Question of the era: is formula fiction bad? Before answering that, it’s important to clarify exactly what formula fiction is. No, it isn’t genre fiction. While both highlight lack of originality, genre fiction is the reuse of settings, content, layout, style, etc. Formula fiction is the reuse of plot elements and characters.
For instance, anytime there is predictable narrative structure, it’s formula fiction. Most romantic comedies are like this. Either the woman starts out completely “disliking the man,” or the man is too busy trying to hold onto his bachelor ways, before “seeing the light.”
Let’s dive into this a little more.
Elements of Formula Fiction
Just like all genres of fiction, formula fiction has elements that make it what it is. Unlike parody, or satire, formula fiction isn’t trying to poke any fun at a certain style, or plot. Instead, it’s trying to reuse content that’s been used time and time again.
Going back to the romantic comedy, most viewers who watch these in theaters know the plot, and the ending (to some extent). This doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy it, or opt out of watching the film. Instead, it’s the popularity that romantic comedies have that draws the audience.
Stephanie Orges, writer for Be Kind, Rewrite, puts it beautifully when she describes formula fiction as Easy Mac:
“Though it’s probably made of packing peanuts and crushed up beetles, and though a $10 plate of gourmet macaroni with gruyere and applewood smoked bacon tastes infinitely better, sometimes you just want some Easy Mac. Cheap. Fast. Cheese-ish.”
Truth is, for as much as we know fast food is horrible for you, it feels comforting to go to Wendy’s every now and then. It has a level of nostalgia, or comfort, knowing we’ve seen certain characters time and time again.
The cons are obvious. Rehashed characters and plot lines. Overdone narrative structures. The mean jock is always with the pretty girl. The nerdy boy is actually a better human being, and soon grows up enough to land the girl.
And so on.
Frankly, like a McDonald’s burger, it’s nice to relish in these plots every so often. But to do it everyday, you’d wind up having a stroke, heartattack, or both.
Formula fiction isn’t on a quest for originality. It isn’t trying to spark the next artistic work that will go down in history books for years to come. It’s not even trying to be anymore than what it is: a rehash of elements that make for a few small chuckles and rehashed characters. In this respect, it’s not a terrible thing. If anything, it alleviates any possible excess in good stories.
Too much of a good thing doesn’t work either. McDonalds needs a Whole Foods, just as much as Roots needs a Burger King down the street. This balance is what helps cater to all types of people. It helps on the off days when people want something other than what they’re used to. Too much quality in our stories, over and over, and soon, no writer would stand out.