Monday, February 4, 2019

Fantasy, Myth and Formula

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Several wise people have said that it is neither politicians nor warriors who shape a culture - it is the mythmakers, the creators of legends. In other words, it is us. The writers.

Laws might made by politicians and warriors, but the hearts and minds and beliefs of a people are created and fostered by the stories they read. For example, how many of our cultural beliefs have deep roots in legends and fairy tales? I think pretty much all of them. Even  the concept of a Happily Ever After comes from a legion of fairy tales all the way from Cinderella (the earliest known telling of which comes from the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt) to Nora Roberts and her fellow romance authors. The happy ending is by no means guaranteed in real life, yet we know we can always find one in a romance novel and that always makes us feel better.

It's the same with mystery novels. Some people wonder why, in this world of crazy behavior and rampant crime, anyone would voluntarily read a book in which fictional examples of the same take place. The answer is simple - because we know before we even open the book that justice will prevail. Not necessarily the law, I hasten to add, for the two are often not synonymous. When the novel is finished, the bad guys should be taken care of and societal balance not only returned but positively reaffirmed. If a writer is so injudicious as ignore this tradition, the backlash can be dangerous. Readers want their world tidied.

So how do you keep the ancient formula fresh? This was discussed on one of my writers' lists, and the answers were occasionally startling. Everything was suggested from reversing the sexes of the hero/heroine to putting the story on an alien planet with a bunch of non-human characters. All of these ideas had a certain viability that an experienced writer could pull off handily, but the discussion ignored the most important part... that the formula itself does not have to be freshened. The formula is a constant, no matter what costumes it wears.

For romance it is one character meets another character, there is an attraction, there are problems, the problems are solved and there is a happy ending. This formula doesn't vary what sex which character is or what the problems are or where the story is set, as long as everything is satisfactorily resolved and the two main characters have a happy ending. The rest is all just set dressing.

It's the same with mysteries - there is a protagonist, there is a crime, the protagonist solves the crime incurring no little risk/danger to himself and in the end all things are resolved in a satisfactory way. Perhaps the real world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but within the pages of a mystery novel the reader knows that justice will always prevail.

Sometimes knowing how things will end is the most desirable thing. That's why formulas have always existed and always will.


  1. It's true, Susan, that the formulas are timeless and predictable. I think that's why we find them so comforting. Our lives take us to unexpected, sometimes hard, places and we seek reassurance that, if we persist through the hard times, we'll reach that happy ending. I can't imagine life without a belief in happily ever after.

  2. The story patterns seem to be as old as human society itself, bringing something true to every generation.

  3. Susan,

    You're exactly right, mysteries provide us with an orderly universe that comforts, just as a romance gives us the happily ever after we crave.

  4. There is COMFORT in formulas. It's why we stick to a certain genre or two.

  5. Nice summary. Writers often shy away from using the word formula, but what you wrote is so true: there is a basic framework, how the writer builds on the framework is what makes one book differ from another.

  6. Great post, Janis! I love how you suggest keeping 'formulas' unique!
    Good luck and God's blessings