There is a formula for writing novels. Many of them, in fact. You can look up tons of them on the internet. One that particularly comes to mind is the “Hero’s Journey.” In 12 easy steps, we see the normal person gets thrown into an alternate reality, struggles and must cope with this new state of reality, and then after many ups and downs, finally overcomes the problems with the new reality and triumphs to become a hero.
Academia especially enjoys this idea of writing using a formula. We write our term papers all the same. It’s easy! You must have an introduction, a thesis statement, at least three proofs of your thesis, a conclusion and an outgoing sentiment, and just like that, your term paper is written!
If I’m coming off as sarcastic about this, it’s because I am. I don’t much like using formulas in my fiction writing. I think it’s important to understand the basics of fiction writing for your genre. You can look at a formula to see how it should be structured, and to give you clues about what needs to be included in the plot in order to craft a complete novel. If you’re stuck, looking at a formula might give you ideas on what should be included next. In fact, formulas are often incredibly useful for addressing plot holes before they become actual holes in your story, or trying to figure out your novel’s pacing, because you do need to know what your characters are building up to, and how to get them there.
However, using a formula as a strict measuring tool is also a dangerous thing, and has its downsides as well. One of them, right off the top of my head, is predictability. We’ve all been there. You hear a song on the radio that you’ve never heard before, but within a few lines, you already pretty much know what the singer is going to say next, or how the chord will progress. Or maybe you’re reading a popular book, and you think to yourself early on about what is likely going to happen to a character, and then several pages or chapters later, it does, and you’re like, “Yep, I called it.” If you use a formula to the letter, what you will sometimes find is that your readers will also be able to predict your novel. It’s like every episode of Scooby Doo, where you just know who the criminal is long before “those meddling kids” come along to expose them. It takes all the fun out of it.
Formulas get overdone, to the point where anybody can predict how it will play out. What I enjoy reading are books where I’m twenty pages from the end and I still don’t know how this will ever wrap itself up, but then it does. It’s a miracle! I enjoy books where unexpected things happen constantly, or are irregular enough that I don’t notice. When your reader notices that your books, chapters, or pacing is placed just so, they become predictable, and the reader will lose interest.
Another thing that is bad about using formulas is that it takes a lot of the creativity out of the project. Have you ever had an idea for a scene or a bit of dialogue that was just genius, but you weren’t really sure where to put it? Well, if you’re using a formula, I have bad news for you. You won’t have room for it anywhere, even if it’s entirely relevant. Yep, sorry, if it can’t be written into your already tight plot schedule, you can kiss it goodbye.
Don’t get me wrong. A lot of your scenes are going to get cut anyway if they don’t further your characters or plot. I’ve deleted entire chapters that I liked but served no real purpose. The problem is, when you use a formula, there are scenes that absolutely have to be in your work, whether you like them or not, and everything else is usually considered filler. So there goes that adorable love scene, that witty bit of dialogue, that awesome fight you just choreographed in your head. Do your characters sometimes look down their noses at you and decide to go off in their own direction? Well too bad. You better keep them on the path you’ve chosen, not the one they want to be on.
This is getting a little wordy, but the main point is, while it is really useful to know how novels are written, and see how plot points get filled out, using a formula can sometimes take the fun and creativity right out of writing your novel, making it crappy to have to write.