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Using Story Formulas In Original Ways, by Simon Higgins

People sometimes speak about formulas in storytelling (by which I mean highly recognisable patterns and elements) as if they are a bad thing. Of course, handled poorly, exploitatively or simply B-graded into total madness, they are indeed worse than bad.

Formulas that have been done to death scream at us from the blurbs of advertising posters and trailers. They are obvious, basic and for the most part can’t be taken further than they already have in the hundreds of books and thousands of movies representing their predictable steps.

‘They killed somebody he/she loved. They pushed him/her too far. Now he’s/she’s back, burning for revenge…’

I think more positive tropes, even dark ones, have far more, and more enduring, appeal. I used the very familiar idea of a rich vigilante hero in the Thunderfish series (in a most un-Batman-like way) and, going on the first novel’s Notable Book of the Year listing, the second’s Ned Kelly Award short listing and the trilogy’s many generous reviews, the reboot worked. Kira Beaumont and her crew took the readers of Thunderfish, Under No Flag and In the Jaws of the Sea on a journey of loss, outrage, reinvention and justice. The pattern of a hero passing through an ordeal then rising from it with greater strength and more purpose is an epic formula that can be harnessed in so many ways, in any era, culture or genre.

Some formulas appear to resonate deeply with us humans. Often not along the lines one might expect, either. Take the whole notion of romance, finding that perfect match. You’d think people would go for the musical style ending, kind of ‘life ala Mama Mia’ where everybody gets a happy ending or at least winds up satisfied with their lot. Such a rosy picture, in which even a former James Bond can burst into song to propose, with audience and ensemble cast on his side. Well, no, this is not the most beloved and timeless romantic template for humans. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is: a decidedly unhappy ending, where one or both of the star-crossed lovers, so filled with undying passion for each other, perish tragically and before their time. A perfect match they might be, but powerful forces in their world, stronger than love, more brutal than their desire, are destined to tear them apart or cut them down. We humans never get sick of retelling this tale!

If you think me off-track here, consider the following spectacularly popular movie examples that I often cite during creative writing workshops I teach. Moulin Rouge (Romeo and Juliet at the world’s most famous nightclub) Titanic (R&J on the world’s most famous disaster ship) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Two sets of R&J’s, with kung fu!). The more analytically you think about books you’ve loved and movies you’ve wept over, the more you’ll detect that eternal R&J shadow falling over you.

So why is this formula so enduring? Is it some form of envy that makes us take delight in watching perfect, fresh, intense love get ripped apart? Perhaps a compulsion towards melancholy realism, or a slightly bitter instinct in us that says, “Well that’s too precious, too wonderful, to last! So it shouldn’t!”

Or, weirdly, does seeing poor Jack let go, Satine die of consumption or Li Mu Bai succumb to poison in his great love’s arms actually make us all, somehow, feel better?

These are intriguing questions. Whatever the truth (and it may be all of the above options), it’s certain that at least in one sense, Romeo and Juliet will never die. So where’s that writer who will be next to put a fresh face on their enduring story, to great success and acclaim. Yea, wherefore art thou?

Verily, it could be you.


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