Formula Gets a Bad Rap

As a reader, I appreciate books with unique storylines and characters. As a writer, I try to create unique stories and poems. So why am I also drawn to books that seem to be written according to a pre-set formula?

Yeah, I know, right? Such a no-no. Definitely not “literature.”

According to my buddy Wikipedia, formula fiction is described like this:

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. The label of formula fiction is used in literary criticism as a mild pejorative to imply lack of originality.

Still, there is a lot of comfort in finding a series of cozy mysteries where I enjoy the protagonist, the setting, and the first murder–over and over again.

Formula fiction refers to a single book or a series. A book itself can be formulaic in that it is predictable. But book series sometimes are formulaic in that they set a formula for each book of the series with the initial book. Some book series are not like this. For instance, trilogies are often completely different stories, following characters over different plotlines. But a heck of a lot of the series you see on the shelves at the library and the bookstore are formula fiction.

For instance, every Agatha Christie book I read when I was in my 20s ended on page 210. Seriously. Who knew she wrote formula fiction?!

Years ago, I liked the mix of cats and murder in The Cat Who books by Lillian Jackson Braun, so when I ran out of unread books, I turned to another cat mystery series: Mrs. Murphy by Rita Mae Brown. Mrs. Murphy is, of course, a cat that solves mysteries.  Once I read the first book in a series I like, I want to keep going in this land I know peopled by characters I know.

I’m the same way about disaster movies. Don’t give me some extravagant budget movie with Denzel and Brad (am I showing my age with them? at least I didn’t say Harrison), please. I like the cheesy ones where the mom, the dad, the boy, and the girl (sometimes 3 kids) gets separated and you know they will be back together by the end of the movie. I know just what I can count on and that the movie won’t allow something strange and “unique” to happen. I want to lie on the couch, maybe eat some popcorn, and relax.

But are reading cozies and watching low-budget disaster flicks like eating McDonald’s and bonbons? Should I figure out a way to limit my reliance on comforting formula literature and entertainment? Is consuming unique literature like eating my vegetables or swallowing my vitamins?  Maybe Nancy Drew and her cohorts ruined me and gave me a taste for formula fiction when I was just a fresh young reader. I should have read that copy of Melville’s Billy Budd I got from Scholastic instead!

The more I think about this, the more I wonder how I ever stay in “balance” in my reading!

Nancy Drew collectionWhat about you? Do you balance your reading? Do you like formula fiction or try to avoid it?



Filed under Books, Cats and Other Animals, Children's Literature, Fiction, Reading

59 responses to “Formula Gets a Bad Rap

  1. I love this post, Luanne. I think “literary” fiction (aka the book you’re supposed to admire) is like the great professor we had at college. He/she enriches your life, but he’s kept at a respectful distance.

    Genre or formula fiction is like your best friend or a good husband. The feelings you have for them run deeper than beautifully written prose. They’re dependable and what you remember most from your life. Even some childhood picture books tap into this kinship.

    What we consider great literature changes over time, but in my opinion great characters remain great. Most of my favorite characters are found in the books that don’t make it into the 100 books you must read category.

    At this point in my life I read for pleasure–history, literary fiction and my old favorites. If I feel no kinship, I stop and look elsewhere.

    • Adrienne, what a great analogy. Hey, you rock at analogies btw! I’ve got favorite characters from both camps. For instance, Gertie from The Dollmaker, Scout from Mockingbird, people like that are so much more fully dimensional than Nancy Drew or Hannah the cook and bottle washer at Nancy’s house or Carson Drew (her father). But look at how I still remember the latter anyway! They are more like favorite sit com characters, I guess ;).

      • My favorite “serious” characters are the ones in Middlemarch. I think I love every character in that book (though I struggled with some of George Eliot’s political references. Dorothea is so good and flawed.

        I don’t know what category I’d put The Little House on the Prairie books. They’re not predictable. They’re elegant in their simplicity, but deep with meaning and sentiment. The tv show just couldn’t capture Laura’s books.

        • I think the Little House books, especially some of them, are quality children’s literature and don’t have formulaic qualities to them. Middlemarch was a good book, but not as memorable to me as many other 19th c. British novels, for some reason. Maybe I had to read it too quickly for class heh.

  2. Reblogged this on Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained–Books & Writing at Middlemay Farm and commented:
    I love the question Luanne posts today. Happy pondering.

  3. Formula and genre fiction are what’s marketable. I don’t like that. It is as if you are expected to be original within guidelines because people do have expectations on the script. When you set your books to sell on any market platform, they always ask you to select a genre…and I always have trouble with that. When I’m writing, I just want to tell a story. I’m not thinking about a formula.

