Formulae

To begin, I will discuss hamburgers. What has this to do with formulae in books? Well not a lot, I just felt like playing some hunger games.

Your basic burger has a few essential elements that exist for it to be a burger. You have the meat patty, the cheese, the bread bun, the sauce and probably some salad. You can get a burger with these elements from many different places. You might go to McDonalds or a similar fast food place and get a general, mass produced burger. Yes, the sauce was more likely made in a chemistry lab than a kitchen, and the patty’s content of actual beef is questionable, and the cheese is processed, and you will get the very same quality burger at pretty much every single instance of that fast food place (they don’t call them mass produced for nothing), but fundamentally there is nothing essentially wrong with this. You can eat it and enjoy it, and there are times when it might be very welcome indeed.

Of course, you could go to a more serious restaurant and get a more serious type of burger with the same elements, but with a massive shift in quality. You could have a patty made of prime steak, locally sauced farmhouse cheese, and handmade sauce on a fresh baked bun. If you’re used to this gourmet type of burger, you will probably think less of the mass produced, fast food variety, for all you might still enjoy them for what they are.

Of course, not all burgers come with just cheese and sauce. Even in McDonalds, you might have one with bacon, different sorts of relish, chicken or fish instead of beef. Some burgers might take the concept to whacky levels with jerk sauce, pickles, cream, maple syrup, and goodness knows what. Usually, the more experimental, crazier combinations will come with better quality individual ingredients, though not necessarily always, and of course some experiments might or might not be successful.

As you might have guessed, all this talk about burgers is a metaphor. What’s a meta for? Making people think you’re being clever when you’re actually just lying badly. The fantasy genre has always been full of formulae and archetypes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s hopeless children with special powers, wizards with beards telling innocent peasants their destiny, or square jawed space captains rocketing into the unknown bravely travelling where nobody had previously travelled. Epic and high fantasy in particular is prey to such tropes and formulae, indeed pre-Tolkien most high fantasy was of the Conan the Barbarian, extremely mythological and archetypal sort. I have often thought in fact that aside from his amazing body of work Tolkien’s greatest gift to the fantasy genre as a whole was showing how an epic, high fantasy tale of good and evil, war and magic can also include human, flawed, and likeable characters.

To an extent, with the rise of role playing games these archetypes reappeared somewhat, since obviously for a role playing system people would need to choose a class or type of character to play, and such classes and types are now almost archetypes of their own from leather clad two weapon wielding rangers to effete, glass canon mages.

It’s not just in epic fantasy however that these character archetypes are used. Noire detectives chasing after a fem fatale, rogues with a heart of gold (and possibly the fastest ship in the galaxy), tough lady gunslingers or beautiful courtiers (of both genders) playing dangerous politics plus a host of others, indeed odds are if you can describe it coherently with a couple of adjectives and a noun and people know what you’re talking about, it’s a character archetype!

Neither do these archetypes have to be specifically character based either. An ending that returns to status quo, a huge battle in which the young protagonist’s family are slain leaving them free to journey into the wilds, a monster lurking in the dark, a young hero rescuing a beautiful and mysterious lady whom he falls instantly in love with, a magic MacGuffin which the evil forces are searching for to gain ultimate power, there are far too many of such tropes to list, indeed there is a large and extensive website devoted to just that endeavour.

I have often seen someone dismiss a book as “formulaic” or “just a typical example” but one question I have found myself wondering about is why is this a bad thing? After all, just as a person can enjoy a standard burger of the cheese and sauce and patty variety described above, surely a person can enjoy a formulaic book?

Some people directly equate formulae with sexist, racist, homophobic or other negative cultural stereotypes. This might be true for several formulae, although I believe myself the relationship between formulae and stereotypes is a little more complex (particularly since critics of this sort often concentrate on their favourite cultural stereotypes and completely forget many others) and unless a person really stretches the idea of harmful assumptions there are many formulae and tropes that fall outside them, particularly in a genre that can explore any and all other worlds, societies or circumstances. After all it’s a little difficult to claim how the idea of a school for teaching magic or an alien invasion is in itself racist or sexist.

For myself, the issue that really irritates me with formulae is very simply one of predictability, and how that predictability alienates me from the characters emotions and reactions to the plot.

