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fictional formulae and traditional modes

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  • fictional formulae and traditional modes

    All of this talk about fictional formulae makes me a little uncomfortable.

    I must admit to a preference for inventing my own fictional contraptions rather than accept a prefab fictional design. It's mostly impatience on my part, I suspect. When I write anything, it's usually in a traditional mode (Perdix knows what I'm talking about), but it doesn't follow a formula. For me, the design of the work must be invented with every attempt at writing something.

    Obviously, not everyone is uncomfortable with following a formula. If you can think below the surface of the story, and create interesting, well-observed original characters, then perhaps it'll work.

    Still, I would ask: Why do some of you have an active desire to write according to some of these prefab fictional designs?

    Just curious.

    I am not an arbiter in these matters, by the way, and Perdix is probably the only person who has seen enough of my work to say whether I know what I'm talking about, or whether I'm an utter incompetent. At any rate, I'd like to see a pro and contra discussion on the subject of using well-known formulae, not a debate on my preferences.

    Please keep in mind the difference between formulae and traditional narrative approaches and structures -- they're not the same thing.


  • #2
    Re: fictional formulae and traditional modes

    Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg

    Still, I would ask: Why do some of you have an active desire to write according to some of these prefab fictional designs?
    Maybe when you are learning a craft, you need to get a feel for and knowledge of existing structures, before you can design your own frameworks, similar perhaps to an architect who needs to learn the basics of the structure and design that underlie all buildings, before engaging in more ambitious architecture. When you are more experienced you get a better feel for what you can twist and shape without breaking the overall design. That's just one possible reason.


    • #3
      When I began writing, I didn't know the trade, which became a good thing later on since I learned the no-structure was the easy way to build a off-beat story. It wasn't til I enter High School for Creative Writing was I taught formulas or the pyramid or beginning-middle-end. By that time, I has already written a 2000+ pg serial on time travel, and those stories, to me, even though I've written better since then, are some of my most original and off beat ideas I've ever written. I guess its all about a balance, you wanna use some fornula, I use Dents sometimes and the elementary pyramid scheme of rising and falling action and go from there.


      • #4
        I can see the concern, LSN. I am really a hard nose about using a formula, but this is my way at going at it, what happens next? I like tht method better than following a certain mold. I use as minimal rules as possible, but bind by some. For short stories, I hold myself to 5 chapter max. which seems to hinder the creative juices but really does quite the opposite. I enjoy finding new ways to tell a stories under a limit. I recall one story, where a fight scene was needed at the end of the first chap., what I did, was stop there and moved to chap. 2 and leave the reader guessing, breaking the mold of mounting tension that was going through chap.1 In chap. 2 we were introduced the villian, but we see the effects we missed, i had a survivor of the combat die at the villians feet, who then read is mind, thus we saw the fight through the eyes of a minor character! This whole idea wasn't in the initial draft, which followed the basic rising action motif. I bent the rules and came away with a more original twist than expected.


        • #5
          I don't know that I consciously follow any particular formula/e when I write. It is only through conversations with other writers on this site that I've started to become aware of most formulae and have started to pay closer attention to the styles and rhythms of the books I read. Since I have only a rudimentary understanding of these formulae I love discussing them in an effort to understand more, but have yet to purposefully sat down with a concerted effort to produce something strictly formulaic. In fact, more often than not when I read something of mine that seems too formulaic to me, I reject it and rarely give it a second thought.

          I guess my interest in writing formulae comes more from a desire to bend/break/avoid those formulae than to follow them.
          "In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro"
          --Thomas a Kempis


          • #6
            As I said in another thread, I've written a fair few stories to the Dent formula, and when I tried to write one recently without it, I felt a bit lost. I wasn't sure where I was going, or how long I was "supposed" to go on for. I like having an end point, and trying to fit everything I need to in before I reach it. That's an enjoyable creative/intellectual puzzle to be solved... but can I honestly say it makes for the best stories? Probably not. Hopefully, once I've figured out what I'm doing, I'll be able to play around with formulae more.

            But for the moment I'm very grateful to the Dent Formula for giving me the recipe, as it were. :)
            "That which does not kill us, makes us stranger." - Trevor Goodchild


            • #7
              I frequently use a 5 chap. formula

              Chap.1 : (intro hero)
              Chap.2 : (intro villian)
              Chap.3 : (point of no return)
              Chap.4 : (complication)
              Chap.5 : (resolution)

              Its fairly simple, but allows for alot of leniancy. I draft a story by writing a one sentence telling what happens ( Chap.1 "Hero rides into town"). Its that simple, I know where the story is headed, but i'm still free to roam smaller details, knowing they must all convene at that pivotal point in Chap. 4-5.


              • #8
                That's a fair enough method Azariel. A bit like the classic Elizabethan five act structure. The scriptwriters for Buffy the Vampire Slayer use a five act framework and I've often wondered if this is deliberately modeled on the Elizabethan.

                The Dent formula goes into a bit more detail on expected cliffhangers/surprises and gives a fair sense of how to maintain narrative drive and tension from section to section, and how to organize your material within the frame.


                • #9
                  This is interesting, inasmuch as I have NEVER followed a formula, unless it was that Aristophanic comdey I wrote with Parabasis and parts for a chorus, and so on.

