There is nothing wrong about formula. Just call it “genre” and make it respectable. Without formula we wouldn´t have great detective mysteries, great love stories or complex genres like science fiction or fantasy. Details vary, but you always have the same ingredients. The art consist in combining the basics, and reaching out to an audience hungry for a story similar to the one that just captured its imagination.
Recently, I read that part of Boardwalk Empire´s appeal lies in that it attracts The Sopranos’ large fandom. All the producers had to do was take elements that had turned The Sopranos into a hot series and reset them into another milieu: Atlantic City in the Twenties. But not all winning formulas are ripe for imitation.
Few television series have merited the accolades that befall on Mad Men, and yet one would expect a thread of series cloning that bitter view of Madison Avenue in the 60’s. Recently there were two attempts (PanAm and The Playboy Club) to recycle that nostalgic fad. Both have poor ratings, showing that mediocre reproduction does little honor to the real McCoy.
But the search for novelty is becoming exhausting and futile. The Biblical proverb “there is nothing new under the sun” applies even to literature. Most fiction is, to some extent, formulaic. It’s why many of us have turned to fantasy, the last refuge of originality. However, even in Fantasyland you will run into the “copycat syndrome.”
We live in the Era of Fangs. A plethora of vampires lurks on our TV screen, in Hollywood blockbusters and hide between the pages of bestselling novels. All over the world, writing about vampires has become a lucrative business. As long as readers remain mystified by bloodsucking protagonists, the vampire formula will live on. Universal folklore has plenty to offer in vampire habits and etiquette, so variations on the subject are inexhaustible. It´s why Count Dracula, The Cullen Family and Sookie Stackhouse’s paramours are so different, sharing only a thirst for human plasma.
Eric and Sookie, a far cry from Dracula and Minna Harker.
After J.K. Rowlings struck gold with Harry Potter, cutesy teen witches and wizards flooded the literary market. A plot centering on a brooding maladjusted adolescent that found her/his secret powers at boarding school was tried and tried all over again, until it ran its living time. Now, no respectable agent would touch a manuscript that deals with such a tedious, predictable and overly-tried subject.
Not all fantastic elements have expiration dates. The quest for a particular object, otherwise known as Macguffin (according to the late Alfred Hitchcock), has been around since the Holy Grail, and you may find it in all genres not only fantasy. Historical fiction, thrillers, adventure and detective stories twirl around various documents, parchments, utensils, gems and even statues, think of The Maltese Falcon. Although agents may clench their teeth at reading another tale of a magical object that needs to be found in order to save the world, the Macguffin has become an immortal archetype.
We tend to associate the fad of conspiracy tales with the publication of The Da Vinci Code. But secret societies, mysterious agendas and Templar mysteries have been around since Sir Walter Scott. A serious writer like Umberto Eco made a name for himself mixing all those elements that have made Dan Brown rich and infamous. But since Eco was considered a “high literature” master, nobody would dare accuse him of being formulaic or using worn out literary premises.
In truth, those premises are not really worn out; you may still refresh and refine them. Sadly not all writers do it. It´s much more comfortable to rewrite the same formula with just the necessary variations to prevent plagiarism. The main problem of this semi-plagiaristic craze is that it encourages sloppy style, mediocre storylines and cardboard characters. That is why “formula” has become a bad word in the writing community.
The industry’s lame excuse is to cry out “the public demands it!” But we readers are the first to notice when our favorite themes are cloned mercilessly. For fifteen years, I was a bodice-ripper addict. I read and collected the best of the genre, eschewing dull imitations. Eventually it came to my attention that even some of my favorite authors were displaying signs of writing fatigue.
By the time I grew out of my obsession with the genre I was conscious that Rosemary Rogers’ heroes were all mean, chauvinistic pigs and her heroines were a bunch of promiscuous losers. With Beatrice Small, the boredom arrived when I found myself reading the same bedroom scene sequel after sequel.