It doesn’t matter how much Count Von Cloakenstache cackles as he ties Princess Pauline to the railway tracks if I know the actual chances of her being hit by the train are zero I feel no tension whatsoever. I have in fact been divorced from the action entirely.
This doesn’t even have to be about life or death situations, if I know two characters will end up together right from the boy sights girl moment, I have little investment in their growing romance because I can see where it will end. There is no use the boy thinking “does she love me” when I know simply from the fact their eyes have met across a crowded room that she does, and even if she is set to marry someone else that it will never actually happen and she’ll end up with the boy after all.

For some people this level of predictability makes for safety, but for me I prefer a world where characters are not safe, where bad things happen to good people, and where I simply do not know where the story will go, where what happens to the characters for the first time is also being read about for the first time by me.

Like the creators of the crazier types of burger mentioned above of course, some writers thrive on knocking formulae on their heads.

I’m pretty sure that not only would George R R Martin have Pauline squished by the train, but also he’d have Dan McDashing end up receiving a severe injury while trying to save her and then (just to mess with our minds even further) reveal that Pauline’s family had actually been involved in the bloody murder and torture of the Countess Von Cloakenstache, a fact Pauline was fully aware of.

However, I find it isn’t just a question of equating how good a book is with how much an author can divert from formulae, or indeed how nasty she/he can be to the characters in a book. Indeed some modern writers have made dark and depressing torment of their casts almost a formula in itself (I was greatly impressed when Patrick Rothfuss refused to follow this particular track in Name of the Wind).

After all, some experiments, like the above mentioned burgers with cream might simply not work, while on other occasions a book that is deeply formulaic and has a lot of standard tropes I might find I am completely emotionally invested in despite my ability to predict it’s plot.

This is because of the most major part of cooking or writing – ingredients! It doesn’t matter whether your cooking a classic burger or one that is wildly off track, if you start with low grade ingredients, however good your recipe or your idea, you’re not going to make it come out well. In the same way, if a book  stands out in its writing style and the portrayal of its characters, if an author can make me feel that sense of connection, tension and emotional investment with the characters even though I am fully aware what turns the plot will take, then the book will succeed despite the fact that it contains tropes or formulae.

A perfect example of this is the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels from the sixties. Sexist as heck, jingoistic in parts, racist, homophobic in places. Villains with world dominating plans, gadgets, a hero who is close to invincible and who always gets the girl, indeed the books and the accompanying films have inspired a whole genre and countless tropes in themselves. The problem? Fleming writes so dam well. I defy anyone to read the centipede scene in Doctor No and not get a creep on the skin, to not get a little romantic at James’s courtship of Tatiana on the Orient Express in From Russia with love, or not cheer James on during the underwater battle in Live and Let Die. The writing is exotic, exacting and colourful, indeed even though I largely gave up on spy fiction and action thrillers after my mid teens and switched to fantasy and science fiction full time, the James Bond novels are the only things from that period of my reading life I have re-read since.

So, formulae are like anything else (burgers included), fine if done well, occasionally fun to experiment with, but ultimately it all comes down to the ingredients. If a person just slaps something together out of pre created, low grade materials, like McDonalds, you’re probably going to end up with something sweet, none too satisfying and mass produced – okay if your mildly hungry but probably not something that will stick with you once it’s passed through your system.

Likewise, be your formula ever so creative, if your ingredients are bad, you’re not going to impress. However, for someone who can source the best quality ingredients, prime characters, high quality dialogue, a full, satisfying plot with a well paced flow, it doesn’t matter if they’re working to a classic theme or experimenting wildly, it’ll still come out as most tasty.

7 Replies to “Formulae”

  1. @Leslie, your comment brings me on to another very delicate matter I’ve been thinking about, which is the relationship of “taste” and “craft”, Ie, what opinion is based on a person’s judgement and experience and what opinion based on a less reasonable dislike.
    This is where I hold a rather unpopular view,sinse while I’m not a pure elitest of the “there is good literature/music/food/anything else but their are fools who do not appreciate it school”, I do think it’s possible with many things to distinguish the educated, from the uneducated pallet and to understand which of your opinions are based just on an association of your own experience, and which based on an inteligeable set of characteristics which you see in the given work and could explain to another person coherently, ie, standard features of a “good work, though of course to what extent a given work holds those features is a matter of careful opinion and likely something which people could have an interlectual arguement and a discussion about, (btw, I studdied this sort of thing in Aesthetics, ie, the philosophy of art and beauty so it’s a question I find interesting and one I’ve thought about).

