FORM VS FORMULA: the question every writer needs to ask, and why




I heard Kevin Rose give a speech to a crowd of young entrepreneurs about developing a successful website. The nuggets of wisdom Kevin tossed out included a story about this really cool guy on his development team who would say, whenever they were discussing a plan that excited them: “Okay. What can we take out?”

I like this question.

It’s also a key question for stylists. I love good clothes, I admire people with style, and a cardinal rule about maintaining a wardrobe is editing, editing, editing. You have to know what to throw out.

You have to streamline.

Personal style is not about the clothes so much as knowing who you are — the story of yourself — and how to tell that story to the world, everyday, through fashion.

And as any storyteller knows, revision is important.


There’s something comforting about clutter. Maybe because it taps into that instinctive, survival sense we have to guard against potential famine. It creates a sense of plenty.

And yet: too much choice can paralyze. Put two different kinds of jam on a grocery shelf, and customers will buy one. Put twelve different kinds of jam on a shelf, and fewer customers will buy jam at all. Why is this?

Maybe because the customer is required to choose, and choice involves evaluation and commitment and the possibility of mistake.

Which is a lot to ask when you’re cruising Whole Foods and feeling rushed to get on with your day.

And this is just for jam.

And maybe there’s something else. When I was at the World Fantasy Convention last weekend, I sat in on a panel involving the portrayal of sorcery and sorcerers in fantasy literature. The challenge of portraying a sorcerer as protagonist, the panel agreed — rather than as a mentor character, like Merlin or Obi-Wan Kenobi — is giving that character enough limitations to make the story interesting.

Because “when everything is possible, nothing is interesting.”


Borders, limitations: these things define us, and define our course of action.

Fear paralyzes — but only when we don’t know what to do. Give us a threat, but also a definite course of action with which to combat it, and we swing into action.


I’m often struck by how writers confuse form and formula. Or how writers can take a form and turn it into formula (the Hero’s Journey comes to mind). To me, there’s a distinct difference between the two, although it’s difficult to put it into words: like art that I like, I just know it when I see it.

Maybe it’s this: form is a simplicity of line and structure.

less is more

Form offers a set of limitations that encourages innovation and releases creativity. Everything from master haikus, which are limited to an entirety of 17 syllables, to films like The Terminator or Star Wars, where the writer/directors needed to create a convincing science-fiction story while working around the problems of budget and limited special effects.

(Contrast the power of a movie like Star Wars to one of its recent sequels, when Lucas had the world at his disposal.)

Form is about, well, form. Structure.

Formula is a contrived and convoluted set of rules.

Form ‘feels’ beautiful; formula does not. Formula suppresses creativity and kills off originality and individual expression.

If form is about structure, formula is about content. Formula is what happens when you don’t understand the meaning of that structure and try to break it down into easy bite-size pieces, a set of instructions you can package and sell.


I’m as guilty of clutter as anybody. I have two stories out in two different anthologies and one story “works” much better than the other. I don’t need anybody to tell me this, I can feel it in my gut.

I can feel the shape, the simplicity, of the story that is good.

And now I’m trying to write a novel — called The Decadents — and I’m a bit blocked. The writing stalls.

I have all this material to work with: all these different characters and ideas and plots and subplots.

I’m a bit paralyzed.

But it’s a little bit frightening to strip things away. To stand in silence and stillness and confront the essentials of things.

The story of who we are.

The story — the real story — that we need to tell.


But art — any kind of art, whether it’s a novel or a movie or a painting or a really cool website — is risk. We open one door by slamming shut a dozen others.


So if you’re feeling a bit blocked today, ask yourself this: Have you given yourself enough limitations?

Whether it’s time — I will write for twenty minutes starting now, GO! — or materials — I will only use shades of blue, GO! — or subject matter — I will write a play about four people locked in a room, four actors, one set, that’s it, GO!

And if you’re not feeling particularly inspired today, it might help if I keep asking you this:

What can you take out?

Nov 2, 2009

9 comments · Add Yours

I have learned to love the process of “taking out.” Even stuff you love has to go if it bogs down the story. Stephen King said writers have to “kill our darlings.” Wishing you all the best in getting the flow going on the new novel.


Thanks. I think I might have figured out a way to go forward with the story (of my new novel), but I think it’s also a case of the book not quite wanting to be what I’d originally intended it to be. Which is part of the fun — the pleasures of discovery, and all that.

I also love to take stuff out — it’s like hacking away all the dead stuff and seeing the living thing emerge, sleek & dewy. Plus it’s easier to take stuff out than to put stuff in. :)


I’m frequently surprised–even amazed–at the way the characters “take over” the story and it ends up being something completely different than my initial conception.

That’s the fun, though. It’s the stories where I feel as if I am forcing it too much–where the characters are passive–that I know I am failing. But we need our failures, too. ;-)


I’m learning the process of cutting before you actually put anything down on paper. It’s a half-solution to the problem of being unwilling to cut what I’ve put down on paper — the other half being actually learning to cut what I’ve put down on paper.

I think the blank sheet of paper problem (you know, paralysis by No Words) is analogous to No Limitations.

Also, this explains why worldbuilding as I go along never worked for me. If I can change the rules…there are no limits.


Nice points, esp. the ‘blank paper’ one. Which might explain why one technique I learned somewhere to get over blank-page-paralysis is to write an opening sentence, any opening sentence, and then take a little break. When you come back to the page, you have something to work with and a place to start and (in theory) your mind has been mulling over that specific sentence. Something like that, anyway. Like a guidepost in a wilderness, however humble.


I’ve not heard of that one before.

Having said that, there’s nothing more I rewrite more often than a first sentence.

My theory is that with a first sentence, your sunk/irrecoverable costs is very low. If it’s a scene/worldbuilding etc, your costs are higher.

True, you’re supposed to ignore sunk costs when you make decisions, but rational human beings are the unicorns of economics.


Great and timely post! I like the addition by subtraction practice. I find it’s a lot easier to know what I like in someone else’s work than in mine. I like taking time to let stuff I’ve written percolate, much like your suggestion regarding the blank piece of paper. More than anything, fresh perspective seems to guide my writing.


Hemingway always finished any writing session by typing the first line on the last page, so that we he returned the next day he would have one sentence to start from.


Adding limitations and taking stuff out. I can honestly say that’s a perspective I’ve never really considered…I’ve always been focused on how to make *more* space/time to write in and *adding* material (being productive in the simplest sense of the word).

Eventually all that’s left is what you haven’t tried…


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