Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dissing the Formula Novel

Last night I reached the halfway mark in Linnea Sinclair's current novel, Hope's Folly.

On this blog, I have said several times that there exists an exacting structural architecture behind novels that is as precise as that revealed in SAVE THE CAT! and SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES is for films.

I've said the same thing at many writing workshops, and always there's an aspiring writer, and sometimes even a publishing writer, who says "NO! A Thousand Times NO!!!"

That storytelling is an art and there must be no fetters or artificial restrictions on artists.

Well, storytelling is an art.

And as Marion Zimmer Bradley taught us in CATCHTRAP -- Discipline is the mark of the artiste.

But let's turn it around a bit and look at all this from the story-consumer's point of view.

If storytelling is an art -- perhaps so is story reading?

If you pay a small fortune for Superbowl tickets, would you be happy to plop down in your hard seat, hotdog in hand, only to discover the gridiron full of basketball players?

Linnea has brought up a subject related to this on Goodreads.com -- a network site for people who read. Should SFR be categorized under PNR. Is SF-Romance a type of Paranormal Romance -- or is it something else?


Narrative stories in print or e-text -- stories told in words -- are a game the reader plays with the writer.

Reading a writer's stories is like playing chess or cards or any other eye-to-eye sport -- you get to know the writer.

Thus clever readers follow a byline. Some will look up the writer's pen names and follow all their work -- but usually have a favorite byline.

That's because we use pen-names to play different games.

Likewise, genre labels actually label the GAME the writer is offering to play with the reader.

Linnea is a great Dungeon Master! She'll lead you a merry chase. She follows two formulae at once and sticks to both -- a neat trick.

HOPE'S FOLLY is a case in point (by the halfway mark; I don't know about the ending yet so this isn't a review but a "heads-up").

Linnea nailed the halfway mark with the "beat" of the Romance that has to go at that exact point.

And simultaneously, as a complication to the Romance but also the instigator of the Romance, the SF half of the plot hits the exact point that an SF novel has to hit at the halfway mark.

Because this is a "happy ending" genre (or at worst, bitter-sweet or cliff-hanger ending genre) -- the half-way mark has to be DARKEST HOUR when you can taste success, see it, smell it, know it - and somehow BAM success becomes impossible.

In film, they call the halfway point "raising the stakes" -- what can be lost by failing to succeed suddenly burgeons into something far more important than it was at the beginning.

Perhaps because of the mass market industries driving these "games readers play" with writers -- readers have internalized this structure and come to expect it -- and enjoy that expectation being fulfilled.

Maybe there is an artistic artificiality behind that, but it is inherent in the nature of entertainment that the most enjoyment a reader/viewer has from the underlying structural solidity of a story comes from the strength of that structural integrity, yes, but MOSTLY FROM THE STRUCTURE BEING INVISIBLE TO THE NAKED EYE.

Readers aren't supposed to be able to see the structure consciously. Writers must not only see that structure, but know lots of structures and be able to pour their story ideas into the structure most appropriate to the artistic material of the story.

Writers are there to be Dungeon Masters engineering a great, good, chase that allows readers a vast amount of freedom to create for themselves, but at the same time provides the latticework of structure.

Thus folks who are making the transition from Reader to Writer have to pass through a phase of "denial" (much like that phase which is part of grieving because they are grieving their personal innocence lost) in which they insist there are no structural rules they can not and should not break.

True art is formless.

The reader believes that because they have not been discerning the structure of the novels they like the most, and thus believe what they adore is structurelessness.

To gain the ability to write what they truly like to read, they must first admit that what they adore most is the structure -- and any solid flesh on that structure will satisfy.

Because readers don't perceive the underlying structure that thrills their subconscious minds, they participate in the game publishers play inventing genre labels.

Publishers try out a genre label and see if it "sells" -- if it shows promise, they put the label on more things. When they see which things sell better with that label, they begin to buy from writers only things which share that structure to publish under that label. Readers get to trust the genre label, and buy more.

With whetted appetite for a given structure, readers will scarf up more and more of anything called by that genre label.

Eventually, the market gets saturated, sales plummet, and something else skyrockets in sales. Publishers seek a label that says "just like what skyrocketed" and start trying to buy novels written with that exact same structure.

It's a cycle. I've known editors who survived the rise and fall of the bodice ripper, and other sub-genres. I know how they think. It's all about profit.

That won't change - it being all about profit.

So people who share a taste for a particular structure with lots of other people will have lots of novels to choose from. People who are looking for structures that are not popular will have to search in the byways of publishing, not the highways.

However, all that is now changing and changing very fast.

It's the recession-depression whatever we're facing. Intel has just announced they're building a new plant to make chips smaller and faster than EVER that use much less electricity (thus produce less heat).

E-books may be riding on the coat-tails of tech applications, but the coat-tails just got broader and longer with Intel's announcement. The e-book reader has always been the stumbling block in the logical extension of the data revolution to novels.

Readers have always been less than 5% of the population and currently that might be more like 3% (of people who read for fun, not instruction or work). Distribution has always been the commercial barrier.

Paper publishing is still melting down. We're losing newspapers (paperback books are printed on newsprint usually; no papers, no huge market for newsprint, and paper prices soar too high to make books affordable). Gas prices will soar again in a few months (April 2010 crude is over $50/barrel; today it's $39/barrel). Distribution of tons of printed books only to have them discarded is just not economical with a shrinking reading population.

Amazon CEO was interviewed on TV last night bragging they want to have all the books in the world ever printed available on Kindle. Google has similar ambitions.

