Thoughts on Writing ‘Formulas’

I’ve recently finished Save the Cat! Writes a Novel which provides a pretty succinct but detailed formula for structuring your novel’s plot.

Image result for complicated formula

I’ve also in the past checked out the Snowflake Method which is an excellent way of brainstorming the premise, characters and main plot points of a novel.

And finally I’ve had recommended and appreciated K M Weilands Various Resources along with something called the ‘do-it-yourself-MFA’ Story Map

I’m not going to go into each into great depth for each, more just talk about some of the confusions and controversies of formulas and leave the links above for you to decide whether to not to use the tools.

First of all let’s dive into the term ‘formula’, the reason I keep putting the word into scare quotes is that I think the term is a bit of a misnomer. Or rather when I plug the word into Google the two following definitions arise:

  1. 1.
    a mathematical relationship or rule expressed in symbols.
    “the formula for the capacitance of a spherical capacitor”
  2. 2.
    a list of ingredients with which something is made


My problem  being that most writing formulas seem to try and cover both those definitions – not the mathematical relationship or the symbols obviously, but most formulas attempt to provide a list of ingredients and how to relate them to create a novel.

Actually none of that seems a problem, what bothers me however is it can be confused exactly where a writing formula fits in. For example the Save the Cat! beat-sheets provide an excellent way of structuring the Acts and major plot points of a story, however relatively little for individual scenes and what words to fill each section in. Likewise the DIY-MFA provides a really good way of balancing plots and subplots but is a little confusing on how to capture rising tensions.

In saying that I don’t think anyone expects a formula to cover all the bases per se, I think most writers have a maturity level where they can use a tool to the most benefit for themselves without seeing it as damaging their work because a true artiste doesn’t use a formula. However it does beg the question of where, when and why to use a writing formula.

And this is why I think the term formula is a little bit misleading, because even if you consider a formula an ingredient list I think there is a component of consideration missing and that is that writing formulas interact with the writer themselves. I’m not just meaning in terms of preference, but that different formulas are going to prompt different reactions from the writer, and different writers are going to have different needs from formulas.

I think far from risking a work becoming ‘formulaic’ the real challenge with formulas is possessing enough insight and wisdom to analyze the result of your interaction with any particular tool. For example the Save the Cat! formula for plotting is verges on a necessity for me, my writing suffers from saggy middles and I need a lot of guidance on sculpting exactly where the plot is going. I’m not too bad at generating characters and overarching plans so something like the Snowflake method is helpful but not a must.

It probably sounds a little trite – “find the writing formula that works for you” I guess what I’m trying to say is that its a little more complicated than that – find the writing formula that works for you because it helps shore up areas of weakness in your process, or gels with your style for a good result. I don’t think anyone really thinks there is a perfect formula out there for a brilliant novel, although I do think for every writer there is a perfect formula for their particular moment in their writing progress. Just like there isn’t ONE book on writing, their isn’t ONE writing formula, but a variety of resources to help us grow.

So I don’t know if that post made much sense – hey I only claimed to be expressing my ‘thoughts’ on formulas, I never said my thoughts made sense!


What formulas/tools do you use?

Are there any you’d recommend avoiding?

What are your thoughts on formulas?

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