    To go back to burgers, I happen to find that certain food textures such as tomatoes and soft fruite do not agree with me. I don’t know why, they just make me feel sick.
    My brother described a burger to me from the restaurant Gourmet burger kitchin where he goes often (you see where I got burgers from).
    It was a specialty summer themed one with hot sauce, pulled pork, red onions and apricots. Now, Apricots would make me ill, and that would not be a burger I’d appreciate, however knowing what I do about the balances of flavour I can see why! the apricots were there, sinse you have a salty flavour in the pulled pawk with a bit of spice, so need something sweet to temper them, also you need a different texture to make sure the thing wasn’t all meat. I also know myself well enough to understand that my avertion to the Apricots isn’t intrinsically because apricots themselves or bad or a fault on the part of the chef, but something which is entirely mine, where as my opinion of the balance of the ingredients or whether the steak had been properly cooked is based on my knolidge and experience as a foody :D.

    Even on your analogy of one rotten slice of tomatoe, I’d say this is one thing that distinguishes taste and craft or the more discerning from the less discerning pallet, sinse there is a difference in experience between someone who says “well the chease and bun and meat were okay but the tomato was rather off which spoilt it for me” ad someone who just says “yuck!” :D.

    Unfortunately I know whenever this subject comes up you get the rabid opinionators, who use “it’s my opinion! it’s all just opinion!” like a club to beat anyone who disagrees with them rather than having a much more interesting and self aware conversation about the characteristics of a good burger/book/whatever, what those characteristics might be, and whether a given work exemplifies them or not, a conversation which imho is much more valuable sinse hay just because I think there are! standards as to what a good book is that doesn’t mean I know what they are yet, I’m still searching and reading and thinking about them myself and would appreciate other’s thoughts on the matter. On which point your idea of revenge as motivation for an interlectual puzzle is an interesting one.
    I have not read monte cristo (I should), but I can definitely agree with that point.
    I have just finished Skallagrigg by william horwood (I’m composing a review at the second), and one thing which struck me (one of the many things), was that the interlectual puzzle of who and what the skallagrigg itself is is based entirely on positive, rather than negative emotions.
    Your mention of Revenge made me wonder if part of the reason Skallagrigg is as fantastic a book as it was (definitely not! formulaeic ), was of this point. Maybe we’re so used to interlectual puzzles being negatively motivated, or as an escape from the negative, that a puzzle based on finding something positive in life is such a revelation.

    funny you mention David Eddings being some of the first fantasy you read, sinse that is something I share as well. I had read Tolkien of course at a very young age (I even read the entire Silmarillion when I was ten), but other epic high fantasy was dam hard to get hold of.

    I can very much remember (despite it now being almost 20 years ago), being 13, having literally just got a four week old bull terrier puppy (she was supposed to be six but was younger), sitting around with her on my knee for literally hours, waiting to see how Azash would be defeated, Jessy even picked up how shocked I was when Curic died in Saphire rose and woke up when i tensed.

    She was with me for 14 years, and I still remember her very well, (she was a dog with lots of personality).

    I will say I was much less keen on both sequel series, the Tanuli and the Malorean than I was on the Belgariad and the Ellenium, though it is quite a long while sinse I read them and should definitely do so again.

    Gemmell is not in the same school or class as eddings, he’s far less witty or creative with the landscapes and his books are slightly more based on fantasy architypes, eg, noble warriors, evil priests, big dramatic battles etc, so if you try gemmel don’t expect the same thing. For all that as I said I love the poetry in his writing, and even i I can really predict much of the plot he manages to engage me, indeed I’ll confess on one occasion I began a Gemmell book in a very synical frame of mind “here we go again”, and then suddenly discovered that I cared about what was going on extremely.

