Why stories follow patterns

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.

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6 Responses to Why stories follow patterns

  1. John,

    I love this post, very insightful overview of how patterns affect readers and why we writers need to be aware of them.

    I’ve been writing fiction for a number of years. Starting in 2008 I’ve taken a number of very helpful workshops and classes on the craft of fiction, including Kij Johnson’s 2 week novel outlining class at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in Lawrence. Kij talked about appropriating what she called “spines” from existing stories to utilize them in our own stories. Your post shows why that works.

    Recently rewatched 2014 Heist movie, The Art of the Steal. Not only is it a highly entertaining movie, it’s a very clever example of the heist pattern: what’s the target/mark, planning for the heist, the execution of the heist, and the aftermath.

    Of course the writer-director of the film put his own spin on it, but the movie gave me the satisfaction I enjoy from watching a great caper unfold. Patterns, this I will keep before me and internalize as I work on my next novels. Thanks!

  2. John Brown says:

    Boy, Johnson’s “21 Monkeys and the Abyss” was sooooo good. I bet her course was awesome. And 2 weeks! Was that 80 hours? Or two evenings a week apart?

    That “appropriating spines” idea is exactly what I’m talking about, although that’s a cooler and creepier name (grin).

    And your example of THE ART OF THE STEAL is a good example. Heists are a certain type of problem and require a certain general series of events to tackle. And because we want to be in suspense and anticipation, there are certain things, cues, we have to give the reader as we roll it out.

    BTW, I’m reading Brandon Sanderson’s STEELHEART. So many parallels to his MISTBORN. Another heist-type story. And yet different.

  3. John,

    Her course was awesome! It ran over two weeks, from Sunday evening until the second Friday. There were eight of us students. Each of us submitted the first three chapters of our novels and a 5-10 page outline. We spent the first week workshopping the outlines, and the second week workshopping our revised outlines. Evenings were spent working on brainstorming the revision our novels in a group setting, with Kij and her assistant Barbara usually on hand. Kij calls this process “fishbowling.”

    I liked it so much when I got back to Oregon I formed a new writers group with three other authors. Not a critique group, but a brainstorming and support group, what Dale Carnegie called a “mastermind” group. I’ve been in my share of critique groups over the years, and they can be invaluable, but this is a whole different kettle of very inspiring fish, so to speak (grin). It has made a huge difference in my writing and mindset.

    Looking forward to reading Steelheart by Sanderson!

  4. John Brown says:

    Interesting. When you get more time, I’d be interested in hearing more specifics about how one of these are run, and how it’s different than a critique group.

  5. Hi John,

    Here’s a rundown of the brainstorming/fishbowl method for a writers group. It seems to work best with four members. In Kij Johnson’s class we had eight students, but the fishbowl sessions usually ran anywhere from one on one up to three or four writers brainstorming.
    We use this technique for brainstorming an outline, or world building, science fictional or fantasy ideation, and even for a revision outline. The author types up the outline, his/her notes, and any questions about the material she’d like the group to consider, emailing them out a few days beforehand to give the others time to read and reflect.

    The day of the meeting the author might use a white board to capture notes, draw diagrams, ETC. In Kansas we used big sheets of butcher paper and laid out post-its on them, to show plot arcs, world building details ETC.

    The group then asks the author questions, throws out ideas, and the author does likewise. This is a very organic, back and forth process. We’ve done it with world building, with bare outlines and detailed ones. It’s a perfect process for discussing the characters, their motives and any places where the logic of their actions seems to be astray, missing, or just doesn’t seem right.

    The author decides what to use out of this, and can call for a follow-up “fishbowl” if needed.

    This is the process in a nutshell. Feel free to drop me a line if you need more info or have more questions.



    • John Brown says:

      Aha! So it’s not so much a critique or feedback session. It’s more of a facilitated development session where questions direct the idea generation and everything is captured as you go.

      You know, I used to do meeting facilitation. This goes right along with a lot of what I learned there. It’s interesting how powerful it is to simply capture what folks are saying on a board or sheet up front so it’s visible. Having that info in front of you, instead of disappeared into the ether, seems to always produce more and better insights.

      Thanks for sharing this!