We should not have anything against “formula” writing, the kind in which the writer follows a plan or outline that has been successful in the past. Even the great Shakespeare was a formula writer in a sense. All his tragedies contain a war in the background, highly placed people in deep guacamole, conflicted lovers, a sword fight in the last act and the arrival of a noble person to restore order. He hung muscular stories on those organized bones.
Because of a friend, I have run into another formula writer in recent days. I was out on my daily constitutional walk in Washington, Ark. when I heard a voice above me. It was my friend working on the roof of the historic Presbyterian Church. He yelled, “Hey Danny, do you want some books?” I asked him what kind of books and he said look in my pickup truck there. I found in his front seat a whole box full of hard-bound Zane Grey novels. “Yes, thank you, I’d love to have them,” I yelled back. He told me he would bring them by my house, which he did.
The collection, maybe the complete works, is in very good shape. I made room for the volumes in a bookcase and pulled one out, “The 30,000 Head,” about a pioneer who wrests a big ranch from the wilderness out west. The formula had to do with overcoming hardships—wolves, cougars, rustlers, bad weather and discouragement—adjusting to married life (the original title was to be “The Pioneer Wife) and losing and regaining material possessions. Though Zane Grey was a commercial rather than a literary writer, I found he could string his episodes expertly and offer intermittent effusions of great description. Even though the dialogue seemed stilted in places, one could attribute that to the period, you know, Victorian sensibilities trying to hang on out West.
I saw that formula at work in the second novel I selected as well, “The Thundering Herd.” There were hardships to overcome on many levels in that book and a love relationship that culminated in marriage on the last few pages. The theme of overcoming loss was evident in the novel and descriptions were abundant, even with onomatopoetic utterances like “raaaa” for the buffalo cries, “haw haw” for laughter and “boom boom boom” for the guns of buffalo hunters.
The next novel I grabbed arbitrarily from the shelf was “Robbers Roost” and I find the same formula at work amongst a bevy of bad men. Their hardships on the lam, their female relationships and their blasé attitude towards ill-gotten gain are presented in splendidly colorful language and description. Zane Grey obviously had a good thing going.
I conclude that whether you are Shakespeare, John Grisham or Zane Grey, there is a tendency to form a system, perhaps based upon your personality and interests, that becomes a vehicle for developing your plot. “Hunger Games” is an example of this phenomenon. Charles Shultz mastered that art, as did Norman Rockwell. Can you name an artist in any genre that did not develop a formula for his or her work?