Writing to Formula: Beyond Plotting vs. Pantsing

A fellow author in my writing group recommended a guest lecture by Mary Robinette Kowal to me.  I enjoyed it enough to actually do the exercise, which is about the MICE quotient of a story and try/fail cycles.

In discussing the lecture with some of the other folks during round-table discussion, the perennial question about whether or not it’s authentic art to write to formula came up, and during that conversation I hit upon a metaphor that I think encapsulates my feelings about the writing process generally and writing to formula in particular. While I certainly have little interest in churning out works according to anything as strict as, say, the Hallmark rules, I do find value in understanding “the rules” of writing compelling stories in general.

For me, writing to formula using an outline that follows specific benchmarks is a lot like drawing a circle using a compass. Yes, really good artists can freehand draw a perfect circle. Children starting out mess up their circles even using a compass. But a perfectly executed circle is a lot easier to create using a compass then doing it freehand, and if my goal is to learn more about the nature of a circle, having a compass to show me the specific angles in play is extremely useful. A good mathematician can figure that out independently of course, but it’s a lot of extra work for not a lot of extra pay off. I’d rather take the class and have a professor teach me how a compass works.

Of course, some people really find beauty in the slight imperfections that come from a free hand drawn circle. There is certainly value in knowing when a circle shouldn’t be perfect, because an ellipse is more appropriate to the piece of art at hand or a bit of a wobble adds flair.

Picasso famously said “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” I have no interest in writing surrealist books, though, and generally speaking even the most elitist, salon-style literature is enhanced by an understanding of formula in the same way that Picasso’s art is infinitely more compelling than a child’s drawing, although it certainly achieves a childlike wisdom and wonder.

Breaking down story structure to see what works and what doesn’t, like I did for Genesis by Ken Lozito, is hard work. Whenever someone is willing to give me a leg up by doing the analysis in advance, I’m grateful. If you’re going to write a genre novel, I think it’s important to at least be aware of the genre’s conventions.


Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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2 Responses

  1. Lilly says:

    So many people complain about Picasso and how ‘they could easily do that!’ Yet, ask them to do it and they splutter and gasp. Through mastery comes from learning the rules until they are instinct then letting loose with whatever comes out. The issue with writing is there aren’t any rules! Each writer has to figure out their way – oh we have the basic rules but there comes a time when you need to say “F-it, let’s go!”
    I draw terrible free-hand circles btw ūüėÄ

    • Eleanor says:

      I dunno, I do think that writing has rules — even if we’re talking about something as basic as spelling and grammar, some people follow those religiously but some great fiction goes off-track, either with idioms and dialect in the dialog, or something like three page sentences or a refusal to capitalize like you get in some literary pieces.

Let me know what you think!