copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Genre fiction is formulaic fiction.
It must be.
There’s an unwritten law somewhere that requires it to be. (Or maybe it’s a written law.)
Formulaic fiction fails to entertain after a while, because most people get tired of reading yet another variation on the same tired and tattered narrative formula, especially when the formula is fairly straightforward and simple.
Formulaic fiction fails because it is predicable.
A reader pretty much knows what to expect from the beginning and pretty much every time before something happens. Formulaic fiction is unimaginative, unoriginal, predictable, and boring. It’s a cliché. Actually, it’s a series of clichés strung together like so many faux pearls. There are no surprises, shocks, chills, or thrills because everything that happens is seen coming way before it actually arrives. Familiarity breeds contempt, and formulaic fiction, whether it’s adventure, detective, horror, fantasy, romance, science fiction, Western, or otherwise, is all too familiar to its readers.
In a word, formulaic fiction is frustrating, but there are ways to frustrate formulaic fiction. In this post, we will consider a few techniques for doing so. Mostly, though, these methods boil down to this: become a Boy Scout. In other words, as a writer, expect the unexpected--from yourself and your characters.
Formulaic fiction is formulaic largely because it is routine and repetitive rather than exploratory. It follows the same path over the same ground, leading around and around in the same concentric circles. To frustrate formulaic fiction, a writer must become a stranger in a strange land. He or she must choose the little-worn over the well-worn path. Better yet, he or she should choose from one of several other possible paths.
Just as some moviemakers now make movies with one official ending, as it were, and several “alternative endings,” a writer should have several pathways (and possibly a few byways) from any major (or even minor) incident of the plot. Stories are, by and large, linear, but the any point from “B” to “Z” can end up as point “B.” Only after it is chosen, does it become the chosen one. Until then, several other incidents should compete for the honor and distinction of being this second incident. The same is true of incidents “C,” “D,” and so on, all the way to “Z” (or however many incidents make up the chain of actions, events, and situations that form the story’s plot).
Let’s try an example.
A man finds a love letter, in his wife’s hand, addressed to another man.
Oops! What might he do?
- Confront his wife about the affair.
- Confront his rival about the affair.
- Confront both is rival and his wife about the affair.
- Leave his wife, without divorcing her.
- Divorce his wife.
- Kill his rival.
- Kill his wife.
- Kill himself.
- Kill both his rival and his wife.
- Kill both his rival and himself.
- Kill both his wife and himself.
- Kill all three parties--his rival, his wife, and himself.
- Show the love letter to his (and his wife’s) children.
- Show the love letter to his wife’s parents.
- Show the love letter to his own parents.
- Pretend he never found the love letter.
- Write a “love letter” of his own to his rival, signing his wife’s name (or using a photocopy of her signature).
- Do two or more of these options.