Is All Fiction Formulaic Writing?

So you’re writing a narrative based piece of creative writing, like a novel, play, or screenplay, and you’re beginning to suspect that there might be an underlying formula to this.

To understand whether all fiction is formulaic you should develop an understanding of the concept of the sympathetic character, increasingly difficult obstacles, things which are seemingly insurmountable, and compelling desires. A complete knowledge of these concepts will help you to understand writing formulas!

This article will talk you through a conception of plot that will have you writing satisfying stories in no time at all.

Below I unpack Michael Hauge’s comment that you should ‘Enable a sympathetic character to overcome a series of increasingly difficult, seemingly insurmountable obstacles and achieve a compelling desire.’ 

Sympathetic Character

A character is sympathetic when we feel sympathy for them. So who do we feel sympathy for? People we like. People who need our help.

People who are essentially morally good, but are flawed, like us.

Think of people in your life that you feel sorry for, and wish you could help.

Make a list of the characteristics they display.

This is now your personal list of sympathetic traits. 

Increasingly Difficult Obstacles

Tension must go up! One way to achieve this is to have increasingly difficult obstacles.

If things are getting easier then the story is winding down, and ideally the story will get more intense until the final climax or crisis, in which the central objective of your protagonist will be finally resolved, and the central question of the story will be answered.

The obstacles can also get more difficult because your protagonist’s ability to deal with them is diminishing.

For instance if they are getting weaker due to hunger, or disability. 

Seemingly Insurmountable

The most compelling obstacles are ones that seem insurmountable.

This is probably because life can seem pretty insurmountable at times, and the only way to we achieve our objectives is to take things day by day and learn many lessons, as your character must!

In Gladiator, the protagonist’s objective to seek revenge on the Emperor for the murder of his wife and child seems impossible, until it is achieved.

This is why Superman stories sometimes run into a bit of a problem.

If your protagonist is all powerful, then no objective is insurmountable.

That’s why they needed to introduce kryptonite to give Supey a weakness, and also his Fortress of Solitude to reflect his inner / emotional weaknesses. 

Compelling Desire 

So what’s a compelling desire?

In this sense it really means something that compels both the protagonist and the audience.

It’s something the protagonist desperately wants to achieve, and something we desperately want them to achieve.

If their central objective is to make a cup of tea, this is not going to be a significant and compelling moment for protagonist or viewer.

If they are preparing a poisoned cup of tea for Hitler, now you’ve got a compelling desire! 

If you stick to these relatively simple steps, which sounds easy but is surprisingly difficult, you’ll be on the way to a great story.

For your own amusement, keep track of the ways you talk yourself out of using this formula while you’re writing.