Fun with formulas

This blog post arises out of another discussion at work about romance novels, and specifically the idea that romance novels are formulaic.

In a sense, it’s a fair comment. Books that can be classified into a specific genre are, of course, books that fit the pattern associated with that genre. They follow a formula, just as pies follow a formula in that they have pastry and a filling. Within the formula, though, the scope is enormous.

The person making the accusation usually means the term in a negative way, however. They have in mind the idea that the characters are stereotypes and the plots predictable. They may even believe the old myth that the first kiss must occur one third of the way through chapter six. Bless them. They’ve probably been reading romance all their lives and calling it something else.

So I thought I’d talk about a few literary devices, just to show you that, in the final analysis, all literature is formulaic.

The12FacesofHumanKind-TammoDeJonghTropes are recognisable patterns

At Facebook parties, I’ve been offering guests a trope bingo card. In the 25 squares of the card (five by five) are common historical romance tropes, and the goal is to match a book to a row of them. Four is a win. Five is a bigger win.

So what are tropes? They are literary patterns – story elements that a writer can expect readers to recognise. Historical romance has the virgin widow, the arranged marriage, second chance love… there are dozens of patterns a writer can draw on, knowing that readers will feel a sense of familiarity.

It’s the author’s job to take that pattern and either turn it on its head or combine it with other patterns to make an unexpected whole.

Stereotypes are unproven assumptions

Stereotypes are different. Stereotypes are oversimplified classifications of people or things. We stereotype when we look at one or two characteristics and make a huge number of assumptions about the person or thing based on prejudices rather than experience.

Stereotypes can occasionally be useful: the evil drug lord is probably a reasonable character to have. But good authors might also use stereotypes for characters that take a more central role, only to break them in an interesting way.

Archetypes are characters that all human cultures recognise

Some characters are universally recognisable. When we recognise them in a story, we know the role they will play, and we gain a deep satisfaction from seeing them play it. The hero is an archetype. Here’s a description I found of his (or her) characteristics:

Motto: Where there’s a will, there’s a way
Core desire: to prove one’s worth through courageous acts
Goal: expert mastery in a way that improves the world
Greatest fear: weakness, vulnerability, being a “chicken”
Strategy: to be as strong and competent as possible
Weakness: arrogance, always needing another battle to fight
Talent: competence and courage
The Hero is also known as: The warrior, crusader, rescuer, superhero, the soldier, dragon slayer, the winner and the team player.

Different pundits offer different numbers of archetypes, from four to as many as 47. The key is that they are cross-cultural; you find them in all human story-telling in one guise or another.

Plot lines can be classified

Some people suggest that all of literature consists of only seven basic plots. Others find as many as 36. A couple of years ago, I sat down with half a dozen different lists and came up with 13. Interwoven, and with different tropes and archetypes, they create an infinite number of stories, but here they are in their elemental form. I’ve expressed them as situations rather than exploring the whole plot line, because each of the 13 takes a different trajectory, depending on whether it leads to a happy ending or a tragic ending.

  1. The worth of a good character is not recognised.
  2. The overreaching and egotism of the hero or heroine causes disaster.
  3. Actions by the hero or heroine in the past eventually catch up with them, and they must pay their debt.
  4. One character (either hero or heroine) is torn between two love interests, often a spouse and another person they prefer.
  5. The villain tricks or tempts the hero, the heroine or both into detrimental action.
  6. The love between the hero and the heroine is forbidden.
  7. Something precious is taken away, leading to a search.
  8. The hero or heroine is repeatedly foiled, but keeps trying.
  9. A sinner is required to do penance over a long period of time.
  10. A hero or heroine must defeat a monster and restore order to the world.
  11. A hero or heroine travels in search of priceless treasure and fights evil and overpowering odds.
  12. The hero or heroine is thrust into an alien environment and make their way back to normal life.
  13. Evil grows ever stronger, bringing the hero or heroine almost to death, and they are saved only by miraculous intervention.



2 thoughts on “Fun with formulas

  1. I’ve been making a collection of tropes in order to use them all eventually – though not in the same book. So far I’m up to 38, having added The Wife Sale recently. Of course they’re more specific than your list. I love your thirteen though, and I’m just going to go through them again to see how many examples I can think of.

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