Form is not Formula

Many writers fight against anything that resembles form in writing, but form can be a good thing. T.S. Eliot said, “When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost — and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.”

To keep a work from sprawling, to give it a feeling of inexorability, everything in a novel needs to be related to everything else in the novel. If it is a love story, the theme needs to be related to love, the inner conflicts need to be related to love, the setting and the imagery should add to the tone of a love story. Murder, mayhem, and mystery are all acceptable elements of a love story, but they need to relate to the love story. Do they bring the lovers together? Or do they tear them apart?

The form of a love story demands the meeting of two would-be lovers who are worthy of being loved, something that throws them together and keeps them together while they are trying to overcome physical or emotional obstacles to their happiness, a bleak moment when it seems as if they will never make it, an interesting twist or a final crisis to delay the ending a bit more, and then a fitting and satisfying ending.

In category romance, more than any other genre, there are extensive forms to follow depending on the publisher, and those publishers explain exactly what they want. For example, Harlequin has a new imprint called Next which is designed for women over forty who want to know what comes next in their lives. The readers of these stories have already experienced first love, perhaps been married, maybe have grown children, so they have different goals and dreams than women in their twenties and thirties. And writers of these stories have new forms to follow.

But form is not formula. Form helps focus a story, and within any form are an infinite number of variables. The freshness and originality of the story depends upon the writer and the writer’s choices.

Writing is all about the choices a writer makes, and the more specific those choices are, the more the work will burst out in vivid color. At the very least, form helps determine the initial choices necessary when beginning to write a novel. Form is like the viewfinder on a camera. Only certain objects are visible through the viewfinder, yet while looking at what those objects, we get an impression of the entire environment. That, in the end, is what writing is: showing an entire world by the specific characters we create, the objects we choose to describe, the story we choose to tell no matter what its form.


6 Responses to “Form is not Formula”

  1. Vana Roth Says:

    I agree form helps keep a story from straying. I like to use Freytag’s Pyramid for starters tool to keep stories within purpose even if there aren’t any form requirements. I don’t think any author should be discourage from writing because of a publishers requirements. Creating the bond with the reader by giving them something they can relate to is entirely up to the authors imagination. How well the author satisfies the readers senses is what sets them apart and keeps readers coming back for more.

    Great post Pat!

  2. nomananisland Says:

    Hiya Pat — Between your comments and others, I think I finally fixed that first chapter, 3. The Middle, on No Man an Island. Would love to hear what you think. I’m hoping it’s a big improvement.

  3. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I sometimes write sonnets, which is about a restrictive a form as is possible for a creative endeavor. And yet within the rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter is it possible to convey a very rich tapestry of feeling. It does force you to focus on exactly what you mean to say.

  4. Bertram Says:

    Sonnet is a good example of form that does not have to be formulaic.

    You write sonnets? I’m impressed.

  5. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I have written about twenty five. I’ll send you a couple sometime.

  6. Bertram Says:

    I’d like to read them.

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