In her latest Storytellers Unplugged column on screenwriting, Alexandra Sokoloff wisely wrote, “And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure.”
I nodded my head. Indeed, I know an opinion is of value if I agree with it.
And I sure do agree …
But Castle, a nitpicker sayeth, you’re always blathering on and on about quality, about the need to avoid the cliche and …
And what makes you, o picker of nits, think that the formula precludes quality or that it isn’t the engine leading to the creation thereof?
Here’s what I had to say on the subject, oh, back in 1983:
A not so far-out fantasy based on all-too-true reality:
The scene: A cocktail party. Having learned that I am a writer, she approaches. She is middle-aged, pleasant, interested in literature, enrolled in a college course called, “The More
Famous Minor Works of Recently Deceased Contemporary Authors.”
She wants to know: “What do you write?”
I tell her: “Men’s mag stories …”
” … Horror stories. Mysteries … “
She frowns and sneers.
” … Science-fiction and fantasy … ”
She frowns and sneers and grimaces.
” … Suspense. And confessions stories, yeah, I write lots of confessions …”
And now she looks as though she realizes she has French-kissed a leper!
Zap! She lets me have it: “You write formula fiction!”
And she says it like: “You promise little children candy and comic books if they get in your car…” She says it like: “You operate a lab that does painful and needless experiments on very dogs and sweet cats. . .” She says it like—
Hey, you know how she says it.
But this time, this time, uh-uh, this time,
Bucky, enough is too much.
So I leap onto a coffeetable. And I start off with a scream and I get louder and I’ve got my arms flapping like I’m trying to fly and I’m a sure contender at Oscar time for Best Performance by an Out-of-Control Lunatic as I get rolling:
“Edgar Allan Poe wrote formula fiction. He figured out the formula! There’s this story about a nutty captain looking for an albino whale—and that’s Moby Dick and you can say that Melville wrote formula stuff because it’s an adventure story, huh? And also a how-to book, should you go whaling…”
Woo! (Borrowing from the Rick Flair formula.) Am I into it! “And Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and Steve Crane! Formula,
Oh, yes, I’ve got her, Ms. Lit Crit. She is pale, near catatonic! So time for the barrage! “And Flannery O’Connor and Conrad Aiken, Charles Beaumont, Ted Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison and Paul Boles and Loren Estelman and Ray Bradbury. Fine writers. Ernest Hemingway. Blow up bridge. Bell tolls for thee. Use formula. Rest case.”
So she dared to sneer at “formula fiction,” eh? Look at her now. Right before my pleased eyes, she has turned into a pillar of salt.
A formula, you see, gets to be a formula because it works, it creates a satisfying reading experience.
A builder follows a blueprint (a formula) so he doesn’t erect a house with the basement above the kitchen. A cook follows a recipe (a formula) to create an angel food cake instead
of a molasses-guacamole-hamburger-pineapple-who-the-hell-knows. A driver follows a map (a formula) to get from here to there instead of winding up past the briar patch near where the
And you’d better hope that your surgeon is following the “surgical formula” when he’s got you on the operating table!
And, you ask, what is that formula?
Ah, there are many variations, but these days I articulate it based on comments that fine writer and teacher Brady Udall, author of THE MIRACLE LIFE OF EDGAR MINT, made in a workshop several years back.
The fiction formula: Interesting things done to and done by interesting people.
Whether we’re talking STAR WARS or that other book of battles WAR AND PEACE, if we’re following the adventures of Starman Jones throughout the galaxy or Inman on his journey back to COLD MOUNTAIN, if we’re learning of the dreams OF MICE AND MEN or the cravings of HANNIBAL, we can see that formula at work.
And in the creation of the “interesting things” and the “interesting people,” there we can utilize our knowledge of craft, our insights of the world, our abilities as—dare I say it—Artists, as we follow the formula.
Nothing to it.
Put it in here and it comes out there.
(Some of this column originally appeared as the Introduction to J. N. Williamson’s chapbook fiction collection entitled NEVERMORE, published by Maclay and Associates in 1983. I was younger then.)