Formulaic writing: What does that mean?

I’m lurking in writing groups and on social media way more than I should be, but there are days where you just need to sit with a cup of coffee and scroll. I admit, I like a little discourse with my coffee along with my chocolate creamer, and like the engagement questions thrown about on that bird app all the time, I like to ruffle feathers, too. My most recent, and I think most successful as it garnered more engagement than most of my tweets in the past was this one:

One of the most surprising things people said was that studying the market that way leads for formulaic writing. You can scroll through the replies yourself if you want: I’m not interested in calling anyone out because this actually is a common way of thinking.

So what is formulaic writing:

In popular culture, formula fiction is literature in which the storylines and plots have been reused to the extent that the narratives are predictable. It is similar to genre fiction, which identifies a number of specific settings that are frequently reused.

Formula fiction - Wikipedia

Personally, I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. We all know there are only seven plots out there, and we reuse those plots over and over.

Many academics, most notably author Christopher Booker, believe there are only seven basic narrative plots in all of storytelling – frameworks that are recycled again and again in fiction but populated by different settings, characters, and conflicts. Those seven types of story are:

Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
The Quest
Voyage and Return

Obviously there is a lot of room to twist these plots into your own story, and we all do as thousands of books are published every month. Having seven plots is very much like writing romance using tropes. There is no right or wrong way to do it, and as a writer, you are free to twist them in any way you want. Why Ali Hazelwood got so much flak for revealing in a Goodreads interview that she wrote one of her books with the tropes her agent suggested will never not make me speechless. If you want to read the article, you can look here.

Regardless of what her agent suggested, it’s still her book, her characters, her writing style, her voice. It’s not any different than a romance author digging into a fishbowl full of little slips of paper and pulling out a trope that they want to write their next book around. (I really should get on that only one bed.)

So why is there so much dislike when it comes to writing this kind of thing? Authors want to think of themselves as artists first–their books are works of art, and writing to market is like a painter using a paint-by-numbers kit. There’s no originality, no creative exploration at play. Which I think is a load of crap. People crotchet use patterns, so do people who sew quilts. People who make clothing can use patterns too–are they any less talented than the designers who create fashions and dress models who strut the catwalk?

We fear writing books that are predictable (read: boring), but if every romance author had that fear, we would never write anything. There is nothing more predictable than a 3rd act break up and a happily ever after. But in the romance genre, that’s the point. Romance readers want that and expect that, and there is hell to pay in nasty reviews if an author says their book is a romance but it doesn’t end happily (that’s a love story, by the way).

There’s a snobbishness about all of it, but there is value in not reinventing the wheel. Why build a graphic from scratch when you can use a Canva template? We see book covers all the time using a Canva template. We search newsletter and blog prompts for things to write about. We even ask ChatGPT for his ideas. There is no true originality out there anymore, and I guess that’s the point. Authors who think they are being original like to lord it over those who aren’t, but let me tell you. I’m lazy. You work your ass off for your mixed genre book with your ten points of view, and I’ll be over here having fun playing with tropes I know readers are going to want to read.

I tweeted that because it never will never cease to amaze me how much authors want their work read, how much authors want sales to show up on their sales dashboards, but whenever they ask how other authors do it, they shun the answer! The answer is right there, and it gets completely ignored, or worse, authors are written off as selling their souls or writing subpar work.

There’s a science in writing to market, to writing books with beats. That’s why there are books out there that tell you how to do it. Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes is popular, so is Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. You can read more about what makes a book a bestseller The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. Books written in this way give readers what they want: a feel good read. That’s why “they” say you shouldn’t genre hop when you’re trying to build an audience. You want to consistently deliver books your readers want, and what they know they’ll like.

For more on formulaic writing, you can look at this article–they did a better job explaining it than I did. Formulaic Books: Faulty or Fabulous?

I don’t think I’ll be spending much time on Twitter anymore if the changes Musk threatened us with takes place. I don’t have the money to pay for a checkmark–I’d rather save that money for ads and promos. My life will probably be better for it, and I’m slowly following more people on Instagram so I don’t entirely lose touch with all my friends. Maybe my blood pressure will go down when I’m not constantly bombarded with idiotic ideas or not-so-subtle insults about my writing.

Anyway, this third book is going well, but I’m not going to finish by the end of the month like I hoped. I’m not feeling good again. For just a little while I had a time where my girlie issues weren’t such a big deal, but I had a flare up last week that sent me to the clinic. All my test results came back negative, so it’s just my body not cooperating and there’s not much I can about it except try to ease the symptoms as there doesn’t seem to be a cure. I sympathize with anyone trying to write with a chronic issue, but it does give me something else to think about. I’ll just have to be a little more liberal with the pain meds–I try not to take them if I can help it, but there’s no point in playing the martyr either.

That is all I have for this post. I hope you had a good holiday if you celebrated and have a wonderful week!

1 thought on “Formulaic writing: What does that mean?

  1. I’ve recently started engaging on Reddit after lurking there a few years. r/selfpublish and r/writers are pretty cool communities of writers, similar to how Twitter used to be. The app also introduces you to similar communities like r/Screenwriting which I find really interesting because of the similarities and differences from novel writing.


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