    • Formula is also related to genre, I think, in that as a writer you have to fit your book into a preset box of sorts. This can feel very limiting, especially if you are driven by passion for your story. But I still think genre and formula are different. You can write an original story in any genre–it doesn’t have to be formulaic. But you can also write genre-benders (not same thing as gender-benders LOL) and there is a place for those but I’m sure it’s true that the “experts” want you to choose a genre and stick with it. I’m not one to like “boxes.”

  4. I never thought about it until I found that I could predict endings. No I’m not psychic. It happened with Janet Evanovich. I love her books because they make me laugh out loud. Grandma is hilarious but not so off the top that it’s unbelievable (I had a friend with an aunt just like her). I love the boyfriends too. However, after I read 15 of them some of the magic was gone. I still pick one up when I need a good laugh though. Lately my problem has been getting through a book. I have noticed that sometimes books stall about 3/4 of the way through. I’ll sneak a peek at the ending and if it’s what I predict, I’ll ditch the book. If not, I’ll read to figure out how the author got there. I guess I’m a bad reader!

    • Yeah, I know what you mean. I too get bored after awhile. I love the comfort, especially when I am feeling stressed, but enough is enough at a certain point. I just realized as I wrote this that I did appreciate Sue Grafton books because the protagonist and the setting slightly evolved with each new book–and the stories were not the same. In those I got the “comfort,” but also they made me think.

  5. I avoided Dick Francis for years, came to him late, and found him enjoyable. Mind you, I have to leave my bookmarks in, to remind me that I’ve read them

    • Derrick, the visual of leaving your bookmarks in to remind you that you’ve read a book really struck me. I too have a hard time remembering if I’ve read a certain murder mystery or seen a certain disaster movie. It’s so disappointing to be about 15 or 20 pages into a book before I start to wonder if I’ve read it before. What a great idea. I haven’t read Dick Francis. Is that science fiction? I loved science fiction when I was young, then moved away from it, but sometimes I feel as if I want to go back and read what’s new in the field.

  6. I love a great story, and I’ve done the research too. Formula seems to lurk behind the curtain. Crazy, right? But true. It does make a writer think. 🙂

    • Windy, I’ve never paid a lot of attention to formula because I am more of an intuitive learner, but I am thinking I ought to know more about it. That said, what I love about Stuart’s book is how it is so NOT formula!!!

  7. I love what Adrienne says in her comment: “Genre or formula fiction is like your best friend or a good husband. The feelings you have for them run deeper than beautifully written prose. They’re dependable and what you remember most from your life.” I feel I’m fairly balanced in my reading, between genre fiction and literary fiction, although the lines between the two are so blurry. This is a crazy world we live in and so perhaps formulaic writing serves to give readers an escape without threatening them with chaos. Still, even with a cozy mystery, even when you know the hero will survive, there’s enough mystery, enough of a thrill to feel like you’re living dangerously but with a warm, fuzzy safety net under you 🙂 I don’t think too much (any more) about the categories of the fiction I enjoy. Like you, when I find a series I like, I tend to stick with it. I envy authors who can create a world that I keep wanting to come back to, who can create characters that I come of think of as old friends.

    • Marie, I have this theory that genre fiction relies heavily on formulas, but that lots of genre fiction is not formulaic at all. But when somebody goes for “their” genre, maybe they often prefer it to be formulaic!! For instance, I love mysteries, but I seem to gravitate toward the cozies even though I’ve read some stunning non formulaic mysteries by people like Elizabeth George and also “true crime” books. I used to wonder about why we had to label books by genre, but sometimes you have to know how to read a book you start. What if you are in the mood for humor and it turns out to be a grim historical novel? You might like the book more if you know ahead of time what genre it is? But that can be very limiting for writers.

      • I do understand that genre can help readers select the books they want to read, but, yes, it is limiting for writers who might want to push the boundaries.

  8. In the 19th century, George Polti wrote about 36 basic plot lines that all writers use. If he is correct, then there is no such thing as nonformulaic fiction/drama.

    Joseph Campbell wrote, in 1949, about “The Hero with a thousand Faces.” He considered the archetypal-hero formula the only one of value. We see it again and again in fine–and not so fine–litereature and movies.

    Can writing in a series be good? Yes, of course. I marvel at the wit and prose in “The Cat Who” series (especially the earlist books) and “The Burglar Who” series. And I love Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Mysteries, which I consider art. And how about the astonishing psychogical insights in the Inspector Gamache mysteries by Louise Penny?

    • WJ, your comment is really fascinating. It reminds me of something. I took an online class in play writing. The professor was very esteemed (and he was good) and he suggested that to shape my plot I should find a Shakespearean plot that worked for my story and USE it!!! What do you think about that idea?

