Pros And Cons of Plotting Formulas
Many writers get riled up whenever someone mentions a structure or formula for writing. Some swear by formulas, insisting that every great story follows the rules and that their own writing is much better for use of the formula. However, just as many writers are rabidly against the idea of writing anything that could be labeled as, well, formulaic. These writers thrive on adventure, exploration, and discovery, as well as breaking any perceived rules they encounter.
So what’s the deal behind the magic plot structures that keep popping up in writing discussion? Is there any true merit to following an organized method in your writing, or does it threaten originality?
First, let me state this: there is no magic plotting formula. There’s no formula, no pattern, and no method that can guarantee that your books will fly off the shelves, or even promise that your books will be well written or worth reading at all. If that were the case, there would be many much greater books on the market than there are. The magic in writing is the inspired spark that flies between you and the reader, and that is well beyond the grasp of any artificial structure.
Second, you’ll find many formulas out there, and most of them will be helpful to some extent. Many struggling writers have found their place by adapting one or more popular writing methods to their stories and have risen to the top of their genres.
These writing methods are tools. Their usefulness varies from writer to writer and book to book, and they serve to make story structure a less prevalent concern for authors, freeing more time for writing and worldbuilding.
At the end of this post, I’ve included a list of some of the more popular writing formulas and methods. Feel free to check out any that look interesting, and comment below which ones (if any) work best for you!
Top ten risks of writing formulas:
Loss of originality. This is the most talked-about risk when it comes to writing with a formula. Writers like to explore and create, or else we wouldn’t write. Sticking to a set of pre-defined plot points takes out some of your originality in favor of something common and predictable.
Strained/inorganic scenes. If you decide to use a writing formula, you need to know when to break it. The wrong formula (or the right one, improperly applied) will lead to strained and forced scenes. These are obnoxious for you and the reader, and evidence that sometimes you just need to trust your gut.
Lost possibilities. It’s easy to go with the first solution you can think of when you’re organizing a plot by formula. Unfortunately, your first idea usually isn’t your best, and you have to remind yourself to keep thinking and keep brainstorming other possibilities.
Repetition could bore readers. Some of the best series ever written rely on heavily repetitive structures from book to book (think of the Harry Potter books following the school year)--but you need to keep spicing things up and raising the stakes to keep things interesting. Look for variations in your structure and new ways to use your world and characters for future books in a series.
Lazy writing. Low-effort planning can lead to low-effort writing. A lazy attitude can kill a lot of great books, so don’t get too comfortable slapping beats onto an outline and leaving it at that.
Writing could be overly concise. One problem that some writers experience with writing according to a formula is that it can be hard to know when to flesh your story out beyond what you specified in your outline.
Sell-out guilt. In writing and publishing, you have to decide constantly what you want out of everything you do. In some cases, writing to a formula might give you the feeling that you’ve cheated yourself or sold out to a mass-market audience when all along you really just wanted to experiment and venture where no writer has gone before. You need to decide if the extra sales are worth it.
The wrong formula could hurt your book. A western romance, thriller mystery, and high fantasy adventure novel will feature many of the same elements, but the structure you need will vary among the three. If you want to find a formula that will work, it’s a good idea to shop around and browse different options to find what fits your need best.
Overly high expectations. The formula you choose might be a favorite among Hollywood blockbusters. It might have legions of bestsellers to its credit, but that doesn’t mean that your book will make it big. Crafting a great book and selling it goes well beyond the structure of your story, and some formulas make misleading claims to success.
Tedium in planning. Some writers hate planning and want to skip straight to the draft. Others plan, but not according to a formula. This discovery planning can be a fun process, and if you water it down to a formula, the fun gets drained out of it. It’s hard to start drafting a book if you can’t get involved.
Top ten benefits of writing formulas:
Simplified planning. When you’re writing according to a popular formula or method, planning suddenly becomes much simpler. You’ll still have a lot of work to do (especially if you’re used to pantsing), but you know where to fill out more information and where it ends. You can spare yourself the stress and focus more on productive work instead of getting distracted by everything that comes to mind.
Less developmental editing. If you really hate editing or if you find that editing takes more time out of your schedule than actual writing, a pre-organized structure can help. Developmental edits work to make your book more fulfilling, engaging and satisfying for readers. Writing to a popular structure will do the same thing—but without the rewrites and editing frustration.