    Here is probably my favourite Gemmel quote which I wrote down just because of the journey it described, it’s a priest contemplating the siege on a six walled fortress. What is particularly noteable is Gemmell wrote this himself when he’d just been diagnosed with Cansa, so I do wonder how much of this was personal?

    “This is eldibar, wall one. Do you know the meaning of the word eldibar?”

    “Is it not just a word?”

    “no, it is far more. Egel who built this fortress had names carved on every wall, Eldibar means Exultation. It is there that the enemy is first met, it is there that he is seen to be a man. Power flows in the veins of the defenders, the enemy falls back against the weight of our swords and the strenghth of our arms, we feel as heroes should, the thrill of battle and the call of our heritage, we are exultant! Egel new the hearts of men, I wonder, did he know the future”

    “what do the other names mean?”
    Antahime shrugged.
    “That is for another day. It is not good luck to talk of musif while we still shelter under the protection of Eldibar”

    Antahime leaned back into the wall and closed his eyes, listening to the rain and the howling wind. Musif, the wall of dispare. Where strength has not been great enough to hold Eldibar, how can Musif be held.If we could not hold Eldibar we cannot hold Musif. fear will gnaw at our vitals. Many of our friends will have died at Eldibar and oncemore we will see in our minds the laughing faces, we will not want to join them. Musif is the test. And we will not hold.

    We will fall back to Kania the wall of renewed hope. We did not die on Musif and Kania is a narrower fighting place and anyway, are there not two more walls. The Nadir can no longer use their balistai here so that is something is it not. In any case did we not always know we could lose a few walls?

    Sumitos the wall of desperation will follow. we are tired, mortally weary. We fight now by instinct mechanically and well. Only the very best will be left to stem the savage tide.

    Volteri wall five is the wall of serenity. Now we have come to terms with mortality. We accept the inevitability of our deaths and find in ourselves depths of courage which we would not have believed possible. The humour will begin again, and each will be a brother to each other man. We will have stood together against the common enemy shield to shield and we will have made them suffer. Time will pass on this wall more slowly, we will savour our senses as if we had discovered then anew, the stars will become jewels of beauty we never saw before,and friendship will have a sweetness never before tasted.

    And finally Geddon the wall of death.
    “I shal not see geddon” thought Antahime.

  2. I love both Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and David Eddings (specifically the Belgariad and the Sparkhawk series) were some of the first fantasy books I read as kid, and series I re-read every 5 years or so, so you have me sold on checking out those other books.

    You’re definitely right that formulas don’t always end in something worth consuming, and then there’s always something to be said for individual taste. The burger might be made to recipe from the absolute finest of ingredients, but if I hate onions, the quality of the meat, cheese, and bun matters very little. Similarly, a burger made with a rotten slice of tomato, but otherwise quality ingredients, is still inedible.

    I rather like your analogy of the burger, if you haven’t gathered that already.

    Having something else backing up the intellectual puzzle is a good point, and a delicate something to pull off. I’m not keen on most crime/detective stories, but a theme that does the intellectual puzzle well is the revenge story.

    The Count of Monte Cristo (the book, obviously. The movie is some sort of weird love story) has this delightful web of intrigue and puzzles. For example, you see him entering a house planning to bring about the owner’s destruction, and leaves an hour later after only having had polite conversation with several members of the house. Then he pleasedly proclaims that his trap is set.

    I can’t help but run every bit of dialogue through my head, trying to figure out how on earth a series of “how do you do”s can equal a trap.

    That he’s trying to bring down a bunch of people makes this all the more exciting, because his revenge is an interconnected web, and it’s not until he tips over that first domino that you can truly start to see how a series of mundane actions are enough to disgrace or destroy a dozen people.

    I should quit rambling. Off to the library!

  3. @Leslie, interesting thoughts. I don’t know the game you mention, but while I’d tentatively say the idea of fine ingredients making for a good dish in the end even to a conventional recipe might apply equally across art forms, I’m not certain. After all there are many computer games that have become classics for reasons other than just the execution of their story. How these apply to formulae in a more complex sense I don’t know and wouldn’t like to guess, indeed the interaction of story, atmosphere and mechanics in any computer game is a massive subject in itself.

