A formula is a precise mix of ingredients put together in exactly the same way to achieve the same result every time. Which is fine for cleaning agents, but not so good for stories because a formula is easy to see working in a story.
The ‘Ordinary World’ beginning. Oh look he’s a farm boy feeding the chickens. Oh look she’s a cop just going on shift. Oh look he’s a rich playboy waking up from another night of excess. Oh look she’s a CEO dealing with the board.
Yeah, that opening is so stale it’s beginning to stink.
The ‘Refusal of the Call’. Oh look he/she is not going to do whatever it is we know he/she is actually going to do (or there won’t be a story) because he/she is scared/has responsibilities/is an anti-hero (and therefore doesn’t care, until of course they do and that there is their arc all neat and tidy in the formula for you to use)/it goes against their sense of loyalty and duty.
Whatever. Because we’ve seen it a million times before.
It’s easier to see in films of course, because screenplays are simpler than novels (they have to be, the complexity comes from the choices that the actors and director make) but it is much more pernicious in novels, because there are no constraints of time or budget in a novel — so why the hell limit yourself to a formula?
I’m not saying you can’t have an ‘Ordinary World’ opening, or a ‘Refusal of the Call’ moment, or any of the other elements that go to make up a formulaic story (‘The Dark before the Dawn’, ‘The Death of a Beloved character ‘, ‘The Disastrous Mistake’, ‘The whatever-some-writing-teacher/blogger/author.about.writing-used-as-a-shorthand -because-it-made-teaching-the difficult-easier’). These are tropes, archetypal story-telling techniques, they work, but they are not structure, they are not essential, they are just tricks.
Structure is not a trick. Structure is an essential. Without structure you don’t have a story, you just have a series of unconnected events or, worse, a linear progression of things that just happened to happen.
So what is the difference between structure and formula?
In a word: Flexibility.
A structure is not just the parts themselves, it’s not how the parts connect, it isn’t even the arrangements of the parts. A structure is all those things. (Which is what makes it so difficult to explain, which is why writing teachers go for the easy short-hand, which is why structure should be a life-long obsession for a novelist. You ain’t ever done with structure, there’s always more to learn).
Look at the photo at the top of this post. More than likely that is a bridge, or it might be the Eiffel tower, or something else that leaves the skeleton of the structure exposed. Because an arrangement of steel or iron girders is the basic skeleton of a lot of structures.
You can use it to build tall, like the aforementioned Paris landmark, or broad, like the aforementioned crossing point over a river. You can cloak it in concrete and build a skyscraper, or a low-rise block of flats, or an office block, or a factory. You can cloak it in sheets of metal and build a warehouse or aircraft hangar. You can build schools, hospitals, sound-stages, army bases, anything really, all using the same basic structure and all looking completely different because they have completely different purposes.
Don’t mistake vernacular (like the brutalist or modernist eyesores) for structure. The structure, the skeleton, is flexible, because it is not a formula.
A formula has structure because it too is an holistic whole, but it is the same holistic whole every time. It is one version of a structure repeated ad infinitum like those suburban housing estates where every house is a rabbit hutch, but you can choose the colour of the doors. To make them ‘more individual’ you might be allowed to choose from 3 or 4 basic floor-plans and tweak them a bit, but really they are a formula based on how much they cost to build against how much they can be sold for.
I’m sure you, like me, have got lost in a suburban estate at some point. It’s because all the houses follow a formula, but you already knew that, only you probably said ‘Everywhere looks the same as everywhere else’, or words to that effect.
Personally, I like the seven-act structure in my work, because it gives me all the flexibility I need. I can write a circular story, or an action/adventure story, or a love story, or a Thriller, or Fantasy or Science Fiction, or any other genre — except the Literary genre of course, they think structure and plot are four-letter words and they are only half-wrong (as always).
However, if you look up seven-act structure on the web, as I have (and I was quite disheartened by the experience) then people talk about twist-points, pinch-points, or (dear god in heaven, no) reverses, which is only talking about the ‘connections’ between the parts (acts).
It isn’t talking about the acts in terms of what the acts are supposed to do. The first act of a seven act structure is the introduction, the second act: the set-up, and so on. It isn’t talking about how the parts are arranged within the structure. You can break a structure up, rearrange the parts, make it a non-linear narrative, and — so long as the structural integrity is preserved — the story will still work.
Pinch-points and twist-points are just the points where the acts meet, they are the joints between the girders (if you will). Reverses are just one single bloody form of joint. Start talking about reverses (or rising/declining tension for that matter) and you have begun to turn a flexible structure into a rigid formula.
Because you aren’t talking about structure in the abstract any more. You are making the abstract concrete, which is not what structure is. It is like saying that the steel frame of a building will always have identical stresses, identical requirements, no matter what the terrain, or the purpose, or the artistic intent behind the architect’s vision.
Okay this is getting a bit long now, so I’ll stop there. As Louise said, on July the Thirteenth [http://firedancebooks.com/blog/?p=344] (which directly inspired this blog) ‘Structure… well you can talk about that for ever. So I won’t.’
I of course will, because I quite like talking forever J.
Structure is incredibly important in novels. It’s what makes them stand-up rather than flop around on the floor like a jellied mess of ‘things just happened’.
PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.
First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/
Licence and attribution for image: Everystockphoto