      • Do you mean fits your memoir? I suspect that all of Shakespeare’s plots are on Polti’s lists, so I’d use Polti’s list instead because each plot is so boiled down. It might be helpful to read through the Polti list and see if one of them makes you say, “Aha!” On the other had, your story might be a hybrid.

  9. I am as much a fan of easy reads as I am more complex ones! Never above a formula over here. Also, as a teacher there is so much slamming of formula writing, yet without learning it as a foundation students never learn how to organize their thoughts!

    • Gosh, I LOVE that you wrote this about formulas helping students learn! Yes! That is really cool, and now that I think about it: of course, you are right!

      • It is very popular among non-teacher educator/legislators to slam the teaching of the five paragraph essay, and while I do believe students should be weaned off it by the end of high school, that doesn’t mean we should allow them to write without structure to start with. And honestly for some of my student they will always need it! /soapbox 🙂

  10. Funny, I’ve been struggling with this too, drawn more to genre fiction lately than literary. Sometimes we just need a good rousing read that carries us along and entertains without having to work too hard or think much about what we’re reading. Pure pleasure in that sense – “mind-candy” perhaps. But some of the genre I love most doesn’t see to be tied too closely to formula–I’m thinking Outlander, Game of Thrones, even The Hunger Games. They push a little against the envelope. I never got into the cozy mysteries, but like you, I was a big fan of Nancy Drew.

    • I do think there is a different between genre and formula, although definitely LOTS of overlap. Maybe much genre fiction is formulaic but definitely not all. So maybe the stories you mention are not formulaic, but rely on genre (or maybe genre overlap in each case!!!). That said, maybe jeannieunbottled above is right. I was reading another blog the other day and suddenly realized Harry Potter is almost Luke Skywalker.
      Now mind candy is another issue, maybe. I’m guess here because I have only seen the show and not read the books. Game of Thrones might not be formulaic (or is it?), but you don’t have to think too much and can just enjoy.

  11. I tend to read a lot of thrillers and mysteries, and like you, I find the formula comforting. When I open the book, I know what I’m going to get and know I’ll be entertained (well, hopefully I will). But I do try to balance it out. That’s why my book club is great. It gets me to read less conventional books, ones I might not otherwise pick up. The same goes for Indies. I read a fair amount of those, and they often don’t fit a specific pattern. Gets me out of my comfort zone.

    Excellent post!

    • Carrie, a book club is a great way to introduce readers to books they wouldn’t ordinarily read! Great idea. Can you share any titles you remember from your book club? Just wondering what they come up with. And how they come up with the titles, too!

      • We recently read Tinkers, which I didn’t care for. We’re going to read All the Light We Cannot See soon. And of course, beyond that, I can’t remember off hand. Such is my memory…

        • OK, these are books I have not found on my own. Just looked up Tinkers. Wow, I want to see how that is done even if I don’t like it! It’s on my list now! Viv down below mentioned this 2nd book, so I want to read that one, too!

  12. Sometimes I’m looking for a literary experience, sometimes I want entertainment. Same with movies. You can like art films (none of which I can remember the titles of) and Star Wars. It’s OK. We all have different moods and tastes.

    Formula books will be better once I figure out how to write one …

    • There is something in the mood thing. The more stressed I am, the more I want formula fiction. then when my mind needs more expansion, I want something more enriching.
      LOVE your last comment. Haha, so funny. And I SO get it. Not the figuring out, but how you feel!

  13. I don’t get a chance to read as much as I would like to, so I will go with your movie example. I love movies. the scarier, the better and if it’s a formula picture, I know I will be safe. Like you, this is just fine.

    • I am always embarrassed to admit how I like cheesy disaster movies, but they must appeal to somebody else besides me! I’m not as into actual horror as that kind of turns me off, but scary disaster, YES. And why haven’t there been more of those on TV lately, I’d like to know!!!!

  14. I don’t think there’s a should to it. You should read what you want to read. I don’t normally like “formula” fiction, or chain restaurants, for that matter. Occasionally though, I’ve enjoyed a series. Sometimes it’s like comfort food. 🙂

    • Merril, I love how you got the chain restaurant mention in there. The restaurant is almost always better at original restaurants run by the owner. And when a big equity firm buys out a small restaurant chain, they really take the food and service down several notches. But the chains do certain comfort foods and drinks well–and people know what they will get, no matter what city they are in. People take comfort in that! I hope you keep holding out against the invasion of the chains and the formulas, Merril! Somebody has got to!

      • I only eat at chain restaurants when others insist–so almost never. 🙂 Unfortunately, in areas around malls, I think the rents become too high for most independent places.

  15. When I was younger, I very much enjoyed formula fiction. Now, it bores me. I’ll enjoy the first few books by that author, but then I break the formula and the ending is spoiled for me.
    Still those books do very well, and people should read what they like!

