The Story Equation
They say there are only 22 variation of plot. Actually they say there are seven basic plots. Well to be honest it comes down to three types of story: this guy does something, this girl does something, or this thing does something.
When you come right down to it, every story has a formula. They all follow the same basic pattern: beginning, middle, end. Even when some bright spark decides to reinvent the wheel, all they’re really doing is leaving bits off or switching them round. But you can still see the same basic equation at the heart of things. Formulaic writing is seen as a bad thing, but this formula is far from simple.
Formula in writing is not like a basic mathematic equation, a+b=c. It isn’t fixed like that. The brain is a sophisticated piece of kit and can hold more than one idea at a time, even when those ideas seem to contradict each other. Thing is, even though we can operate on a very complex level, we have to simplify those ideas when we try to explain them to someone else. Paper, with its two dimensions, can’t contain a formula that might be: (a + or – b) before or after x divided by and then appearing to be multiplied by but really to the power of z, which secretly appeared before a, or so it seems…
All variables are flexible and all points are floating. In our heads we can switch them round on the fly, without needing to rigorously test their logic, because we do it naturally. You can see that’s true just in the way we tell each other stories. Not when we write them down and try to sell them, just when we speak to each other about the events of the day.
We know where to start the story (You’ll never guess what happened to Dave…), and if we realise we’ve started in the wrong place, we automatically know how to self-correct (actually, first I should tell you…). We can slip in sub-stories (of course, what he didn’t know was…), we can introduce characters and fill in backstory for them (You know, Mike’s cousin, the one with the eye-patch), and we can keep all the balls up in the air effortlessly.
We are telling stories to a formula. Beginning, middle and end, although not necessarily in that order. And no matter how much we mess with the formula, how complicated we make it, what specifics we insist are necessary and which aren’t, it’s still instantly recognisable. You still know a murder-mystery when you see one, whether it’s horribly clichéd or pretentiously avant-garde. Not because it follows some simplistic pattern (which it might) but because the human brain operates on a far more complicated level, and by contrast to all the crazy shit we deal with on a daily basis, stories seem simple and easy to break down into building blocks.
This means the same basic formula can give you a story about a man who saves a child and dies in the process and the meaning of the story can be cynical and about how no good deed goes unpunished, or it could be life affirming about the power of love and sacrifice. Or it could be both at the same time, depending on the reader’s state of mind when she reads it.
Formula isn’t limiting, it’s freeing and each variable is open to an infinite number of possibilities. But formula also isn’t a fixed, short list of instructions in some book on how to get on the Kindle best sellers list. It gives you a direction to head in, but you don’t have to stay on course, and you don’t have to end up at a particular destination.
So, if the genre you write in appears to have certain ‘rules’ that seem to preclude the stuff you’re writing, don’t worry about it too much. The rules as put down on paper can never hold the whole of the formula you’re writing to, and when the story you write reads well and catches the reader’s attention, the formula will magically adjust to include it. In fact it always did.