More engagement for readers. Familiar novels are easier for people to read than experimental literature for the same reason that classic rock is easier to listen to than avant-garde jazz. If your structure is alien and unique, people will need to work harder to understand it. Your book becomes less of a casual fun read and something more tedious. This works for some novels and can have a good payoff, but if you’re starting out, you won’t win many new readers this way. A formula is an effective way to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing and that readers can rely on you for a good story.
Forces creativity in other aspects of writing. If you’re writing your book according to formula, the structure is largely out of your hands. This takes creativity away from some of the process, but it also frees you to be more creative in other areas, such as character and setting, which are less bound by your story’s structure. Many artists prefer working with constraints because of this automatic streak of creativity, and the challenge can lead you on an all-new writing journey.
More predictable progress. You don’t need to worry about predictable progress for your first book, but if you’re trying to become a full-time author, reliability is the key. Formulas let you cheat the system a tad just by streamlining your work and progress. You get an easy rhythm that you can repeat with each new book, and your readers get a reliable time frame for when they can expect new releases.
A community of authors who write the same way. Sometimes it’s best when you don’t have to do everything by yourself—and you never need to reinvent the wheel. If a certain formula or method especially meets your fancy, you’ll find behind it legions of other writers who feel the same way. Having a relatable community can act as a springboard for inspiration and ideas.
Faster drafting. It’s still possible to get writers’ block if you use a formula, but it’s much harder. If you’ve ever struggled with the question of what should happen next or how your epic tale should end, this is an easy way to come up with a quick solution.
Automated idea generation. Once you have an established structure for your writing, writing comes more easily. So do ideas. You might have a few sweet points where you can imagine alternate scenarios pulling out. You can save these for your future books and have plenty of ideas at your fingertips for when you need them.
Many examples to pull from. Think of a favorite story (book or movie) when you look at the structures below. You’ll probably find that it fits in at least one structure, and often, more than one. That does not mean that story was written according to any formula, but simply that the formula is a way of describing and dissecting the various parts of a story. You can start relating your own books to popular stories that are already in existence and find easier ways to fill out your own.
Simpler marketability. People tend to be junkies for their favorite types of books. If you write in a popular formula, they’ll pick your book as well, and you have a much better chance of getting fans simply by claiming them from similar books.
Popular structures, methods, and formulas.
Now that we’ve covered the pros and cons of using a formula to write your book, let’s look at the more popular options available. This is not an exhaustive list, but I’ll link to places where you can learn more about these options as I list them.
You can also download and try out the software Plottr, which allows you to form your own structure using any of these methods you want and has the flexibility to turn it into your own plot.
This is the most basic of the list. The three-act structure goes all the way back to the plays and dramas of ancient Greece, where stage work was divided into three carefully structured acts: act one, where we meet our characters and learn about the setting; act two, where the characters meet with their first obstacles and where the tension and drama ramp up; and act three, the climax and denouement where the story comes to a close. This structure is still widely in use, and many authors stick to it as a preferred method.
The Hero’s Journey (also known as the Hero of A Thousand Faces) is a character-based approach to plot, where the setting, minor characters, and plot all circle around the transformation and growth of the main character. Certain beats are laid out so that you can line your story up as precisely as you want.
This simplified version of the Hero’s Journey is more flexible than its predecessor and has a better graphic appeal. While the plot structure is essentially the same, the Story Circle focuses more on balance and equivalence, helping you know which parts of your plot should be filled out to give a more fulfilling experience.
While designed to help budding screenplay writers churn out blockbuster movies, Blake Snyder's Save The Cat formula is now largely popular among novelists. The storytelling aspects between books and movies are so similar that it’s easy to translate one into the other. Save The Cat is a modification of the three-act structure that uses specific beats to determine the course of the story.
Romancing The Beat (for romance)
This romance-specific structure focuses on the ins and outs of a couple falling in love. It identifies all the popular beats used across various romance styles and gives you the freedom to alter the beats to better fit your own writing.
This final structure—or writing method—uses a fractal design to build your story from the concept up. Since you start with only a single sentence describing the gist of what you want to write, this is an easy method to dive into. It also encourages you to flesh out characters as you flesh out your plans, creating both at the same time so that character and plot can build organically out of each other.
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