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What's so bad about being formulaic?

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  • What's so bad about being formulaic?

    I have only recently found this forum, but the word that keeps arising is that of formulaic work? Well, I know what it means, but whats so bad. I'm a firm believer that each writer should bring something new to the table, but I'm also a firm believer that not every story has meaning. Mike's work, I classify having deeply profound meaning, REH doesn't, but to me, REH has been easier to like since it simple, its entertainment; pure escapism. I've been writing since 13, and really what gets me is what direction do I want to go, I hate mainstream, yet I'm not into the whole post-modern stuff. I write to entertain, albeit sometimes formulaic or not. I want stories like L. Sprague DeCamp put it: "how would you like to go to a world where men are mighty, women are beautiful, problems are simple, and life adventurous?"

    Plain and simple. . .

  • #2
    I think that if you write to 'a formula' it becomes easier to be dismissed as just 'another Tolkein Rip-off'. Of course, to a lot of non-fantasy readers (and some fantasy readers) that happens anyway, either derivative of Conan, Mike or Tolkein.

    If you write formulaic, you're pretty much delivering a Popcorn Novel by Numbers. Sure, it's fun, but does it actually make you go 'man, that was a great read,' chances are, you'll toss it on the pile. You're not giving the readers anything new, the real intention should be to appear formulaic and then smash them over the head with something completely left-field.


    • #3
      Surely it's all about whether you enjoy the book? Some of the best stories I've read haven't been mind-blowingly original. Equally, some of the best books I've read have been what you just called 'left field'. But originality for the sake of it is doomed to fail, I reckon.

      Isn't it more about doing what it takes to tell the tale? If being structurally and narratively (is that a word?) whacky supports your theme, then go for it. If not, why bother?


      • #4
        I'm in agreement with steve. My shelves aren't filled with any literary geniuses, but mosty Sword & Sorcery. And a reason I got into that, was not cause I was trying to get AWAY from LOTRs (I hadn't read it til the films came out). I got into it cause it was pure excapism, something that teacher's fail to realize everytime they ask "what this sory mean? what you learn from it?"

        Did I learn anything from REH's "Phionex on the Sword" besides the fact that despots make good kings? No, I read it for face value. My first book was Elric, but I failed to grasp its depth, i read it merely as another S&S yarn and moved on to the next guy.


        • #5
          Steak is nice, but sometimes all you want is a Big Macâ„¢.

          We ought to distinguish between 'formula' and 'formulaic'. On this very site you will find that Mike has more than once recommended that aspiring writers should familiarise themselves with Lester Dent's Master Plot ( see [broken link]which in Dent's own words(?) is:
          ...a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has
          worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly
          where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in
          each successive thousand words
          The formula is a template, a skeleton if you like upon which the author must hang the flesh of his narrative. It's like a recipe, but whether the 'meal' you produce is any good depends upon what ingredients you bring with you. However, there's a risk that without due care and attention the 'formula' can lead to the 'formulaic'.

          'Formulaic' seems, to me at least, to indicate something which is hackneyed, uninspiring, even bland. My wife complains that when I cook for myself I always cook the same thing - a noodle and bolognaise sauce that I can knock up in about 15 mins. It's very simple, quite appetising and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, I've probably got the whole procedure down pat. Which is kind of the problem. I have a recipe and I don't deviate from it, so I don't stretch myself as a cook. I never throw a little spice into the mix to see what difference it makes, perhaps because I'm afraid that it will spoil the dish.

          That I think is the essence of formulaic. It is safe. Unadventurous. The author of the formulaic work knows that there is nothing in their tale that is going to upset their readership. There's no, as Mike's put it somewhere, 'tensions', 'anger', or 'edginess'. Formulaic writing is essentially unchallenging. Unchallenging for the reader and unchallenging for the author. There's no effort involved either in creating the work or in consuming it. I can understand readers tolerating 'safe' literature, but there seems little point in being a writer if you're not prepared to stretch yourself from time to time.

