that used to be part of the mandatory skills for figure skaters. It’s not particularly creative – but the skill itself is beautiful.

    And then there’s the aspect of the human soul and what it responds to in the way of anything “universal” to people. The best children’s books are a delight for adults to read. The most universal things last the longest. Faerie tales from antiquity are still told. I think it’s because we respond to something universal.

    I also think we respond to things that are completely genuine, and have a sort of Poser-barometer that will insist on lighting up and beeping when people are only doing mimicry or following forms for the form’s sake, and not for the story’s sake.

    It’s just not simple enough to boil it down to Good vs. Formula. That’s a false question, I think. But “ritual” … I think you’re onto something. The word ritual conveys a whole group of people coming together in a commonality they all find meaningful somehow.

    (I’ll be less pesky after I finally get back to school – teachers get paid to listen to this sort of babble! )

  6. Mario says:

    The other thing I like about the word “ritual” is that it conjures up notions of faith. The best stories, be they potboilers or “literature,” are good because of the faith of the author. They really and truly believe in their story.

    Poser-baramoter is good. I also like that old standy: BS detector. Children, especially, usually have excellent and highly tuned BS detectors.

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