    As to your thoughts on hunches, well one interesting question I did not address in the above article is the relationship between being “clever” and being “affective” a relationship Steven Moffat the current doctor who producer doesn’t understand at all, but if I go on a long wrant on the failings of Moffat to write plot we’ll be here all day, the man deserves a punch up the hooter!.

    Your example about the tuner fish sandwich would I think fall into the idea of a “clever” plot, ie, an interlectual puzzle to the reader much like the sort found in old text adventure computer games and often seen in detective novels. “well how did the murderer stab Colonel Mustard in the library with the kitchin knife when none of the knives were missing from the kitchin and the library door was locked”
    That type of puzzle.

    The problem however is that that sort of interlectual puzzle I find is only really effective if you have other elements to back it up, which is part of the reason with very very few exceptions I don’t read detective or crime fiction. Finding out that one character is someone else’s daughter from the future doesn’t really mean very much if said character never meets up with her mother and there are no consequences of this, indeed such twists remind me of those long geniiological explanations you get in 19th century novels about how mr. Tibs was the younger son’s cousin of the STepford Tib’s first wife who was married to Joanna snobbington’s sister, —- long family relations which I think most modern readers skip.

    While I do agree with you on the power of puzzle elements, what I find keeps me reading is wondering how! those puzzles affect the rest of the plot and how if I am right it will mean such and such for a given character, while if I’m wrong it will mean something else. For example I recall having long and very in depth discussions with my brother when we were reading Prisoner of Ascaban together about who Sirius Black really was and what his relationship to Loopin and Snape was and who’s side he was on, but all of these were questions who’s answers would affect Harry and the wizarding world in general, not just stay static, again this is why I tend to believe in good ingredients making the hole.

    When I object to formula and predictability, as I said in the article it’s not because I can solve every interlectual puzzle in the book, it’s because I feel no engagement with the world or characters, indeed often I find that when I’m reading a very bad book even if the author clearly wants me to care! about whether the elf bard, the dwarf warrior or the human wizard is the traiter, I just can’t muster the interest sinse ultimately I know that the treachery has no lasting consequences and the young hero will win through regardless.

    Hmmm, this is an interesting matter to think about.

    Well anyhow Leslie, as to other formulaeic books I would recommend.
    James Bond would be first, but only the original Ian Flemming novels from the sixties, the later efforts by John Guardener and other authors I enjoyed far less and were part of the reason I mostly stopped reading thrillers and spy fiction.

    For similar reasons to james Bond I’d recommend the original Bram Stoker’s dracula, (yes, every vampire trope on file, but dam it the man could write!), and also ARthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, indeed to say that I am not a fan of detective fiction I do rather enjoy the way Doyle writes characters despite the fact that Holmes is pretty much a 19th century super hero.

    In terms of fantasy, David Eddings is a prime example of an author who definitely writes to a formula (indeed his own formula), but just does a dam good job of it, especially in the wittiness of his dialogue and how likeable his characters are, even though his books are ones where you definitely have very evil (and rather gaumless), enemies and where you know the good guys are never in any real danger sinse something will always turn up to save them.
    David Gemmel is also an author I would say is formulaeic, but who does what he does extremely well.
    All of the gemmel books I’ve read (six or 7 in all), have ended in the same way, with a hopeless siege against unstoppable odds (why is it that the good guys never besiege the bad guys?), also Gemmel’s characters are rather drawn from sets of architypes, such as hard bitten warriors who used to be family men (or occasionally women), or raw idealists faced with the reality of war. What I do appreciate with gemmel though is his bleak writing style, and the fact that however much you know! something will pop up at the last minute to turn the tide of the battle, Gemmel still maintains the tention so well.

    Of course this isn’t to say every! book that is formulaeic has some fine elements, sinse I have found things that get up my nose with their unenspired nature, though I’d probably better stop discussing specific authors before I’m mobbed by rabbid fans :D.

    Either way, thanks for a fascinating question.

  4. I like the idea that high quality ingredients can make dutifully following a recipe still produce incredibly delicious results. I know this article is specifically talking about books, but I recently encountered the phenomenon of the utterly engrossing and enjoyable formulaic story in a different realm: Last of Us!