          A Big Macâ„¢ is tasty but sometimes you crave steak.
          Last edited by Rothgo; 04-12-2010, 04:32 AM.
          _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
          _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
          _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
          _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."


          • #6
            I see the reasoning behind it. I've read the Master Plot years ago and have followed it time to time. And its true what you say, depends on the ingredients you bring. Something I like to do, and I recommend others is, when looking for ideas, look past where it came from, seek its origins. For example, everyone puts the hero under Campbell's perspective, but heroes have dwindled in man's imagination for more than the 20th Century.

            I crave a big mac now. . :lol:


            • #7
              Not just ingredients, of course. You can play with a basic structure in many different ways. People say my Cornelius stories have 'no structure' whereas, of course, they are very tightly structured. Indeed, the more you experiment in some ways the better it is to ensure that your structure is tight. Sonata form, which is another 'formula' I use, can be put to many uses. Where a formula is copied along with the other ingredients, that's where work becomes decadent and usually boring, unless there is another element (say irony) involved. Also older formulae can be revived pretty usefully. Most 'movements' tend to look backward to a time before contemporary work became over-conventional and forward to a time of innovation. That's certainly the reality of what went on at New Worlds. We might have rejected conventionaal modernism or, indeed, science fiction forms, but we were quite happy to embrace 18th and 19th century forms sometimes, or even earlier forms than that, while we tried to create new forms which would carry, rather than distort, the ideas we were trying to deal with. Naively, some critics called the NW thing a revolution in 'style'. Style was not really the issue. Form was the issue -- i.e. the structures you chose to relay the stories you had to tell which were primarily to do with contemporary issues.
              We had tried the conventional forms of the day and found that they seemed to distort what we wanted to say. The US 'new wave', which looked more to commercial magazine fiction, had more to do with style than form, however. This produced some fine, baroque work, of course, but was more a romantic revolution than what in the UK was essentially a classical one. That's a generalisation, naturally! Has nothing to do with the nationality of the authors so much as the prevailing issues in the countries themselves.

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              • #8
                Vis-a-vis SK's original post: I much prefer inhabiting a world where men are simple, women adventurous, problems are mighty and life beautiful... :P

                I think that the literary 'old formula vs innovation' dynamic is as inevitable as it is in any field that involves progression or evolution. Aeronautical engineering as an example (er, obviously... :| ) - many successful and thoroughly workable aircraft follow the standard planform (fuselage, mainplanes at the front, tail at the back, vertical rudder) - itself a result of long experimentation - which results in a nice, safe, reliable vehicle that does the job. However, it is not very interesting for the engineers if all 'planes are the same: so they try canards, flying wings, tailless aircraft, rotary wings - new formulae (which, as well as having completely novel features, often hearken back to old ideas, current long before the 'standard formula' was worked out). Sometimes a new idea proves superior to the mainstream plan, and is widely adopted, becoming itself the new dogma or orthodoxy (eg: jet engines); sometimes, for all its merits, an innovative approach remains niche-only thanks to lack of appreciation or vision amongst the users (analogous to 'the readership'). Overall popularity does not reflect the absolute merits of the innovation itself. Just so with literary evolution. New ideas cutting against or across the flow of the prevailing current may be powerful enough to divert that current (if ever so slightly) into new channels, or it may exist only as a meteoric phenomenon that appears and vanishes (at least until its next 'orbit'). There will always be those who champion the 'formulaic' approach, which is scientifically logical as it is 'proven effective' and 'repeatable', whilst others (the NW enclave, as an excellent example) possess the experimental bent that drives them on to tweak approaches and cut loose on new and more precarious structures. Personally, I enjoy both the 'comfort and familiarity' of fomulaic 'yarns', and the more dangerous and possibly dysphoric effects produced by skewed or radical construction.
                Er...yes. Something like that.


                • #9
                  I'm with Perdix on this. I enjoy both approaches. I get vast amounts of entertainment from many of the formulaic genre S&S novels such as various Dragonlance books; they are great for an evening read to relax and let the mind wander. As SK said, it is pure escapism, and I have never seen anything wrong with taking that. I've always used the analogy of "mini-vacations." Sometimes, the mind just needs to get away and recharge.

