Formula Fiction: Bad or Good?

Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in this book.

As I opened a dresser drawer, my eyes fell upon a slender leather case. Tan in color and in mint condition, I knew what it was. Once I slid back its flap and opened it, I found inside it something else in mint condition. It was the slide rule I used in my high school’s physics class. Well, let’s say I bought it for that purpose, but I never used it much because I never truly learned how. And that’s why, after forty-plus years, it’s practically new!

You see, with the exception of archaeology (history-related), I never much cared for science. Numbers and letters and formulas, math and physics and chemistry … Just mentioning these subjects prompts my yawn.  

Other formulas, though, do hold my interest. Story formulas, such as in Westerns and mysteries. Some people ridicule these genres by calling them “formulaic fiction.” We’ll deal with this criticism shortly.

A Few Elements of Formula Fiction

Predictable/Familiar Plots. The detective, with his/her superior gifts of deduction and insight, will always catch the criminal. Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes are excellent examples of this. Agatha Christie was an expert on poisons, which is why she used it so often in her books.

Familiar settings.These can be reused in one story after another. For example, lots of Westerns have saloons and perhaps a showdown or two on the street. But as a matter of fact, showdowns were rare in the Old West, though there were a few, such as the Earp brothers’ fight at the OK Corral.  

Predictable characters. In Romance novels a strong, handsome hero and a beautiful sympathetic heroine fall in love, maybe have an argument and separate, then they come back together and get married. Readers of these books expect this.

Is Formula Fiction Bad?

Not necessarily. Many readers enjoy such stories. As stated earlier, I enjoy good Western and mystery novels and those of us who read them expect the authors to follow the genres’ formulas.

The main negative, though, is that if these stories aren’t well written, they can become boring. We all know the guy will get the gal, the sheriff will get the outlaw, and the detective will get the killer. Even so, we can still make these stories interesting.

Agatha Christie, for example, had a special gift for surprising readers with her mysteries’ endings. Her readers enjoy trying to figure out “who done it.” Our romantic hero may have an interesting flaw — perhaps he’s afraid of water and so, he doesn’t swim. In Westerns, maybe a sheriff can handle himself without needing a gun.

A Response to Critics of Formula Fiction

To one degree or another, lots of stories are formulaic. That is, every traditional genre has a structure with its own guidelines and rules.

On the other hand, experimental fiction is a different style of writing which I won’t discuss here.

The Author’s Job

Our job as writers is to concentrate on writing well. Strive for excellence in the basic elements of fiction: creating unique and interesting characters, including conflict and plot twists and tension, using fresh imagery, and writing powerful scenes with good dialogue. When we do this while following our stories’ formulas, no matter what those formulas are, we’ll keep our readers reading.

Epigraphs: What They Are and How To Use Them

Troy, with walls still far from old

Had been destroyed, that noble, royal town

And many a man full worthy of renown

Had last his life—that no man can gainsay—

And all for Helen, the wife of Menelay,

When a thing’s done, it may then be no other.

John Lydgate, Troy Book, circa 1412-1420

This quote begins Margaret George’s excellent novel, Helen of Troy. She doesn’t put it in the body of her writing. Instead, it’s on a page by itself, right before the Prologue. There’s a word for such quotes—epigraph.

An epigraph can come at the beginning of a book, like George’s, or at the beginning of each section of a book, or introduce a chapter. They can also be used in both fiction and nonfiction. In a book I’m working on about the Creek War (1813-1814) in Alabama, I use epigraphs to bring historical context to my story. In my epigraphs, I briefly quote historians and others to help these readers follow and understand my tale’s historical events and tie my various plotlines together.

Chief William McIntosh (c. 1775-1825), one of the leaders of the Creek War.

Epigraphs can be funny, serious, taken from the Bible, a philosopher or theologian, or even from one of the book’s characters. Also in my Creek War novel, I’m using quotes from a character’s fictional journal.

Using Epigraphs

  • Under copyright law, if the epigraph comes from a source published after 1923, writers must get permission to use it. Before 1923, a work is in the public domain—free for everyone to use without permission. Although copyright law has a Fair Use Doctrine giving authors a little freedom to quote from copyrighted sources without permission, it also has certain guidelines to follow. We won’t get into that here. But in my opinion, it’s always best to “play it safe” and request permission from a copyrighted source.
  • The epigraph must have a connection to the book’s, section’s, or chapter’s content. In other words, epigraphs cannot be used randomly. So if you use epigraphs, choose them carefully.

A Few Novels That Use Epigraphs

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

The Fort, by Bernard Cornwell

Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

An Incident in the Life of David Crockett

David Crockett, by Chester Harding

David Crockett, a sportsman whose name is well known to all the world, was more celebrated for his blunt honesty than for his good manners. Whilst in Congress he contracted a sincere dislike for a Mr. W—, who was in no wise a model of manly beauty, and moreover wore a monstrous pair of green goggles. Once visiting an exhibition of animals in Washington, Crockett observed of an enormous baboon, that “he would be as like W— as two peas, except for the goggles.”

          Turning round he saw Mr. W— standing by his side, and in order to retrieve his slip, he continued—

          “Oh! is that you, W—! Well, I s’ppose I owe an apology somewhere, but upon my soul I don’t know whether I ought to make it to you or the monkey.”

The above story is taken from the

American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, vol. XIII, June 1842.