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.

9 thoughts on “Formula Fiction: Bad or Good?

  1. As you say, the challenge is to write well and make the story interesting. I think it’s important to create compelling characters that our readers care about. I know that’s what keeps me reading.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this article, Jack. I am an avid clean romance reader but have never been fond of the formula because I always know how it’s going to, basically, end, as I begin reading. However, I still read these books, and the reason is because of what you say in this article — if there are unique things, like the hero’s flaw or the problems that stand in the way of the two coming together, and the story is well written, those are the clean romance novels I love best. If everything is simply written to the formula, I don’t enjoy the stories because they are completely predictable.

    I hope you will write an article on experimental fiction because I’d love to know more about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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