    (I know, I know. I’m late. But being a few years behind the curve makes gaming a much cheaper affair.)

    I loved the game from the second I loaded it into the Playstation, but, really, its zombiepocalypse premise/story line is mostly a well-seasoned assortment of tropes, formulas, and even cliches common in zombie stories. More often than not I could guess what was coming next, but it didn’t matter because I had to see just how these storytellers unfurled that moment.

    One interesting thing I’ve learned as an author is that a good number of people love being able to predict what’s going to happen, so long as you make them work for it. Setting up a story so that readers are guessing what will happen next, or if that person is good or bad, or how someone will pull off their devious quest, does wonders with reader engagement.

    (Wanting to know if my hunch about a story is correct has cost me countless hours of sleep.)

    If the author pulls it off just right, the reader will be equally enthusiastic about their hunch being wrong. Then it’s one of those “I did /not/ see that coming!” moments, which tend to be really strong and memorable.

    Conversely, if the reader is correct in their hunch, going “Called it! I knew as soon as he bought that tuna fish sandwich how he would be able to spring his escape,” is also incredibly satisfying, because they were able to piece together the unusual pieces of how a tuna fish sandwich could possibly allow anyone to escape.

    I’ve never read any James Bond – I’m glad to see you endorse them. I’ll have to grab a few during my next library run and take a field-trip outside of my speculative fiction bubble. Are there any other formulaic books you heartily endorse?

  5. @Douglas, what are you on because I want some?
    Glad you liked the article, but you know freaky looking mushrooms do not make good pies, or burgers, in fact I would say stay away from the mushrooms due to them mucking around severely with your relation to reality, however the relation to reality you have is planely a fun one, like one of those batty old uncles who gives you a double brandy on Christmas day when your four and tells you all about Godzilla, so maybe I’ll just join you in the doom shrooms, or pie, or mammoth burgers or whatever.
    Either way, still glad you liked the article, that was I believe why I wrote it.

    @Steven, I’d be hesitant personally to try and work out the motivations of others using a term, saying people who use the term formulaeic are “looking for novelty” or “use it as a synonym for bad” or anything else.
    As with most philosophy, in this article I was just interested in providing a clearer analysis of the term “formula” and the relationship I believe it bares towards a book’s quality or not, indeed what prompted me to write this article was my realization that only sometimes did a book being “formulaeic” bother me, and my attempt to tease out the reason why this was, and thus suggest perhaps a more helpful way in which the term “formulaeic” may be used in the future.

  6. When I hear someone complaining that a story is “too formulaic,” I mentally substitute “not very good”. Most people lack the vocabulary to accurately describe WHY they like (or not) a subjective experience (such as their enjoyment of a story, the flavor of a beer, or what they love about their significant other). There’s nothing wrong with something being formulaic, as long as it’s done well.

    Of course, there are lines everywhere. Too formulaic can be a problem – primarily for veterans of the (in this case) genre, but if something is a clear copy-and-paste of more iconic characters (without parody to back it up), then it could be too formulaic, or at least uninspired. But most of the time, when people say something is too formulaic, they just mean they’ve got a desire for novelty, and this book didn’t satisfy it.

    It’s a failing of language as much as anything else.

  7. I’ve always wondered why the infinite series for calculating pi was not very satisfying, and why you have to go to the Character Map to get the code for the Greek symbol. But I think you’ve cleared it up and gotten me to thinking whether I want to defrost my stash of 50,000-year-old wooly mammoth meat to make a hamburger. I think the secret will be in the marinating. Or is it the French fries,um,.. oh sorry the mammoths didn’t have potatoes.

    Oh good people are so bad, and bad people are so good, but can they calculate pi or put cherry pie on their burgers or should they. This all sounds very risky and dangerous, like tossing onion rings that have had poison porcupine quills inserted into them. I think sometimes they pop out and onions become the shape of boomerangs and come back to haunt the Cherry- Hamburger King who died mysteriously while calculating pi.

    E = mc2 I think explains why it doesn’t matter unless it has energy and porcupines where the quill is mightier than the sword fish.

    Well, I guess I don’t know where I’m going, but I think I had a point or a quill.

    I enjoyed your article. Thanks.

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