Formulaic vs. Non-Formulaic Authors

Lee ChildSome fiction authors are rather formulaic while others vary their approach with almost every novel — and I like both kinds of writers.

Formulaic positives? There’s comfort in knowing (approximately) what to expect. Non-formulaic positives? The delicious element of surprise. If the authors are good, satisfaction is guaranteed either way.

Plus formulaic authors often offer enough differences in each of their books to satisfy a reader’s yen for variety, and non-formulaic authors frequently have recurring elements in their works. So there’s some blurring between the two “camps.”

I recently finished my third Lisa Genova novel, Left Neglected. As with her also-great Still Alice and Inside the O’Briens, a character faces a major neurological challenge — with the story told from the perspective of that character and Genova covering all the medical and emotional bases. But there are variations: A different kind of neurological challenge in each of the three novels, whether ultimately fatal or not. Female protagonists in Still Alice and Left Neglected, a male protagonist in Inside the O’Briens. Affluent families in Still Alice and Left Neglected, a less-affluent family in Inside the O’Briens. Adult children in Still Alice and Inside the O’Briens, younger kids in Left Neglected. Etc.

Lee Child of Jack Reacher series fame also has his formula: The roaming Jack goes to a new place, trouble arises, Reacher deals with that trouble, Jack leaves town. But then there’s the variety: a new locale in almost every book, different kinds of trouble in almost every book, new supporting characters in almost every book, and so on. The 24th Reacher novel, Blue Moon, was released late last month, and I have no doubt it will be another Child page-turner when I get to it.

Excellent authors of thriller, detective, or mystery series frequently fit into the formulaic but not totally formulaic camp. Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Martin Cruz Smith, and many others.

In each of his 20 Rougon-Macquart novels published between 1871 and 1893, Emile Zola featured one or more members of those R-M families and usually offered an overarching theme: alcoholism in The Drinking Den, retailing in The Ladies’ Delight, mining in Germinal, art in The Masterpiece, rail travel in The Beast in Man, etc. So, those compelling Zola books were similar in a way, yet the characters of course had varied personalities and fates, and the aforementioned themes were also quite varied.

Some authors who often avoid a formula from novel to novel?

Margaret Atwood is certainly one. She’s expertly handled contemporary fiction (such as Cat’s Eye), historical fiction (Alias Grace), and of course “speculative” fiction (including The Handmaid’s Tale and its recent sequel The Testaments). But there are certain commonalities amid Atwood’s genre-jumping, most notably a feminist sensibility and other kinds of social awareness.

We also have J.K. Rowling. After she finished her seven blockbuster Harry Potter books, she wrote the decidedly non-magical/very sobering novel The Casual Vacancy. Then Rowling switched things up again with a crime series (four so far) starring private investigator Cormoran Strike. She skillfully nailed each of the three genres — and, while her approach in each is different, there are common elements such as deep sympathy for the underdog and a keen awareness of evil in the world.

Aldous Huxley is best known for his dystopian sci-fi classic Brave New World, but he also penned un-BNW-like novels such as Point Counter Point — a societal chronicle reminiscent of some 19th-century British literary fiction. Huxley displayed enough versatility to almost seem like different writers.

Authors you feel fit into either the formulaic or non-formulaic categories?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which covers overly aggressive driving and many other topics — is here.

50 thoughts on “Formulaic vs. Non-Formulaic Authors

  1. This seems to be a theme whose basis is competence at one’s craft, professional writer, as much as it is about art, which for nearly all authors, happens less often than books.

    In the days of craftsman’s guilds, a goldsmith’s apprentice might be expected to make, say, a seamless ring, then, as journeyman, a communion cup, and finally, so as to join the guild as a full-fledged goldsmith, he might have to carve a statuette of the Holy Virgin.

    For writers who are intent to show proficiency nowadays , if not mastery in the making of several commercial forms. an adventure novel might be followed by a mystery, then a historical novel, then a detective story. There are, of course, authors who might nimbly pass from genre to genre, making good examples as they go, but most settle, for one reason or another, in a category within which they feel comfortable and able– often at the earnest entreaties of agents and/or publishers, who wish to see large sales as much or more as they wish to see a various output from their authors.

    Aristotle, to the consternation, I’d imagine, of Swiss Army knife aficianados, wrote the the most perfect tool has a single purpose– a screwdriver to affix or remove screws, though it might, in a moment of desperation, serve less well, though well enough, as an icepick or weapon. I’m going to side with Alexander’s teacher here.

    Generally, I prefer the best thing an author is able to do to a variety of things that includes his best. I understand that in doing so, I ask certain authors to ‘kill their darlings’, but in the main it is a killing kindness.

    The least enjoyable publication I have read by Stendahl to date is “On Love”, an essay that aspires to be a philosophic study on that topic that ranges over its few points repeatedly and for too many pages, though I do remain grateful for his notion of crystallization contained therein. Likewise, William Hazlitt, philosopher, remains unpierceable to me, though I have tried to make it through, while essays such as “Man is a Toad-Eating Animal” is an excoriating delight whenever I reread it, as is “The Fight”, one of the first accounts of a boxing match in British letters.

    I do admit to completist aspirations where certain artists or authors are concerned. But my aspirations in this area have most often been accompanied by the satisfaction having read everything, more than with everything I read.

