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🌲 Writing to Formula: Beyond Plotting vs. Pantsing

Writing to formula using an outline that follows pre-canned benchmarks like in the hero's journey is like using a compass to draw a circle.

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I teach (& research) ancient civilizations, then write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history... which involves a fair amount of notetaking ;)

2 min read.

A fellow author in my writing group recommended a guest lecture by Mary Robinette Kowal to me.  I enjoyed it enough to actually do the exercise, which is about the MICE quotient of a story and try/fail cycles.

In discussing the lecture with some of the other folks during round-table discussion, the perennial question about whether or not it’s authentic art to write to formula came up, and during that conversation I hit upon a metaphor that I think encapsulates my feelings about the writing process generally and writing to formula in particular. While I certainly have little interest in churning out works according to anything as strict as, say, the Hallmark rules, I do find value in understanding “the rules” of writing compelling stories in general.

For me, writing to formula using an outline that follows specific benchmarks is a lot like drawing a circle using a compass. Yes, really good artists can freehand draw a perfect circle. Children starting out mess up their circles, even using a compass. But a perfectly executed circle is a lot easier to create using a compass than doing it freehand, and if my goal is to learn more about the nature of a circle, having a compass to show me the specific angles in play is extremely useful. A good mathematician can figure that out independently, of course, but it’s a lot of extra work for not a lot of extra pay off. I’d rather take the class and have a professor teach me how a compass works.

Of course, some people really find beauty in the slight imperfections that come from a free hand drawn circle. There is certainly value in knowing when a circle shouldn’t be perfect, because an ellipse is more appropriate to the piece of art at hand or a bit of a wobble adds flair.

Picasso famously said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” I have no interest in writing surrealist books, though, and generally speaking, even the most elitist, salon-style literature is enhanced by an understanding of formula in the same way that Picasso’s art is infinitely more compelling than a child’s drawing, although it certainly achieves a childlike wisdom and wonder.

Breaking down story structure to see what works and what doesn’t, like I did for Genesis by Ken Lozito, is hard work. Whenever someone is willing to give me a leg up by doing the analysis in advance, I’m grateful. If you’re going to write a genre novel, I think it’s important to at least be aware of the genre’s conventions.

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).