Is there such a thing as a formula for storytelling?
This question about a formula for storytelling always interests me, and it triggers a strong, personal response in me. It seems so obvious to me that we have recurring patterns in our stories and novels, and I can’t help thinking that the common results must come from common starting points. This goes for every Cinderella retelling and script model like Save the Cat, where a plot framework can be seen as clearly as the exterior contours of a house. So, I have this uneasy sense that formulas do exist in storytelling.
At the same time, the writer in me, the person who gets frustrated and confused in the middle of writing a novel, resists believing that formulas are relevant, probably because they elude me entirely in my own work, and I think, am I just an idiot for resisting an obvious tool? Why do I bother trying to invent something original when I’m going to end up with something familiar anyway? Writing would be so EASY with a formula, I think, like a cookie recipe. Surely all the smart writers have figured out formulas by now.
But I can’t follow a formula. I have zero passion for a formula. Formulas feel like teases or lessons I could never master. To write a novel, I need to be fascinated, which means I need to NOT KNOW what’s coming next so I can be curious enough to figure it out. I have to write books I don’t know how to write yet. For me, discovery is the point of writing, and studying out a formula so I could follow it feels like the opposite of discovery.
Please don’t think I'm excusing an innate laziness. I’ve certainly argued with myself that formulas are like grammar, which I should grasp before I write in a nonstandard way. Similarly, I get that knowing a cliché helps you avoid it, and that children play more freely in the safety of a fenced yard. I’ve studied plots of stories I love, structures of plays, shapes of paragraphs, commonalities in cover copy, and progressions of turning points.
But in the end, I do better with my quirky discovery process. I prefer to let each novel create its own guidelines, and I trust that if I listen to the characters, they’ll tell me how to manage.
The Forge School is the most prestigious arts school in the country. The secret to its success: every moment of the students' lives is televised as part of the insanely popular Forge Show, and the students' schedule includes twelve hours of induced sleep meant to enhance creativity. But when first year student Rosie Sinclair skips her sleeping pill, she discovers there is something off about Forge. In fact, she suspects that there are sinister things going on deep below the reaches of the cameras in the school. What's worse is, she starts to notice that the edges of her consciousness do not feel quite right. And soon, she unearths the ghastly secret that the Forge School is hiding—and what it truly means to dream there.