Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What is a formula novel?

Thanks, @N.J. Qualls for pointing out that people would like to know more about formula writing.

In my last post, I mentioned that I have some favorite authors who follow a formula, and I still love every single one of their books. What exactly does this mean?

Formula fiction, simply put, can be defined as storylines and plots that have been reused to the extent that the narratives are predictable.

Victoria Holt was my introduction to formula novels. Basically, every book she wrote was about an orphan, or a heroine who would soon be orphaned, from low birth (gothic novels). Often her best friend was someone of a higher station whose life she was able to be a part of, whether through sharing a tutor or what-have-you. In the end, she marries the man of higher station (governess marries employer, privileged friend's brother), even though she isn't sure if he's done something notoriously bad. Like kill his first wife, or commit some other murder, or somesuch. In fact, the orphaned heroine usually chooses the guy she's less sure of over the "nice guy by default." The names are changed, the setting changes from manor house to manor house, but the general plot is formula. Yet, every story has it's own set of characters with slightly altered circumstances. Until recently, I hadn't seen anyone do it as well.

Jill Shalvis's heroes all tend to be "Alpha" males, macho guys with high power jobs and a soft side, looking for a simpler life. The storylines consist of a woman (or man) down on their luck who find themselves, through whatever circumstances, in small town America. They often have a dark/troubled past that they must overcome and meet someone they share such chemistry with that they can't control themselves. Determined NOT to fall in love, they somehow always find their happily ever after. And I have loved every incarnation of this formula that I have read so far.

The basic story is essentially the same. The key to writing a good "formula" novel lies in your depth of character. Make your reader care about the character and how much it costs them to be vulnerable. They're all walking the same road. It's their journey that drives the story.

If the plot of every one of an author's books is essentially the same--only the names have been changed to protect the innocent--you'll see that they're using a formula. I can only imagine Victoria Holt sitting down to write a novel and saying to herself, "What kind of trouble will my orphan get into this time?" Or Jill Shalvis saying to herself, "Who's running away from their past today?" Some people see that as a condemnation to the author's work. For me, it's sticking with something that works, and these two ladies I've cited today did a beautiful job of making it work -- at least for me!


  1. My opinion (and I know nothing): Both are excellent authors, so the system works for them. I wonder tho if eventually the reader (after reading dozens of their books) begins to feel like every book feels the same. I found myself thinking that after reading Danelle Steele for so many years. I could almost predict what would happen. Very interesting post.

  2. Yes, I think you're right. I do hit a saturation point, but generally speaking, I will go back for more after a beak.