Under Siege #24: The Formula

What is the secret to writing a bestselling novel?  What is the formula to use to ensure that the dialogue crackles, the plot moves with pace, and readers are hooked?  There are as many answers to these questions as there are how-to books touting that they alone have the elusive formula for successful writing.  There are broad formulas: hook the reader in the first chapter with the inciting incident; introduce a complication / confict in the second chapter; etc.  There are more specific formulas.  I’ve been told that comedy happens when characters are in situations where each of them knows something the other doesn’t, and that it happens where the reader knows something the characters don’t, or that it happens when trivial circumstances impede a character’s dreams (drama being when non-trivial circumstances impede a character’s dreams).  Advice on writing great dialogue ranges from the fittingly terse—keep it short—to the fiendishly complex—make everything your characters say have both a surface meaning and a deeper meaning that reveals character or plot.  Um, really?  Everything they say?

All joking aside, the truth is that a lot of writing is formulaic.  Genres follow recognizable rules.  That said, I strongly believe in a deeper truth: there are no magic formulas. Successful writers do not spend a lot of time worrying about tricks that will make their writing good.  They are more concerned with plot, character arcs, themes, and style.  And they should be!  These are what make for good writing.  And improving your writing is all about one thing: work.  Like any craft, writing is something that you’ll get better at the more you do it.  And like any piece of craftsmanship, novels improve the more time you put into them.

Now, in my experience, most people either don’t believe this or don’t want to believe it.  They would prefer that there be some sort of short-cut, which would lead to instant success if only they could discover it.  My mother-in-law, for instance, likes to bring up (again and again) the example of Robin Cook, a writer of excellent thrillers.  She says that she once heard an interview with Cook, in which he said that before he wrote his bestselling thriller Coma, he analyzed other thrillers, figured out their formula, then simply applied it.  Bingo: instant bestseller!  Why, she asks, don’t I do that?

First off, I have no idea if Cook actually said any of this; I have a feeling that his actual position was a bit more nuanced.  But that doesn’t matter, because even if he did say it, the truth is that its adherence to formula is not what makes Coma a great book.  First off, not every thriller follows the same formula.  Accordingly, the formula that Cook (purportedly) discovered is likely his own invention.  Clearly it works for him, but the formula is not what sets Cook apart.  The basic demands of the thriller genre are not exactly a tightly-guarded secret.  Do a Google search for “how to write a thriller,” and you’ll get almost fourteen-million results.  Clearly, the “secret” to thrillers is out.  Why then have Cook’s books succeeded where so many others failed?  The answer is frustratingly simple: they are better written.  They have tighter plots, cleverer twists, more interesting characters.  And what’s the secret to all of that?  I don’t know the particulars of how Cook did it, but my guess would be lots and lots of work.

So if you want to write a great book, I advise throwing out all of the formulas.  Tthey only get in the way.  It can be hard to focus on what you should be doing—writing—while questing for the secret formula that will transform your novel into a bestseller.  But if you must have a formula then here it is: write, write, write, then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.  And if that doesn’t work, write some more!



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