Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tired of the Same Old Formulas?

John Ramsey Miller

A friend of mine recently said that like Westerns, Thriller plots and characters by totally different authors seem to be the same five pounds of words tossed through slightly different fans.

Okay, in Westerns there were only a handful of plots and they pretty much all fit into the Zane Gray/ Louis L’Amour formula. I read and love Westerns, and I always have. I like them because they take me back to a simpler time. The cussing was softer, the men were bad or good with the occasional shade of gray. You could see character arcs coming as soon as the characters were introduced. You know what to expect, like walking into a Burger King. I loved Appaloosa by Robert Parker, a new Western, but not really. The stories tend to be one of a few we’re all familiar with. A newly arrived stranger, a school teacher, a greedy cattle baron who assumes the teacher is going to marry him, and she is fooled into thinking he is a rich and a good guy and would have wed him except for the stranger gets to town who shows her what the baron is really like… Then there’s the trouble-hating stranger come to town (maybe from the Civil War) or to a ranch run by a beautiful woman who is being pushed off or who has a cattle baron wanting her land and perhaps even her hand in marriage… and the stranger is there to right a wrong because he made a battlefield promise to the woman’s dying husband (or her son) to do it… and although he has sworn not to use a gun never ever never again he has to use the dreaded gun once again to put the baron into the barren soil. Then there’s the bad guy (think army soldier sent to kill Indians) who through some sort of life-altering spiritual interaction with the not at all savage savages, just misunderstood, savages becomes a friend of the tribe, who are pure souls and helps fight the evil other just like he once was. That, with a few variations, about covers it. All that’s left are the obligatory shootouts, dialog, knife fights, innocent kisses, rescuing someone who is vulnerable from a terrible and hopeless situation… You all know the stories, and I never get tired of them. Louis and Zane are the undisputed masters of that genre.

Not only are there formulas to every genre, but publishers and editors are loathe to allow an author to stray very far from the formula of his or her genre. And even if the editor agrees, the marketing/sales department usually casts the deciding vote. Editors edit errant manuscripts back into the fold with strokes from a red pen. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, if an editor buys a thriller, the publisher expects a thriller to appear on the shelves, so… I’ve always been told, and I know this from my personal experience, that readers expect an author to give them a consistent series of offerings. They don’t want a Thriller followed by a Mystery, or anything too far off the track of what they’ve read from that author. I have fans that loved Winter Massey and have read the non-Massey books but I know they didn’t enjoy them as much.

File under “Nothing new under the sun.” According to George Ploti there are only 36 dramatic situations possible in the human condition. I have owned that book (a 1st Edition) since the early 1980s, and they are all in there. I suggest every serious author read through it as it is great reference and perhaps a creative stimulus. It’s a very short book and I think it’s still in print. I’ll save you a search and perhaps the cost of the book. The 36 Dramatic Situations are outlined there and it’s certainly worth checking out:

Okay, any thriller will have at least a loose adherence to the formula, but it’s the differences that separate forgettable Thrillers from the memorable. It’s the uniqueness of characters, how intriguing the story is, the surprises, and hopefully the reader will be trying to second guess the author––hopefully without too much success. A home run is a reader who “knows” they have it figured out, and the author sets off a bomb of a jerked rug. The truth is the novel genre formulas we writers adhere to are in place not merely because publishers demand it, but more because the readers who buy the books find familiarity comforting in an unsure world. You’re not likely to change the formulas, but if you aren’t comfortable with the formula for a say a Thriller, you can always change to a Mystery, Romance, or maybe even a Western.


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  2. Formulas are formulas because they work. You don't experiment with penicillin. You can't make an omelette by cracking watermelons.

    It's the spices you add that make the omelette uniquely your own. Miller is right that it's primarily characters that are the spice of originality, along with fresh twists and turns.

  3. Good points, John! You post makes me think of all the times I've seen the basic plot of Romeo and Juliet executed in vastly different ways. Also Cinderella. The basic stories can always be reinterpreted in fresh ways.