Sunday, March 19, 2017

Why most writers are wrong about "formula"

Like a lot of writers, I started out with an instinctive, or maybe learned, distrust of anything with the label "formula" on it. Anything with diagrams, anything that tries to define the Elements of Story with Capital Letters, no way. Which carries an implication that writing essentially can't be taught, because those things are teaching devices, that's all. But I think somewhere deep down they might have also seemed like... ooh, dare I say it?... kind of blue-collar teaching devices. Writing as building a house. (But building a house can be an art too. Depends on how you do it.) Hack work.

But I've done it anyway. I've exposed myself...

In writing A Flame in the Night over the past two years, I have heavily used three books that profess to teach you how to write: Story by Robert McKee, The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, and The Writer's Journey by Christoper Vogler. And they are full of Capital Letters.

Story teaches, among other things, that you must identify two opposing Values that your story turns on, such as Life/Death or Love/Hate, and then identify your story's Controlling Idea as a single sentence that states which value triumphs and why. Example: "Justice prevails because the protagonist is willing to die to preserve it."

The Writer's Journey lays the framework usually called the Hero's Journey out in twelve steps such as "The Call to Adventure," "The Ordeal," and "The Road Back."

The Story Grid literally teaches you to grid your entire novel scene by scene in a spreadsheet, identifying the Values each scene turns on and including a little + or - to show whether it ends positively or negatively, etc. The author also wants you to identify your genre's Obligatory Scenes, such as the "First Kiss" scene in a romance.

Formula writing. That's it right there, isn't it? Have I turned into a hack?

Well, I apologize for the clickbaity title, which I doubt will work on anyone anyway; I'm not truly sure whether "most" writers feel this way. I just know that I did, and that I've met so very many who do. They regard books like these almost the way parents regard drugs: experimentation is much too dangerous. We've seen others get sucked in. Only the virgin mind can receive inspiration unimpeded; keep yourself pure.

Inspiration isn't a load of hooey. You're not going to hear that from me. But inspiration is also not the first thing that comes to you when you sit down with your virgin mind and your virgin textfile and lift up your spirit to commune with the Muse. Inspiration is when your eyes fly open in the middle of the night and you grip the blanket and whisper "That's it" and all hope of sleep flies out the window--and it comes after weeks and weeks of searching, digging, yearning; often months. And if there is a single actual action that my study of these "simplistic" books has compelled me to, it's been this: Keep searching. Dig deeper. You're not there yet.

Here is how I put it to Chip MacGregor, the agent whose rejection and incisive feedback inspired me to re-dig the foundations of my novel: in the digging, I struck a spring. Inspiration is a gift. We cannot build it, there is no blueprint, it is a pure, clear gift from God. And sometimes it does come unasked-for, falling from the sky. But sometimes what comes is the feeling, this sort of dissatisfaction, this pull: it's got to be somewhere around here. And then you dig for ages. And yeah, it's a pretty blue-collar endeavor sometimes. You work and work and wear yourself out. At the same time you can't make it happen, as the farmer doesn't make the wheat, as the miner doesn't make the ore. (We take things for granted too much now. Think of the old days, when farmers looked to the sky to water their fields, when miners searched and searched for a new vein.) You work and pray and hope, and then one day it's given. The spring wells up from beneath the ground. You drink.

My Capital Letter Book authors never gave me a story. They can't do that. What they really do is describe what a story looks like, so that you know whether you have one or not. (And it's actually pretty easy to fool yourself. I remember a mistake I made in my first draft of How Huge the Night. Nina and Gustav's story, a minor point of view, offered more scope for "literary" writing than the main storyline, and I showed off my stuff in it, describing the events with my most textured and compelling prose--and having no clear idea of what was going on in the character's soul. I skimmed over the surface, without knowing I was doing it, because my sentences sounded good. At the time I needed a good editor to tell me something was wrong. Now I think I would know.) They don't tell you what your theme is, just caution you that it's a problem if you come to the end and still don't know it. Your theme comes to you as you write--they'll actually tell you that. And mine did. (Is telling your theme a spoiler? I must reflect on this!) And I puzzled and puzzled over what the shape of my climax had to be, I dug and dug. I added and added to the events, knowing I hadn't gone far enough yet, as far as my Story Teachers told me I had to go. (When it comes to the heart of the novel, the climax--the part of the story where meaning is born--all they can offer, appropriately, are negatives. It's not a true climax if the character doesn't make a genuine choice. It's not a true climax if there isn't irrevocable change.) And sometimes I woke in the wee hours of the night holding one more element of it tight in my fist like a pearl I'd fished up from the depths of sleep, but I knew I didn't have it all yet. And then one day I wrote out the theme as if in a letter to someone who didn't know, and I wrote out the climax I had so far, and then all at once I was writing out the events of the true climax, things I'd never thought of before, carried along with no sense of time passing at all, just a sense of riding this blinding-bright wave, and knowing absolutely. I have no idea where it all came from. But I knew I'd come home.

So if someone tells me those books are for hacks, I don't agree. I mean, almost everything human is a mixed bag: it is possible to take, especially, the outline of the Hero's Journey and build a simplistic story on them. (I should know: my 3-year-old wanted me to read him that book I was carrying around so much, and I turned the illustrations of each of the stages into a story about a boy going off to fight a dragon for the medicine his sick mother needed. But I skipped the stage where the true climax was because I couldn't figure out what it should be! I was also really tired.) But it's also possible to use them as a roadmap for the first stages of an incredible adventure.

And OK, I sort of lied back there about having no idea where it came from, because I happen to believe in God, and therefore I have beliefs about what it means when a good gift comes from nowhere. Unless the Lord builds the city, the builders labor in vain. And there may be ways of working that shut God out. I know that, in most of life, a need to be in control does that, and a rejection of mystery and smallness and dependence--of the human condition--does that. And I suppose that's what people see in these "formula" books, an attempt to capture the ineffable, define it, pin it on a card. And I get that, I understand wariness about that. But in the end this is what I'm saying: my experience tells me that's not the case. At least it doesn't have to be. I know I took this road, and I know where it got me. So when someone tells me, with That Look in her eye, that she doesn't read those books, I'll say "OK. But I do."

And if that makes me blue-collar, great. I always did like working with my hands.


  1. I've read Story and The Writer's Journey. Found the latter uncannily valid. Also KM Weiland's books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. I like her posts with writing tips on

  2. I will look that up, thank you! Yes, the Hero's Journey can get pretty uncanny, can't it? In the old-school Joseph Campbell version distilled from old myths and legends (which I've only learned about from Wikipedia), there's a stage called "the Belly of the Whale" that has themes of going underground or into a cave, whether physically or metaphorically. I started learning the Hero's Journey a third of the way through writing the book--literally didn't know the stages before that--and guess what I already had in the manuscript, right where the Belly of the Whale stage should be? A CAVE.