(Pensacola, Florida; Jan. 12, 2023,) – The familiar cry often echoes across the hallowed halls of entertainment: this is boring; it’s too formulaic!
We often disparage disliked books, movies, and TV shows as being ‘too formulaic.’ However, as writers, we have to ask the question, “What does ‘too formulaic’ actually mean?”
The short answer is that ‘too formulaic’ means boring, uninspired, and insipid work. However, the existential trap here is that all storytelling is nothing but formulaic. Print, stage, or screen, every single story ever told follows a formula!
Think about it. The basic structure of all stories is the introduction, rising action, complication, climax, and denouement. This is a formula, and it’s a formula that’s been followed by every human storyteller since human storytellers began telling human stories several thousand years ago.
The arc of a character’s journey within a story also follows a formula. The character starts at emotional/psychological (and sometimes also physical) Point A. They encounter obstacles, challenges, victories, and failures which require them to act, react, and adapt in order to safely reach emotional/psychological (and sometimes physical) Point B. This journey results in the character’s growth, and the revelation of new facets of that character to the audience.
So, again, writers are brought back to the conundrum of why we often criticize lackluster storytelling for being ‘too formulaic’ when all storytelling is basically formulaic. What does this really mean, and how can we, as writers, avoid this perilously prosaic and persistently present pitfall?
I believe the real meaning behind ‘too formulaic’ means the writers became lazy, overconfident, or simply ran out of ideas. To put it another way, ‘too formulaic’ means writers are no longer presenting anything new about those characters or story tropes (or both) to the audience. (I’ll be talking about the use of ‘tropes’ in a future column an video.)
Since the basic formula of storytelling is the same, writers have to keep the audience engaged by finding new and unique ways to use the formula of storytelling. We must constantly find creative angles to show our audience a new side of our characters, or else the audience’s relationship with those characters becomes as stagnant as a friendship that has run its course.
Here’s an example of my meaning. A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted stories in literature. There have been thousands of versions of Dickens’ tale brought to life on screen. Some soar, some sink. It’s all the same story, so why did Disney’s 2009 A Christmas Carol flop while 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol flourish?
Jim Carrey’s version of Scrooge in the 2009 Disney adaption was brilliantly acted, but still ended up feeling as flat as a cardboard box in a hydraulic press. Carrey’s Scrooge operated in a movie filled with humorous moments galore, but his Scrooge was not given a sense of humor…well, not until the very final moment of the film after Scrooge’s reform. None. Nada. Zip. Carrey did a magnificent job trying to elevate the material he was given with his amazing talents, but the lack of a sense of humor in his script kneecapped his portrayal from the start. The lack of a sense of humor rendered the 2009 Disney A Christmas Carol a boring, pedantic, predictable story. In other words, it was ‘too formulaic.’
The Muppet version, however, showcased an unusual angle about Ebeneezer Scrooge long before his reform takes place, and this is something not often seen in adaptions of Dickens’ tale. Michael Caine’s Scrooge actually displayed a real sense of humor—even during his ugly, curmudgeonly stage. Humor is one of the defining characteristics of being human. Hero or villain—literary characters feel false and fake if they display no humor, regardless if that humor is rather mean-spirited because the character is a jerk. Caine’s revelation of humor in Scrooge pops the character out in high relief as human instead of merely a one-dimensional plot device symbolizing greed and selfishness.
The next logical question in this progression is, “Ok, so, just how does a writer operate within the basic formula of storytelling without falling into the trap of becoming too formulaic?”
There’s no easy answer here. This is a challenge every single one of us who takes pen in hand must face. We all will face this obstacle every time we write, but it becomes elevated to a whole new level when we pen a series with recurring characters. This trap is far easier to avoid with a one-off novel, play, or movie because a good part of the story will involve the audience getting to know the characters at an introductory level. A writer can still flub the effort by presenting one-dimensional, cardboard characters, but the margin for error in a one-off project is very, very wide.
Creating a series, such as I did with the Accidental Detective, requires a great deal more work, and I’m not speaking of the effort involved in physically writing the novels. By necessity, my Accidental Detective, Isaac Shepherd, and his partner, Abraham Gray, are going to encounter similar events (murder and crime) over and over and over again. My challenge is to present my readers with new angles of their personal interactions (which reveal new angles to their personalities), new insights into how each character reacts and processes the events they face, and new ideas the characters stumble onto in order to solve the crimes.
Once a writer is successful, it’s very easy to just stick with those characters and keep going ad infinitum. However, I believe this is the quickest way to fall into the trap. Those characters might be ‘old friends’ to us, and we find them easy to write because we are so familiar with them (and if they make us a good bit of money, that’s a powerful incentive to keep going). However, just as with real-life relationships that stagnate because growth and innovation stop, so too can this happen in literature. The moment the characters stop growing and become frozen in one ‘incarnation,’ the audience will slowly begin to check out. Sometimes the best way to avoid the trap is to take a break.
This is one reason why my Accidental Detective series will on hiatus after book 6 is published. I have plenty of future adventures for Isaac Shepherd and Abraham Gray, but I also have no desire to lose my ‘edge’ in presenting new, fresh aspects of them to my audience. The hiatus will allow me some room to breathe and time for fresh ideas to percolate.
The complaint that fiction (print, stage, or screen) has become ‘too formulaic’ should be a warning to the writer that their audience is no longer seeing anything new in the characters. We as writers must be clever, crafty, cunning, and colorfully creative in order to avoid this fate, instead giving our readers new angles from which to view our characters. Anything else becomes stale, and we will all lose our audience if we grow stale.
Check out my video on this topic where I discuss the TV shows Pretty Little Liars and Prison Break as case studies in becoming ‘too formulaic’: https://youtu.be/xna4YBuUV9U
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