Writing Formulas

There are plenty of writing guides available for the serious writer, containing plenty of rules for the serious writer to follow. Most rules are common sense, such as using correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation, a few are more obscure, like when to use present perfect versus past perfect tense. There are also rules for style, again, most of which are common sense, such as don’t wait until the end of a story to introduce your lead character. Others simply do not need to be followed.

I call these unnecessary rules and restrictions imposed on stories The Formula: The main character must have an inner conflict and an outer one. During the story’s introduction he must be living in denial until circumstances force the outer conflict upon him, and at the story’s climax, he must face his inner conflict to resolve his outer one. By the resolution of the story, the character has grown emotionally and has become a better person.

But interesting stories do not always follow The Formula. For example, in the introduction of my story about Tommy the Toaster, Tommy does not live in denial and has no inner conflict; he is perfectly happy to be a toaster with human emotions. His only conflict is an outer one: he prefers to toast bread lightly, but his owner always sets the dial on extra dark. He resolves the conflict by adjusting his circuits accordingly, offering only light toast or charred ash.

Similarly, the lead character in my story Robbie the Rabid Rabbit has only an inner conflict: does he behave like a bubbly bunny, or does he go on a neighborhood biting spree, infecting all small mammals within hopping distance? Though he likes both, his inner conflict is resolved when he is snatched and eaten by Hector the Hawk. Robbie gets the final victory though, as Hector contracts gastroenteritis and is forced to eat a bland diet of chipmunk puree.

Some stories have neither an inner or outer conflict, but are simply slice of life expositions. Such is my story about Knicky the Knife, whose job is helping Farmer Bob slice the life out of dinnertime barnyard animals. His purpose is to slice and he does it without regrets. The story depicts a specific day when Knicky is used to cut the head off a chicken, then watches as the headless bird dances around for several minutes until Farmer Bob hits it with a shovel.

There are some stories that do not end with the main character growing emotionally, perhaps ending in a position worse than when they started. For example, in my story about Ollie the Orange, Ollie feels like the foreign fruit in a bowl of tangerines. Over the course of a week Ollie rots, causing spoilage to all the tangerines he comes in contact with. The only part of Ollie that grows is his mold.

Finally, there are stories offering no climax or resolution, like my story of Mikey the Mutilating Monster. At unpredictable intervals, and without warning, manglings occur in Misfortuneville showing signs of Mikey’s M.O. The hapless townspeople live in indefinite fear, never knowing when Mikey will strike, never getting enough clues to catch him. The story denies closure to the people of the village and robs the reader of resolution.

My philosophy is: Like certain aspects of life, some stories do not have characters with perfectly resolvable conflicts. Some situations do not perfectly fit The Formula. Not every story teaches a lesson in morality. But, of course, some do, like my story of Billy the Nuclear Bomb. He struggles internally between the ethics of killing and the justice of punishing the few to benefit the many. Outward he is torn between groups that oppose his use versus those who encourage it. Billy finally resolves his conflict by accepting his purpose is to destroy the very species which created him. Thus Billy grows – into a giant fireball that engulfs the Earth, destroying all humans – happy he has served his purpose.