There is a lively discussion on The Passive Voice about Kris Rusch’s recent blog post which challenges the use of the term “churn out” to describe writers who write quickly. In the comments, someone said that folks also use “formula” or “formulaic” as a pejorative. Another commenter said that in computer design, they use design patterns, and suggested that’s probably a better word. Here’s my response.
Design pattern is right.
The people who decry familiar patterns are those that completely misunderstand one of the main purposes of fiction.
Readers go to fiction to have an emotional experience–thrill, horror, dread, falling in love, mirth, wonder, wish-fulfillment, etc.
Those emotions are not created out of nothing.
They’re not created haphazardly.
They are generated by a specific . . . pattern.
1. You receive some stimulus–from your environment or your own thoughts or something you’re lead to think, such as via a book.
2. You make an assessment about what’s going on and what might happen in the future and how that impacts you or someone else. There are two assessment systems. One is incredibly quick. Almost subconscious. The other is a bit slower. You can read about them in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Jenefer Robinson’s Deeper Than Reason. Robinson even relates the science to fiction.
3. If the assessment says it’s something that will affect you or someone you can sympathize with, you feel an emotion. The emotion focuses your attention. For example, if there’s a mountain lion stalking you, you don’t want to forget she’s there. It also prepares you to act–to pursue something desirable, avoid something that’s not, etc. It also writes that emotion on the face to communicate it to others to solicit help or warn (we are social animals).
Okay, so certain cues or assessments are required to produce certain emotions. If the cues aren’t there, the emotion doesn’t arise.
Certain stimuli lead to an assessment that there’s a threat. Other stimuli lead to assessments that there’s an opportunity, for love, money, sex, security, etc.
Suspense, surprise, and curiosity have all been studied in experiments. There’s a certain structure required for each. If you take the same story, but simply change the structure, you end up with different reader effects. See more here.
This means that a reader who wants to feel the experience of falling in love is going to have to be guided through the pattern of cues that produce the assessments that lead to the emotion.
There are lots of variations in the pattern that will work. But we can’t give a reader the pattern for horror and expect them to feel romance.
You can’t give a reader a downer ending and expect her to feel joy.
Again, there are certain delights readers are going to certain genres for. Folks read romance after romance precisely because those romances do specific things to them. And they want to experience them again and again.
For example, one thing romance readers love is the joy of a happily-ever-after (HEA) ending. So if that’s what they’re looking for, then that’s what the product must provide for them to be satisfied. We follow patterns, but change them enough so that the reader doesn’t get bored.
So, yeah. Patterns. It’s like the very essence of what we’re doing.
We are all working with patterns, whether we know it or know. And the sooner we learn what the general patterns are for the type of story we’re trying to tell, which could also be called the type of experience we’re trying to provide, the quicker we gain control over our writing.