                  I like to write by the seat of my pants, so to speak.

                  Hawthonre's comments in The Custom House are apt, where he describes his impressions of the characters which were to populate The Scarlet Letter "whispering" to him. That is, he started out with a collection of vague impressions, sounds and images, and then when he sat down and figured how to link it all together the structure formed of its own accord.

                  This isn't entirely the "Romantic" claim or phenomenon (artist as shaman) that some academic critics might make it out to be. Rather, the fitting of it all together and the conscious and delebrate inquiry into "Why am I doing this? What is altogether interesting, ridiculous, wonderful, absurd, funny, ugly, curious about these notions I am hearing and seeing?"

                  One "formula" I am interested in looking at closely for some future novel is the Keltic knot....

                  Last edited by nalpak retrac; 06-08-2007, 08:28 PM.


                  • #10
                    LSN certainly does know what he's talking about (a darn sight more than I do, anyway ) and his work is invariably structurally original; usually dialogue-driven, with the action and 'scenery' experienced by the reader through the words of the characters, a technique similar to Nigel Kneale's. It's a style I like immensely, as I have a tendency to hyperbolic description and I can learn a lot from the use of dialogue and suggestion. LSN also produces unusual structures that work; a series of short stories that are essentially one-act plays or vignettes, usually concerned with the subtleties (or depravities) of the human condition under extreme circumstances. His longer pieces have an eerie quality of surrealism, with some very odd characters that the reader slowly and disturbingly realises remind them of someone they know...some choice observations of human nature wrung, dripping, from real life!
                    As per DeeCrowseer, I find a structural framework reassuring, otherwise I drift off into rambling; the Dent formula can be expanded upon to keep a tight narrative. On the whole, though, I like to slightly subvert the base formula to my purposes. I think readers generally respond better to a discernible (if only subconsciously) structure, although quite what structure the immensely successful Catch-22 used I'm not sure. Circular, whatever it was!
                    So I've not moved the discussion forward much!


                    • #11
                      Wow. I posted the initial volley in this discussion almost 2 years ago. Curious to see it resurrected after all this time. Enclave archaeology, no doubt. Perhaps Perdix & Carter found this post buried beneath a glacier in Greenland....

                      I mean no disrespect towards things like the Dent formula, or similar contraptions. I just don't use such an approach, would find it a trifle constricting I suspect, and felt a desire to know why others found such methods attractive.

                      As for Carter's Celtic knot metaphor, I know what he means. Visual or musical designs can serve as metaphors -- metaphors that might prove attractive tools for thinking about structure. The late John Brunner once used the patterns of a chess game as a structuring device. Whatever serves one's purposes.

                      Perdix is too kind to my fictional contributions, btw.



                      • #12
                        An interesting thing about pre-fab structures: there is a sense in which Perdix utilised the Dent formula for his excellent story, "The Cruel 'C'" -- but only in a sense. The story he wanted to tell, and the method he desired to employ in the telling, could not really have permitted him to shoehorn the tale into the requisite 6000 words. The Dent formula is a trifle simple, in truth, and mostly adapted to telling stories of a certain complexity; and we all know that the complexity of the intended fictional construct is what determines the ultimate length.

                        Perdix was undaunted, of course, and adapted the Dent formula into something he & I were referring to (at one point) as a triple-Dent. The final result, "The Cruel 'C'", came in around 18 000 words, which is right on target, given his modifications.

                        I suppose this meandering point is that one can sometimes use a pre-fab fictional formula as a starting point, sort of like a very general floorplan. The goal is to tell the story you want to tell, not to fit the story to a procrustean fictional bed.

                        Mes 0,02 euros.

                        Last edited by A_Non_Ymous; 06-12-2007, 12:43 AM.


                        • #13
                          [quote=L_Stearns_Newburg;94674]I suppose this meandering point is that one can sometimes use a pre-fab fictional formula as a starting point, sort of like a very general floorplan. The goal is to tell the story you want to tell, not to fit the story to a procrustean fictional bed.
                          +1 </p>And thanks for the background info on The Cruel C.


                          • #14
                            [quote=L_Stearns_Newburg;94674]I suppose this meandering point is that one can sometimes use a pre-fab fictional formula as a starting point, sort of like a very general floorplan. The goal is to tell the story you want to tell, not to fit the story to a procrustean fictional bed.+1And thanks for the background info on The Cruel C.


                            • #15
                              You're welcome, Carter.

                              Curiously, although Carter & I very often approach these questions of form & structure from opposite ends of the spectrum, we tend to converge on agreement when it comes to fundamentals.

                              This isn't really (I think) some pseudo-Hegelian principle of the thesis / antithesis / synthesis variety. I believe it's that we both recognize that there are no "rules." There are only results. We may occasionally disagree about whether certain so-called "rules" have any value, is all. And our personal aethetics look for slightly different things, which is to be expected. Each to his own taste.

                              The practice of fiction is a lot like tightrope walking without a net. Some people caper across at a frenetic pace, cartwheeling as they go; others do it carefully, one step at a time. Both sorts occasionally garner applause -- and some go SPLAT.

                              One is almost afraid to watch. It can take a strong stomach at times. :-]