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Transcript for Episode 2.7

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode Seven: Using Writing Formulas With Bob Defendi


Key points: Formulas are the basic patterns that we use in stories all the time. Cliches are formulas that have been done the same way a million times already. When the formula drives the characters, you have an idiot plot. Throw out your first ideas, because they’ve been done before — and around your fourth or fifth idea, you will start to come up with something that will surprise your audience. Let the story flow from the characters. Don’t allow your characters to be slaves to plot, make it the other way around.

Howard, Dan, Bob

[Howard] Bob is joining us because at the time we recorded this, Brandon was on book tour. But right now, Brandon’s back…
[Bob] And in a body-sized closet under my basement. I bought a new house, I had to try it out.
[Dan] Even if he weren’t, though, I doubt he will ever listen to this podcast.
[Howard] Was that a Cask of Amontillado joke?
[Bob] Yes.

[Howard] Well, speaking of Cask of Amontillado jokes — okay, this seg’s going to be kind of rough — we’re talking about formulas and when to use them. Dan, what am I talking about when I say formulas?
[Dan] Formula. You’re talking about the basic patterns that show up in stories — whether that’s three act format, whether it’s something like the Hero’s Journey — kind of a very wide general outline/guideline that a story is going to follow.
[Howard] Bob, when do we use formulas?
[Bob] Most all the time.
[Howard] On purpose?
[Bob] Not necessarily — but a formula is a formula because it contains all the elements that we expect from a story. If you see a story, and you say, “wow that was really predictable,” it might be because they flubbed some part of the formula.
[Howard] Okay, now I’m confused. Because if the formula contains the things that we expect, and you use the formula right, wouldn’t that make the story predictable?
[Bob] I set that up well, didn’t I?
[Howard] Dan, I think Bob is schooling us…
[Dan] And we just started

[Bob] You would think so, but one of the elements is surprise your reader. So if you skip that — for instance in the three act structure, there’s always a twist in the middle — if you don’t have the twist in the middle, the plot will seem very linear and by the time you get to the end everybody will say well you know it just kinda petered along where it started, nothing really surprised me, nothing really changed, nothing really challenged me…
[Dan] Now let’s make the point clear here that when we are talking about formula we are not talking about cliches. And in a lot of cases, I think when something seems predictable, it’s because they did the formula wrong and turned it into a cliche. And in many ways, that’s what a cliche is, it’s just a formula that’s been done a million times the same way, or very poorly, or very unskillfully.
[Howard] When you say a formula’s been done a million times the same way — we talked earlier about the farmboy leaving on a quest and saving the world — we’ve seen it in Luke Skywalker — okay, name some other farmboys for me quick…
[Bob] Robert Jordan
[Dan] Eragon
[Howard] We’ll come back to that because I think that’s a great tool — and I mean tool in the good sense of the term.
[Dan] Being a great tool
[Howard] So cliche is when you take the formula — the formula is not farmboy saves the world — the formula is — unless I’m wrong — that’s the Hero’s Journey. It’s when you take that formula and say well gosh the hero has to come from humble beginnings and what could be more humble than a lowly farmboy…
[Bob] Exactly.
[Howard] And that’s where you become a cliche.

[Dan] The Hero’s Journey is what we English majors call an archetype — it’s something that’s been around forever — and you can find that Hero’s Journey of the young — whether it’s young, or whether it’s poor, or whether it’s stupid — whatever humble beginnings that the character starts from, they will overcome that and eventually defeat the bad guys. That is an archetype that has existed since time immemorial. Where it becomes a cliche is where it’s a farmboy who does the same things that Luke Skywalker did and the same things that everyone else has done…
[Howard] The pig keeper in the Horned King.
[Bob] Now let’s give an example of taking that exact same formula and doing something really different. I’m listening to an audio book right now — To the Mirror of Her Dreams by Donaldson. And it’s a exact same story. She comes from a humble beginning but she’s the daughter of a very, very rich man. She works a charity job because she doesn’t need money. By all financial ratings, she is not from a humble beginning but she is so meek — she has been convinced she is so worthless that she doesn’t even really believe she exists. She has that low self-esteem. And that makes her an incredibly humble character. And so she is following — I’m assuming, I’m not at the end of the book yet — she’s following that same kind of Hero’s Journey growth through her story as the farmboy does but Donaldson kind of took it and turned it…
[Howard] It doesn’t feel like a cliche.
[Howard] By the same token, you got Brandon’s first book of the Mistborn trilogy. Vin is filling the humble character role — and she’s a thief — a street rat — and that’s not cliche because we’ve only seen that done a couple of times. Aladdin is the example that comes to mind.
[Dan] But the big thing that keeps it from being a cliche is that he’s following the formula in that here’s this humble character but the surroundings are different — it’s a new setting.
[Howard] He’s invented a new context and all that.
[Dan] the character has to do different things — the character has different powers that she uses to solve different conflicts. So even though the formula for Mistborn is essentially the formula for Star Wars and the formula for Cinderella and the formula for anything else that uses the Hero’s Journey, the trappings are completely different and that keeps it very fresh.
[Bob] If I use [garbled] as an example, do you guys have to start humming?
[Howard] No, we’ve done away with that.
[Dan] If you use your own, maybe we will.
[Bob] I was just going to say Elantris — you could make the same argument. The main character is a prince, but by the first sentence of chapter 1, he is in the most humble situation you can be in — in that world.
[Dan] That is correct.

