Thursday, 30 January 2014 21:51

In Defense Of Formula

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I recently attended a writer event in which the topic of ‘formula’ writing came up. Though the mystery genre got a brief mention, it was mainly romance that came under criticism.

Among those present there was the usual shaking of heads at how limiting this approach is. Formula writing, it seems, is the comfort zone of the insecure and the fallback of limited creative minds.

Tell that to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart.

I have never had a problem with formulas. As both a musician and a writer, I see many parallels between these two arts and this is just another example.

There are literally dozens of musical forms (just another word for formula): You’ve got waltzes, sarabandes, hornpipes, chaconnes, sonatas, fugues, to name but a few. All have very specific elements to their structures. (If it’s not in three-four it’s not a waltz. If it’s not in six-eight with two, repeated 8-bar phrases, it’s not a gigue. And don’t even get me started on rondos!)   

Within any one of these forms there is still enormous scope for originality. Nearly every classical composer wrote minuets. Yet you would never confuse a Bach minuet with one by Brahms because the composers’ styles are so unique, their voices so different. Why should it be less so for authors?

‘Formula’ exits in music for the same reason it exists in writing: to meet audience expectations. Patrons of an eighteenth century ball wanted music they could dance to. If a composer handed them a funeral march, however creative and artistically written, it wouldn’t have gone over as well.    

‘Formula’ in writing is all about reader expectation and it’s not just the romance genre that has them. Mystery readers expect there to be a crime early on in the story, a protagonist who unravels the puzzle, a logical presentation of clues, a few red herrings and the crime to be solved at the end. How is that any less formulaic than a romance novel?   

Within the confines of even the most restrictive formula I believe there’s always room for creative scope. And actually – unless they’re writing push-the-boundaries, stretch-the-envelope kind of prose – all novelists write to a formula.

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