    • I think that I go through periods where I like formula fiction and then get bored and read more challenging literature and then eventually go back. But I do think that my formula reading is tied somewhat to stress as it’s a stress-buster for me, to a certain extent. Good for you for being bored by it! That means that you’re always out there, expanding your mind. In a positive sense of course ;)!

      • I dunno, I think I still like discovering them, but when I figure it out, I lose interest. It’s not like I’m above reading formula fiction — Like no one told me Jodi Picoult was formula fiction, but three books in…you know? So I still enjoy the heck out of the first few 😉

  16. As a reader and a writer, my mind is geared more toward formulas. I’ve always been a ruler followers, I guess.
    Growing up, Agatha Christie was one of my favorites. I really should re-visit a few of her books.

    • I guess her books are classics of formula fiction! But of course her mystery that goes against formula is truly her best book, which is interesting. So many books to read and so many books to REread. Sigh.

  17. I am so glad you mentioned that formula plots are not all bad, Luanne. It is in the presentation of details and character development where the story rises above its formula. Great post. I am one who loves the Cat mystery books, we have spoken of them, which helps me to feel a level of comfort and familiarity. This is also true of historical fiction, where I feel I have been to a place since I have read about it, so once I find out how the character fits into the plot, I can really feel part of the story line.

    • Great characters are one of the most memorable aspects of books, I think. Qwill and Polly and Koko and Yum Yum :). I like historical fiction, too, and was thinking how I don’t read as much as I would like to. Just so many books to read! (Thank goodness!)

      • Thanks, Luanne, for allowing me to include our Qwill and cats in this conversation. (I may be in a little lighter mood, just thinking about them!)
        The recent book in L.J. Braun’s books I read, the cats were making a habit of hiding under Asian rugs, since they were scared of a ghost. I think the playfulness in the story line also relieves the “tensions of the day.”
        I used to like a lot of series of books, starting with Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Hardy Boys, Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew… probably there is a formula, to a certain degree, in all series of books. To know how to do this and be successful takes talent!

  18. I read books of the formula type – Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, Charles Todd mysteries, Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series and Alan Furst’s spy novels. I love books that are out-of-the box as well – “Room”, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”. I like “The Book Thief” and “All the Light We Cannot See” for views on history. I really like variety as long as books have strong characters.

    • Carrie above mentioned All the Light We Cannot See, too, so I will have to put that on my list. I’ll keep these others in mind, too! Thank you for the suggestions, Viv! With so many books in the world to read, I will have to live forever ;)!

  19. I suppose I like formula, to a point, now that you mention it. But I love books and films with a psychological twist, something I didn’t see coming. Although I suppose they follow a formula that I like too. Knowing the characters already in a series but with a different story is sort of comforting. You crack me up Luanne..Denzel and Brad! I would have loved it if you had mentioned Harrison 😀

    • Hah, I’m glad you too appreciate the old guys, Sherri ;). Bruce is another oldster. I’m so glad we are on first name basis with them, too! Psychological twists can be fun. Also I like some really original stuff. One of my favorite movies is a very old one called The List of Adrian Messinger. Have you ever heard of it? So amazing. But not comfort food!!!

      • Oh I do, I do, haha 🙂 Bruce is great isn’t he? I’ve not heard of that movie but the very fact alone that you say it’s not comfort food makes me want to watch it right away!!

        • The movie is really cool–lots of disguises! Bruce is wonderful, but I saw him on a commercial the other day and he is getting old LOL.

  20. I’m like you–periods of stress in my life send me to formula fiction. I go through periods when all I want are Jan Karon’s Mitford cozies or Jane Austen or P.G.Woodhouse’s humor. Folks sometimes feel like they need to apologize for this, but lots of writers or books we esteem–such as Dickens or Don Quixote–were the “popular” fiction of their time. I say enjoy!

    • Good point about Dickens who now seems a fixture of 19th century Brit Lit! I didn’t realize that about Don Quixote. Or maybe I forgot. But such great stories!!!

  21. I love how you posed this question. I’ve read fabulous points about the misunderstanding of “formula fiction” and I have to say I agree. Although it may go unnoticed, all novels stem from Shakespear and biblical proses (and other literary foundations of course). These references are what give literature today a formulaic aspect, but I see it as a way to see how so many pieces of literature that stem from the same source can differ so significantly in insight.

    A new page has been started for The Gold Quill and I would love for you to submit some of your pieces and/or questions!

    • Thanks so much for stopping by! Yes, there is definitely a formulaic aspect to the work of Shakespeare and to the Bible. I can see that. And then what other writers have done with these same forms and stories . . . . The Gold Quill founds like such an interesting forum.

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