[Howard] Let’s take a moment for the benefit of our listeners and enumerate some formulas. Just throw out names. We’ve talked about three act, we’ve talked about Hero’s Journey…
[Bob] Romance — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.
[Howard] Okay. What else we got?
[Dan] There’s one that I kind of think of as the two act format — where the first half of the story, the heroes are reacting to the villain, and in the second half, they take the active hand and the villain starts reacting to them.
[Howard] Our friend Dan Willis who happens to be standing over here in the corner — shout to us, Dan…
[Willis] Hello.
[Howard] Dan has talked to us before about the three disaster format and Bob — I think you mentioned when we were talking about Lawrence Schoen’s Buffalito stories — talked about try-fail cycles?
[Bob] Yes, yes. Because generally to make a story as interesting as possible, you want to make sure that the first thing that the hero tries to do to win, fails. And the second thing he tries to do to win, fails. And probably the third and forth depending on how long you are — how long a story you’re writing on if you’re writing a short story or a novel — and then finally when you reach the end of your word count then he succeeds — that would be the try fail cycle. But the thing is — an example that they give in the Writers of the Future — I went to the Writers of the Future workshop a few years back — they talk about A Man for All Seasons. The main character in there has to by the end of it decide that he would rather die than betray his honor — but before he gets to that decision, he tries every single thing he can think of to get acquitted in that court case. He pulls every trick out of the book that he can until he finally gets to the point where it’s like — that’s it, I have to either betray what I believe in and live or stick to it and die — and that’s the point he gets to. But he has a lot of try fails up to there.

[Howard] let’s take time out for a moment and hear from our sponsor.
[Dan (singing)] let’s all go to the lobby.
[Howard] This week’s writing excuses is brought to you by Bob Defendi, maker of fine recital thermometers and recorder of a brilliant podcast book thingy. Bob, you want to tell us about it?
[Bob] It’s called Death by Cliche. It’s a thinly veiled exploration of the madness inside my head. You can find it — it’s a free audio book. You can download it at
[Howard] Awesome. Thanks Bob.
[Howard] That was a lovely commercial break. Thank you.

[Dan] Bob mentioned the romance formula — boy meets girl, loses girl, and then they get together again. I’ve heard this referred to a lot when it’s done wrong as the idiot plot. The reason — the difference between those — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again — that’s an archetype that’s been around forever. But you watch a really bad romantic comedy and they just feel like idiots. And the reason is that the plot is driving the characters rather than the other way around. In fact I’m going to say…
[Howard] Which means the formula is driving the characters…
[Dan] Exactly.
[Howard] I just took the words right out of your mouth.
[Dan] Yeah, you go. I’m gonna say that applies to any formula, not just to the romance thing. If you feel like you have to force your characters to do something idiotic in order to make your story work, it’s because you’re trying to force them into a formula rather than letting the story flow naturally from them.

