If not story formula, then what?

Story formula in Arrow
Series such as Arrow follow a tight story formula that blunts any sense of originality.

The increased access to countless films and television series available through services such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, as well as the flood of audio books and kindle novels, has meant that we have been exposed to a repetitive story formula inherent in some genres. This has lead to predictability and boredom.

And yet, every great story does indeed contain a pattern, without which the story might degenerate into a formless puddle. So, how does one adhere to some sort of structure, without making such a structure predictable and stifling?

Here’s the reference I keep at the back of my mind when I want to avoid adhering a formula that ties my writing to a specific number of beats. I start writing about events concerning a hero who …

finds himself in a position of undeserved misfortune and finally decides to take action to fix the situation. But the harder he tries, the more he becomes entangled in a web of mounting stakes and deepening dilemmas, each, more dangerous and difficult than the last. This forces him to dive deep within himself for a better solution. In doing so, he discovers, at the last minute, a deep truth about himself which allows him to achieve his goal by tackling past misconceptions, moral flaws, and misguided plans.

“One way to avoid rigidity is to replace a story formula with a pattern. A pattern suggests an overall narrative shape that allows for more freedom. A formula tends towards predictable beats that suck the freshness out of a story.”

The interesting thing about this description of a story is that it has a beginning, middle and end, but avoids an overburdening and familiar structure that might make the beats overtly predictable. It also addresses both the outer and inner journeys through the character’s developmental arc. It does not sketch in any great detail where the turning points should occur—except in the most general way. This allows wiggle room for events to fall outside expected beats.

It also steers the outer journey through via the inner journey—through the decisions our Hero makes at pivotal moments in his growth, and hints at a universal truth: That the only way the Hero can achieve the outer goal is by attaining a moment of epiphany, a hitherto hidden truth about himself, that arises from the wisdom that comes from having faced near defeat.


A story formula is reductive and rigid. A story pattern suggests a general narrative shape that grants enough wriggle room to preserve variation.

One thought on “If not story formula, then what?

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Boredom. A writer’s worse nightmare. It is true that a story formula is a quick and easy method to get the ball rolling. However any successfully proven formula risk the very real risk of complacency. That’s why Hollywood loves to make sequels. Producers take a risk on a original idea that proves successful and then they remake the product until people eventually hate it ( How many more Spider-man movies can we take before we start hating Peter Parker?). The other effect are pale imitations of a original idea. If one film / movie proves successful other competing studios will try to replicate the films success. Fox produces West Side story , ten years later Paramount produces Grease . Gladiator wins the Oscar for best picture where as Alexander and
    Troy earn 30 % on rotten tomatoes . It comes down to one thing : a good hero is only as good as a good villain. In Braking Bad Walter White was a good man trying to make himself into hardcore criminal, whereas Gus Fring was a hardcore criminal passing himself off as a good man. Braking Bad succeeds just like Gladiator does. A high school chemistry teacher became more deadly then a ruthless drug industry juggernaut just as Maximus was a slave who became more powerful then the emperor of Rome.

    In short : The unprecedented growth of technology and how we consume content has changed our story watching experience however the one thing that has not changed is our fascination with stories that capture the conflicts surrounding good vs evil.


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