Jan 04 2012

X + Y * C Does Not Equal A Good Story

I had, what I consider, one of the most nonsensical discussions with a know-it-all author last night. This author, insists that a good fantasy novel must, and he emphasized the must, follow a very rigid formula.

For example, he said that the opening chapter must have action, the second chapter should be character development, the third chapter was for presenting back story, the fourth chapter had to be back to action … and so on he rambled.

I asked him if he wore a lab coat and mixed his concoctions up in beakers with such a rigid formula for “success”. Still he insisted he was right, despite having just two novels published to his name and neither of which have sold any number of appreciable copies.

How boring it must be to write like this. To lock yourself into such a little box with no room to expand beyond codes that in my opinion do nothing other than force everything one writes to be so similar? That would be boring.

What if, I asked, one’s story was not an “action” fantasy? How would you open with action? He said such things don’t sell. I reminded him, apparently neither does what you write. He got upset and dropped the argument.

5 Responses to “X + Y * C Does Not Equal A Good Story”

  1. J. Cameron McClain Says:

    I attended a writers’ conference in Honolulu a few years ago. One of the speakers described the “story arc” we all know and love, went on to talk about the 1/3-1/3-1/3 format, rising action, denouement, initial conflict and eventual resolution…. It was all good stuff, and I think many stories work using a formulaic setup like your know-it-all author describes.

    Trying to fit a story into that formula has a downside, though. In “typing to the structure” you may end up with something that’s too rigid, or too dead. If you’re hell-bent on making sure the second chapter is character development and the third is backstory, you’re only working on craft, not art. For me the craft comes in places like editing, where you choose how and where to set up the plot complication you already have, or putting in the back story at the most effective place(s) in the story.

    Good writing doesn’t equal good story-telling, and structure can help good writing become good story-telling, but popular and critically acclaimed novels like Cloud Atlas, Gravity’s Rainbow, Tin Drum and A Clockwork Orange, along with a billion others, prove that formula does not equal success, and success doesn’t rely on a specific formula. And yes, that author you discussed this with was speaking about fantasy in particular, but even then, look at something as archetypal as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. First chapter? The only action you get there is Bilbo getting ready for a birthday party. What an action-packed hook! 😉

  2. Melissa McPhail Says:

    Great points above. I’ve always felt sorry for writers who believed they had to follow a specific formula in order to tell their story, whether that formula applied to the story arc itself or to character creation.

    The joy of creating lies so much in the mystery and magic that comes along that rushing stream of inspiration, where the story becomes self-perpetuating and you as the author are barely hanging on. It seems like following a formula would be akin to poling down a sluggish, muddy river instead.

    I, too, agree that formulas have their place in the craft of writing, but if you haven’t written enough to make those formulas become second nature, to the point where you think about them as much as verb tense as the words are pouring onto the page, then more “practice” is definitely in order.

  3. Mathias Says:

    I agree J. Cameron McClain, thanks for commenting. I think too many authors fall into the trap of thinking “action” means “high action” – sword fights, chase scenes, etc. That is what the author I had this conversation with thinks. If someone isn’t getting disembowled or shot at with lasers from the get go, well, he hates the story immediately. Problem is, that isn’t what action is necessarily. And I have read far too many books where authors who believe that action is only defined in such ways actually wind up hurting their stories. There is only so far you can rise the action if you start out high action and keep building without breaks and cool down periods. Then you get into the rut of the story becoming unbelievable as the characters are constantly beating more and more unbelievable odds.

    Bilbo’s birthday party prep at the start of LotR is action. But it’s subtle action, not, as you correctly said, “action-packed”. I personally like more subtle action. I think that is where you develop your characters.

  4. Mathias Says:

    Melissa McPhail thanks for commenting.

    I think that classic storytelling has a basic, very basic forumla. But that formula is not rigid. It is moldable to a great extent. There are just some people who don’t want to work with the clay in front of them though.

  5. Graeme Brown Says:

    Geesh! Gotta love those who have it all figured out. While I have learned various rule and tricks, if there’s anything I’ve learned, above all, with the craft of writing, it’s that the rules are always changing. Those of us who write well are always asking questions about what we write, and so we learn new ways to write, and we also learn from each other, so the art of writing, in and of itself, is always changing, like some wonderful evolving species.
    Hmm…so there is a formula, I guess, but it belongs with chaos theory. I don’t think my keyboard has the variables I need for it, though, so I’m gonna stick with the best I got: a good story that leads me deeper and deeper into the woods.
    Thanks for your great posts Mathias!

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