[Howard] So let’s ask this question. When should you consciously look at the formula and try to use it? What sort of situations are writers gonna get themselves into where they need to look at these formulas, need to know these formulas, and need to start patterning their work?
[Bob] I start looking at the structure very early when I’m writing. I have a four stage outlining process and it is stage 2 where I make sure that everything contains every story element that it needs to be a complete story. At that point in my plotting, I have it all broken out — there’s an overall story line, there’s a romance storyline, there’s a main character storyline, there’s an impact character storyline — all of these different storylines and I have to filter them together but I make sure that each one of them that I want to have a complete arc has a beginning, a middle, and an end, has try-fails, has everything that I want it to have before, you know, I basically shuffle them together like a deck of cards.
[Howard] Okay. Dan, what do you think?
[Dan] I agree. For me, I start looking at formula and structure very, very early when I’m first outlining a book because later on when I actually am doing the writing or I’m working on the characters or the dialogue — that’s what I want the story to flow out of the characters instead of out of the formula. So getting that formula out of the way and using it as a skeleton, I can then deviate from it later on in whatever method works best rather than confining myself to it or taking a more organic story and trying to cram a formula on top of it later on.
[Bob] I also find that after you’ve done several of these — by the — when I get to that stage in my plotting, 85% of the pieces are in it…
[Howard] You’ve already got it, you’re not missing anything.
[Bob] Yeah. I’ll have one plot line that doesn’t have any of them but they’ll be like three that are complete and have every element hit just because I was trying to tell a good story when I was outlining it and I came up with — there’s a nice twist in the middle, there’s a nice reveal at the end, there’s a nice complication towards the beginning.
[Howard] For me — I look at the formula and the general sketch at the very beginning when I’m thinking all right where do I want this story to end. But because I’m writing serially and I don’t have time to go back and rewrite anything, I get to about halfway through the story and then I invite Bob and Dan over to my house for about five hours…
[Dan] This is Dan Willis, not Dan Wells. He doesn’t want me messing with his stories.
[Howard] They would get very scary. I should have you right Schlocktoberfest for me sometime.
[Bob] There’s a vampire duck as a main character.
[Howard] Then Bob you did exactly what you’ve described — where you wrote down all of the things that you saw happening in these stories and then you established what should come next. Which I thought was brilliant. Very helpful.

[Howard] Now let’s ask the question that everyone needs to have answered. How do you prevent yourself from sounding cliche? From sounding like a retread of George Lucas which is in turn a retread of half a dozen things?
[Bob] I like to steal my answer from Orson Scott Card. He says throw out your first idea because it’s been done before. Throw out your second idea because it’s been done before. And your third idea, which you think is really, really good — probably been done before. Around your fourth or fifth idea, you start coming up with something that is different enough that it’s going to surprise your audience.
[Dan] For my answer to this question, I’m going to go back to the point I’ve already hit of letting the story flow out of the characters. Make sure your characters are really round, really deep, really interesting — and then they will by themselves start telling a more interesting story. Don’t allow your characters to be slaves to a plot, tried to make it the other way around.

[Howard] I promised that I was going to use Eragon as a tool.
[Bob] garbled — airguns or airheads? Laughter
[Howard] It works like this. I can’t even remember the author’s name.
[Dan] Christopher Paolini
[Howard] Christopher Paolini did a wonderful job of understanding all of the formulaic elements of epic fantasy and including them. He did not do as good a job of masking the fact that he was writing from a formula. Eragon is a great book to read to look at the naked template for the formula. You have the humble farm boy, you have the mentor who dies — I’m sorry, did I just give something away? — you have the powerful ally, you have the Witch King…
[Dan] Now let’s be fair. For most of us growing up, we read the [inaudible – Prydain?] Chronicles or we read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings which told us that same story and that was our introduction to fantasy for a lot of people especially in our generation. There’s a new generation that is getting the same introduction to the same principles through Eragon and I think that’s fine. We’re not trying to denigrate Eragon here. I don’t think it’s that well written…
[Bob] Although I would rather just go back and watch Star Wars.
[Dan] Well naturally but…
[Howard] If Star Wars had a dragon in it?
[Dan] It has a rangor?
[Unknown] Rangor is cooler than dragons.
[Bob] My buddy was reading the first book and his friend was reading the second book and he asked, “Have they met Yoda yet?” And the fellow reading the second book said, “Yes, how did you know?” “Because I’m reading Star Wars, so you have got to be reading the Empire Strikes Back.”

[Howard] Tune in next week when you’ll hear Bob Defendi say…
[Bob] That’s not my thermometer.

Current Mood: formulaic
Current Music: Do You Hear What I Hear, Carrie Underwood