The origin of "genre" lies in the secret publishers keep from readers -- that what readers get addicted to is STRUCTURE. Each genre has a set structure. It's not content or background, as seems intuitively obvious, it's structure.

"Space Opera" is the Western set in space. The "Western" is no longer saleable as book or TV show. But it lives on in Star Trek, Stargate, and there will be new icons of adventure into The Unknown.

The electronic tech revolution is eliminating the mechanism that makes keeping that secret profitable.

The structure of the fiction delivery system is in total disarray at the moment and will continue to foment. In fact, this next 18 months or so may be crucial to the novel as we know it.

Note this article -- it's not very new and doesn't say much new stuff, but it compiles a lot of facts into a picture that may show you what I'm talking about.


It's in a tech 'zine online, true, so there's bias.

I have to point out that I think "structure" will prevail. That there are reasons why the most people prefer this or that structure at any given time. That getting the most readers or viewers for your story will always be a writer's goal.

Also there are sound spiritual and esoteric reasons why this or that structure appeals to this or that audience.

Although we may see the e-market swamped with stories that have that so-yearned-for undisciplined formlessness that new writers and even some readers yearn for, I think the structural formula will prevail.

These formulae are not something writers made up, and not something publishers just invented and forced on us. They are formulae developed over millennia of storytelling from cave camp fire to e-book. They are formulae developed because storytellers wanted to hold their audience's attention.

They are formulae rooted deep in human psychology and spirituality. That's why readers become addicted to them. These formulae speak to the essence of what makes us human.

That's why I admire Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! series so much. He, personally, as an individual knows how primal this formula is. STC! GOES TO THE MOVIES delineates the exact rules for each of 10 genres Blake has identified empirically. He didn't invent them. Hollywood didn't invent them. MOVIE-GOERS INVENTED THEM by spending money to see movies with those formulae and shunning movies that didn't have those structures.

The formula is the genre.

Which brings us back to Linnea Sinclair.

I'm sure some readers will fault her execution of whichever Romance formula she is using for any given book. And I know I find missing elements in her SF formula. But she's put the two together into a very satisfying mix.

I, for one, am impressed with how she nailed that halfway-point in both formulae at once.

Those who were reading and studying what she and I have written on this blog about the Expository Lump, notably this post on verisimilitude vs reality and the blog posts linked within it -


should read and study the first 2 chapters of HOPE'S FOLLY, and the effect they have on you as a reader -- then the way the pacing changes in Chapter 3 and onwards.

Linnea explained the technique she used in the first 2 chapters, and I think there's a link to her explanation in this post.

Creating these effects on readers is an artform. When you want to create the effect Linnea created for you, use the technique she adopted here.

Just note that without those first 2 chapters, the mid-point of both the SF plot and the Romance plot of the story would not fall at the mid-point of the page count.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. I'm all for structure. Without it, I would be lost. I don't come by it naturally.

    However, Trend Hell sends me screaming into the night! The best way to escape that I've found is to read across the decades, thereby finding the best of each trend. The older releases are already thoroughly reviewed. Unfortunately, if new copies can't be bought, the authors don't see a penny of my devotion.

  2. Jacqueline, first, thanks so much for reading HOPE'S FOLLY. You know your input means the world...uh, the galaxy to me. ;-)

    I'm a follower not only of Snyder and his cat ;-), but Swain (as you know) and to some extent, Maass (make it worse, make it worse). I don't want to get into any spoilers at this date, but suffice it to say that I used a couple of Maass' suggestions specifically in FOLLY. In fact, I plotted out some of the conflicts in the book duringn a Maass in-person workshop last year.

    But chapter two, with Rya, yes, is pure Snyder. But I know you know that.

    As for failing in some of the SF elements and some of the romance elements, I plead guilty. I'm blogging on that later this week (2/12) at
    www.magicalmusings.com --specifically about writing cross-genre with "limited real estate." As we've often bemoaned, we stil write to word count. And writing cross genre means writing two plot arcs. It's difficult, even in 400 pages, to give full breadth and depth to both genres in that space. So you have to fudge out of necessity. I try very hard to fudge in the least noticeable areas but I don't always succeed. (Sometimes only because I feel so frustrated.) Those are likely the ones you're picking up.

    As for formula, so is a musical composition. I often liken a novel to Gershwin's RHAPSODY IN BLUE. When I listen to the full piece (15minutes long) I can "hear" a novel--including the mid-point you mention.

    I'm sure you know the piece. But have you ever listened to it AS a novel, Jacqueline? If not, I invite you to do so and let me/us know what you think! ~Linnea

  3. I'm glad you mentioned your sources for techniques and I hope anyone looking to duplicate your results will go study them. They're all good sources that didn't exist when I was learning.

    Email me, please, about the blog where you're discussing SF elements later to be sure I go read it.

    Juggling and cutting to space available likewise impinges on all the structural factors. That's another reason "length" is almost integral with the genre-signature.

    I hate Grand Opera -- but I love symphony music. Beethoven is a favorite (OK, I'm low-brow).

    Symphonies and novels do have a very similar structure and for that "primal" reason I cited.

    Thank you for alerting me to the genre discussion on goodreads.com


    I can think of ways to integrate the Romance and SF/Action plots to reduce the wordage and still satisfy both genre-requirements -- but not without alienating some of the readers of the type who participated in the discussion you started.

    I do admire that balancing act! But I can pick the whole structure of Hope's Folly apart and put the screws to the Worldbuilding behind it all. There's so much room for improvement, I'm glad you're working on another one.

    Hope's Folly is not flawless, but I think everyone should read it. And I doubt anyone would find that a difficult chore!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg