I read a book today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh
I saw the writer’s craft . . .
(to the Beatle song, “A Day in the Life”)
I recently read a fantasy novel written in a style that propelled me to the next page, though I knew I was being manipulated.
Despite the many fantasy tropes—portals, magic amulet, young viewpoint characters, England—and the step-by-step progression as set out by many writing books—enticing moment, Acts 1,2, and 3, two Gateways forcing the character to move forward despite their reluctance to do so—I enjoyed the book. This also despite mustache-twirling villains, harried multiple viewpoint characters, and (at times) contrived cliff-hangers I saw coming halfway through the chapter.
The novel was SO formulaic.
You may wonder, after all that, why I liked the book, and so did I. I spent an afternoon at the park reviewing the “pros” and “cons” of the book’s value, and of course, the so-called value was based on my many prejudices, comparisons to other books I’ve read, what and how I write, among other things, like . . . feelings.
I discovered three things:
I liked the pacing: a good balance of sentence structures, description, and word choice; short chapters, and clean jumps from chapter to chapter between the different viewpoint characters—multiple viewpoint stories garner a special interest to me.
The world-building had a consistent foundation: the author stayed true to the imaginary world where several Londons existed simultaneously, and took great care to show the reader each of the city’s differences and contrasts, per plot requirements.
The characters became my friends: this is probably the single most important factor to why I liked the book and was able to look past the deficiencies (as I viewed them, one lone reader)—I cared about the people.
The author is a relative newcomer, but by any estimation, successful (she recently signed a $1 Million deal on a 3-book series). She has sold a dozen or so books, and she’s in her early 30’s.
She’s talented, and she’s probably read many of the same writing books I have. She put their information to use, though I have to wonder (or laugh) at the obvious and systematic pat structure formula.
Here’s the formula:
Act I (more on the 3 Act structure here)
The Hook and enticing moment where the main character (MC, also known as protagonist) is forced, usually kicking and screaming (metaphorically at least), from their normal and comfortable (or not so) everyday world into the new and exciting “adventure” that is their destiny.
Fighting through multitude hardships and conflicts, the MC becomes a participant (though reluctant and probably begrudgingly) in the “adventure.”
(Some writing books insist this must be reached by 20-25% into the novel, which this novel hit at 25% per my Kindle)
Act II (longest of the three Acts)
Battles, villains, and treacheries abound as the MC fights their way to that elusive and slowly clarifying goal. Note: The MC, and thereby the reader, become aware during this section of the many mysteries and “foreshadowing” hinted in the preceding chapters, as well as others to be solved throughout the book. This is also the section where characterizations and relationships deepen.
The rush to the end, the climax, the final battle. Do you feel the tension and uncertainty if the MC will succeed?
2nd Gateway (at about the 75% point of novel, which the novel of note hit at 72%)
The MC’s last chance, deep in the throes of desperation, where they decide to dig deeper than ever before, thus conquering their fears–and the “bad” people that stand in their way–to obtain their goal.
All those hints and foreshadowing come together in a cacophony of reader splendor, of release and satisfaction as the hero saves the day.
Unless it’s a tragedy, then the MC is dead. Bummer.
The parts of the Story Formula—the Acts and Gateways—flared and glared as I read, blinding beacons bleaching the shadows of intrigue without illumination. “Okay,” I considered when arriving at the 2nd Pillar, the 1st Gateway, “Here it is.”
The formula should be invisible, not so “Here we go reader, now follow along as I direct you to the next section. Oh, I’ll clearly show you the following section when we reach it—that will be the third shining pillar.”
And yet, each of the blinding pillars leading to the next staged section were introduced and made important, and none should have been.
Yes, the Acts and Gateways need to be present—they are an ages-old and reader-satisfying part of the plotting process—but they should lie beneath the characters and the story, interwoven rather than having attention drawn to them. Ideally, you should look back at the pillars, not see them on the story’s horizon.
The novel lacked that hard-to-put-your-finger-on feature that is the culmination of all fiction’s beauties layered in harmony and all speaking the same dream.
Somewhere the novel failed even though I enjoyed the journey. The pillars should have been a part of the landscape rather than towering above more important reveals, but I can’t tell you or the writer how to correct the misstep. I only know that I saw it, and each pillar jolted me from the reading illusion.
I may have been especially keen to Story Formula, having just finished a free online plotting course by a moderately successful new author who just signed a $75,000 3-book deal.
The likelihood is also that my expectations went unfulfilled. I expected an adult fantasy novel (which was how the book was promoted), when in fact the structure, language, situations, and characters deemed the novel young adult. YA novels are expected to be of a simpler nature, but the pillars should still be subdued and within the natural story flow.
As I re-read my novel for the umpteenth time, I know the locations of the Acts and Gateways, but somehow I hope my readers won’t notice. Perhaps I’m a fool and wizened readers detect the craft ploy; hopefully they will enjoy it even so.
What are your thoughts on formulaic story plot? Does seeing the upcoming pillars have any effect on your enjoyment? Let us know in the comment section below.
See you on the next page,
Rick “C” Langford
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