Most fiction writers have an image of themselves in their favorite writing nook, comfy, beverage of choice nearby, clicking away at the keyboard and filling page after page with best-selling content. If only…
The reality of writing fiction is more like the old black-and-white movies, with a harried typist frantically ripping pages from the typewriter, wadding them up angrily and throwing them in the vicinity of an overflowing wastebasket.
If only there was a magic formula for writing fiction…could there be?
Some writers think not. Take Scott Bartlett, author of The Royal Flush. Mr. Bartlett takes on author Stephen King and disagrees with him, saying there is no novel-writing formula. Brave, that! Bartlett indicates: “The suggestion that there’s only one ‘true’ way to write fiction is absolutely absurd.”
For example, Scott Bartlett prefers to outline prior to writing (outliner), while Stephen King does not (pantser; writing by the seat of his pants). So those of us with an urge to organize are now in a quandary. Of course we should outline first, right? That’s what all our teachers taught us in school. But if Stephen King says he doesn’t…well, surely we can’t go against such a successful Red Sox fan…I mean, author. We’re stuck in a dilemma.
Blog writer Stark Raving (not sure if that’s her real name) takes the middle ground. Yes, says Ms. Raving, writing is an art. But our brains are wired for structure, aka a formula. If we follow a general formula, or writing rules, we’ll have success. “When it comes to our brains, following a specific formula when writing a story makes all the difference as to whether your reader reaches the end or not.”
JoEllen Nordstrom, founder of FirstEditing.com, takes the same approach, likening writing fiction to weaving a beautiful tapestry. “A fictional novel must have a central theme. The central theme is woven throughout and connects all minor subplots with its central core.” It certainly is an art, but it’s also very technical, following a set pattern to achieve the intricate scenes depicted on some of the world’s ancient and modern tapestries, or epic and best-selling novels.
Our friends at ProWritingAid.com offer more than just excellent grammar-checking. There’s a blog on their website that outlines a roadmap (aka formula) for writing your novel in 14 steps. They also use the skeleton analogy, starting with the premise and plot as bones, expanding into characters, goals, and locations (scene settings), and ending with what my college English teacher told us in almost every class: the three most important steps in writing are revision, revision, and revision.
Let’s go through some steps of writing fiction and see if we can funnel them into a working formula.
We’ll start with story elements. JoEllen Nordstrom of FirstEditing.com and Kristina Stanley, founder of Fictionary.co, have joined forces to bring the art and science of fiction together for authors and editors alike. They’ve even created an extremely informational YouTube video series covering each of 38 story elements individually so fiction writers can take advantage of tried and true methods, aka a formula. In addition, Ms. Nordstrom has a trained and Fictionary-certified staff of editors ready to help writers become better storytellers.
Ms. Stanley has developed a list of 38 story elements that are essential to fiction, and with her mathematics background, has developed software to classify those 38 story elements on a scene-by-scene basis. This results in astounding visual graphs and charts, including a story arc for your fiction novel based on a compilation of the story arcs of best-selling novels to see where yours lands in comparison, and thus, where you can make improvements.
Next up, let’s consider the plot of a fiction novel. The plot of a fiction novel is like the bones of a body. Without it, you’ll just have a jumbled mess. According to the Fictionary.co formula, there are 16 distinct elements related to plot alone that can be tracked and improved upon to make your story good, or a good fiction story even better.
One of these plot elements is the story arc we referred to earlier, comprised of five major story arc points: inciting incident, plot point 1, middle, plot point 2, and climax. Additional plot elements that are important to get right are tension and conflict, reason the scene is in the book in the first place (does it even relate to the plot or is it distracting fluff?), and entry/exit hooks for each scene to keep the reader turning pages.
Characters are another important element in your novel; without believable characters your readers can bond with, root for, or despise, they might not even finish reading your book and worse, may give you bad reviews that will affect your reputation and warn potential readers away. Again Fictionary.co has broken this element down on a scene-by-scene basis, this time into 10 separate elements to consider.
The characters also must relate to the plot; does the protagonist have an external goal that matches the plot of the book? What if the character fails to meet a goal? Is this even necessarily bad? Most of us are looking for a happy ending in our recreational reading, but if every single goal is miraculously met by the protagonist in a book, there’s no tension, no reason to keep reading to find out if a character ultimately reaches their goal.
Knowing how many characters there are in a scene, and how many times a certain character appears in each scene throughout the book, may make you take a pause; for example, if a character other than the protagonist is in the majority of scenes, maybe you need to change the protagonist.
Speaking of character goals, your protagonist will likely have an external goal, the one related to the book. Is she a detective chasing a murderer, and each scene leads her closer and closer to potential capture? She may also have an internal goal; don’t let herself get distracted by the dashing young detective assigned as her partner. Tracking these goals scene by scene will help you enhance your story with a variety of achieving the goals and sometimes missing them.
So, is there a formula for writing fiction or not? The short answer is, it depends. Are you an outliner, or a pantser? Do you create an intricate storyboard with pins and Post-its and index cards, with different-colored strings connecting characters and plots and clues? Or do you sit down, rub your hands together, and start typing?
A very entertaining blog on CredibleInk.com is adamant: Fiction writing is “as formulaic as hell.” However, this blog concludes with the loophole we need in the Scott Bartlett vs. Stephen King dilemma. “Story structure is the Foundations for your story. Without this, your story will literally crumble into a messy heap. Once you’ve clearly shown your storytelling chops [which Stephen King very much has], you can wander as far away from it as you want and your fans will follow you [which King fans very definitely will do].”