                  On the the same token, I relish the challenge and insight of the more experimental fiction such as Mike's or many of the works people here post.

                  I can't really say I prefer one over the other, it is entirely dependant on my current mood. I can say that I love the idea of Fantasy and the mythos that the genre in general has developed. In many ways Fantasy is now self-explainatory and has become its own beast. I've stated this elsewhere, I believe, and I've also talked about my idea of disecting the beast and actually exploring Fantasy for Fantasy's sake.

                  In the end, I guess I see no problem with formulaic fantasy; I only have a problem with people who are trapped by that formula and cannot see anything beyond it or are unwilling to explore its boundries.
                  "In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro"
                  --Thomas a Kempis


                  • #10
                    After all, Fantasy is only an extrapolation of our 'real' existence, albeit a selective one, and like any 'virtual world' or fictional construct, has perhaps its greatest value as a tool to explore our psyches, social issues and human nature generally.


                    • #11
                      What I don't get is why there is such a demand formulaic fantasy - my store had 'that Paolini kid' in for a signing the other week. We had well over 700 people show up. I mean.... what's so good about his books!? Is it merely that people buy into the marketing BS that he's a kid who wrote a book, or do they actually find some literary value in his stuff?

                      If people want to read Lord of the Rings, Earthsea and the like, then why not read those, rather than 2nd and 3rd rate retellings?

                      Terry Brook's debut - The Sword of Shannara is about the worst LOTR rip-off out there. The guy is still out there today flogging that particular dead horse.

                      The Heroic Fantasy genre has become so mainstream that its merely the Teenage boy's equivalent of the romance (Jackie Collins / Barbara Cartland) genre. People clearly don't seem to mind reading the same old story over and over again with the merest cosmetic changes.

                      BTW - I find it interesting that so much classic fantasy is now being marketed for kids. My store now carries Edgar Rice Burroughs as Young Adult fiction - so I guess there's still a chance for kids to discover the 'classics' as it were, if they can escape the HP / Eragon marketing machine that is...
                      Batman: It's a low neighborhood, full of rumpots. They're used to curious sights, which they attribute to alcoholic delusions.

                      Robin: Gosh, drink is sure a filthy thing, isn't it? I'd rather be dead than unable to trust my own eyes!


                      • #12
                        E R Burrough's himself made very frequent use of one of his favourite plot device, the escape - chase (or kidnap - pursue), to great effect. I believe he dictated his narratives, which may go some way to explaining his huge output.

                        Re Perdix comment on fantasy being an extrapolation of our real existence I think this is an idea Mike was very keen on exploring. I seem to recall him mentioning somewhere in the Q&A about the externalisation of the protagonists internal conflicts in fantasy. Thus the protagonists internal angst becomes the storm through which he rages etc.

                        Tokien's formula for The Hobbit and LotR is 'There and back again, but with the protagonist deeply changed by the journey.' E R Eddison makes use of a similar device in 'The Worm Ouroborous', though in Ouroborous the cycle is rather more existential and the participants remain unchanged. Tolkien had read and praised Ouroborous, so I'm wondering if he borrowed and slightly tweaked the idea of a cyclic plot from Eddison's Ouroborous.


                        • #13
                          Gad! I'm really worrying now about what I'm externalising when I write . Did Freud say much about giant squid, U-boats, gyral oceanic systems and pirate heiresses? :|


                          • #14
                            And harpoons?
                            It's the U-boats and harpooons I'm worried about. Longer than they are broad. Nuff said.


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Perdix
                              And harpoons?
                              It's the U-boats and harpooons I'm worried about. Longer than they are broad. Nuff said.
                              It depends. What do they mean to you? Do thoughts of harpoons and U-boats upset you?

                              Bah, probably not. Remember, as Freud wrote somewhere, sometimes a harpoon is simply a harpoon.