Last year, in hopes to get some new short fiction written, I attempted something I’d never considered: I wrote using a formula.
It didn’t work for me.
The idea of writing using a formula is something I’d instinctually balk at. It seems so…formulaic. Which I usually interpret as cheap, unrealistic, cliche, or predictable. But if you think about it, a large number of good stories follow a formula. They just aren’t necessarily built using one. And I think this is where the process failed for me.
The specific course I attempted was designed for writing flash fiction, i.e., crazy-short stories usually clocking in around 500 words. The formula started with something like “create a two-word character description” like starving artist or psychotic thief. It then give you instructions on how to give the character an “interesting problem.” It just keeps going from there, and I found it all very enlightening from an academic viewpoint. But I kept running into one major problem for me: I didn’t care about these characters. Just because I had come up with “boring barista” or “drunk cop” didn’t mean I had any connection to them. Do I always have to “feel connected” to my characters? No, not always. But I do usually have to care about their stories, and I found when I just plugged in answers on worksheet, I didn’t care. Not about them, not about their stories, not about their problems or what they were looking for.
Now, did this formula get me writing? Sure. But after starting five flash fiction pieces (in this particular course, you write the beginning of five, then go back and write the middle to them, then go back and write the ending), I only finished one. After trying to kickstart my short story writing, I had a total of 1,321 words, spread out over five pieces, and 711 of those words were in the only finished story. If you’re wondering, I only finished that one because I had created a character in a situation I actually cared about; I’d created a story that fictionally mirrored something distant family members of mine had gone through.
If nothing else, this formula helped me understand how a good story works. If I write something, and I feel it “just isn’t working,” I can probably go back to this formula, compare it to what I’ve written, and see if I’m missing some crucial element.
I’m also aware that, for a first attempt at using a formula, one finished story out of five attempts isn’t that bad. Especially when it got me to write a piece I feel very proud of and confident about. As I consider it now, if I try the formula again, maybe I need to spend more time creating those two-word character descriptions, focus on coming up with someone I’d actually want to spend the time writing about. I guess “boring barista with agoraphobia” just didn’t do it for me.
So, as I focus on My 500 Words, I’m setting the goal to start again on short fiction, which was always my first love. I don’t want to focus on flash fiction or short stories or novellas…I’m setting a goal to write stories I’d want to read, no matter the length. That’s all:
I’m going to write stories I’d want to read.
No formulas, no tricks, no “plug this word in here” type of thing. I know how to write; I just have to get back to doing it.
Have you used any formulas in writing? Leave a comment letting us know how it went for you. Or let us know if you’ve developed your own “formula” for getting your words written.