    Tl,dr? In a nutshell: Shoemaker, stick to thy last.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A terrific point, jhNY! An author who takes a variety of approaches and/or tackles a variety of genres will usually not do all of them equally well, so there’s something to be said for sticking to what they do best. Of course, one could argue that trying different things “refreshes” an author and makes their best better when they return to what they do best… 🙂


      • I don’t entirely believe everything I wrote, just mostly. For example, I’m sure Ambrose Bierce is at his best in short bursts, fables or entries in his “Devil’s Dictionary” or weird tales under 30 pages, but recently I learned he was a Union soldier in the battle of Antietam, and wrote up his experience there years later. That’s a bit of Bierce I would be very interested to read, and plan to. Likewise, I would have been interested to read Stendahl’s account of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, as he was attached to the general staff, but his journal was lost in the retreat from Moscow. And while I’m sure that Poe was best at what he is best known for, I have lately become intrigued by Poe as literary critic and arbiter of American literary taste, though I confess, I’ve read but little bits of his critical work to date.

        Another aspect of the week’s topic is non-formulaic authorship as regards experimental writing, such as Faulkner’s in “As I Lay Dying”, “The Sound and the Fury”, and “Absalom, Absalom!”. Other examples in US novel-making: Melville’s “Moby Dick” and John Dos Passos’ “USA Trilogy”. These authors each made something new within the confines of the loose conventions of the novel form, as did, many years before, Englishman Joseph Sterne in his novel “Tristram Shandy.” Irishman James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is probably the most influential and famous example of experimental writing in novel form.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ambrose Bierce is a fascinating author — and certainly not “warm and fuzzy” in his writing. Perhaps being on the front lines of war had something to do with that.

          Such a shame that that Stendhal journal was lost. 😦

          Poe was definitely a more varied writer than some give credit for: horror fiction, sea fiction, detective fiction, literary criticism…

          And a great observation about experimental writing, which of course is non-formulaic by definition. Authors such as Melville, Joyce, and Faulkner certainly produced both excellent experimental fiction and excellent fiction of a somewhat more conventional nature.


  2. Dave, Lee Child of Jack Reacher novels , the protagonist ,no matter how twisted the storyline is, always comes out intact.

    Reacher is my comfort zone in this crazy world we live, when the potus trump is as corrupt as can be but is also called as taflon don, why nothing ever happens to him with his lies, schemes, bribery and what not.
    What is wrong with Republicans ?

    Now I am half done with ” Blue Moon”, a city divided into two zones of thugs, Ukrenians and Albelians where Reacher was just passing by saw an old man trrip on the street and it starts from there.

    Then there is John Irving , the last one I read was In One Person, all the novels are different from each other with different Characters, but Irving always have compassion for the underdog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe! Yes, Reacher does indeed survive some pretty “twisted” stuff in each book. Nice to have a “comfort zone” with at least some of the novels we read — especially when, as you said, Trump getting away with almost everything can drive any decent person nuts.

      Glad you mentioned John Irving! He has definitely written a diverse group of novels — always with compassion for the underdog, as you mentioned, and also always with some quirky elements. A few wrestling references in different books, too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Republican stick with Trump because he hates immigration, will prohibit abortion and defeat regulations whenever he can, and will forever champion tax cuts, white supremacy and Federalist Society court-packing. in other words, despite his boorishness, mental deficiencies and irrepressible criminality, he achieves GOP ends. That’s also what’s wrong with Republicans– that those are their ends.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Perfectly stated, jhNY. I couldn’t agree more. Trump is giving Republicans exactly what they want, policy-wise, sick as those policies are. The court-packing alone is going to be a disaster for the U.S. for decades.


      • lt is sad indeed, career Diplomats and war Hero against the clowns, who only knows how to scream.
        Jim Jordon wrestling coach one time from Ohio , turned the other way when there was reports of sexual harrassment there and now he is becoming a laughing spectacle involved as a screaming congressman.
        There is no Republican party anymore, only trump party and trump is a congenital liar , he proved that over and over again. How did we get into this mess ?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Can’t disagree with a word you said, bebe. Most national Republicans these days are indeed clowns and/or worse, with one of them — Jim Jordan, as you mentioned — guilty of looking away from a major sexual misconduct scandal he obviously knew about. The people testifying are the honest, patriotic ones.

          Liked by 1 person

          • If you read Dowd last Sunday…

            Marie Yovanovitch The soft spoken ex Ambasador responded all the questions asked to her with dignity but sometimes with watery eyes. the brutality bestowed upon Ms. Yovanovitch by trump while on the stand was absolutely shocking. As trump was tweeting while the session was going on.“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad “. trump is only responsible to be on doomsday and now trump party has to face the reality !
            Waiting for the day ” when Trump be hauled out of the White House kicking and screaming ” for his own lies and brutality

            About last night… Wherever trump goes turns bad for Republicans.
            Latest example in Louisiana in a Republican territory Democrat Edwards won.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Dave,

    I think my favourite thing about formulaic writing isn’t so much that the author is predictable, but that I am. It’s nice to have a heads up sometimes about how I’m going to react to a novel.


    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a great angle on this topic, Sue! Thank you! Certainly one of the attractions for readers of formulaic fiction. (Of course, I know you also read many non-formulaic novels — including Eleanor Catton’s very unique “The Luminaries,” among others.)


      • Dave, I thought of mentioning a few authors who I think of as non-formulaic, but realised that I’ve only read one of their books, so just because it stood out to me as unique, doesn’t meant they haven’t written the same thing over and over again. But if I had made that list, it probably would have included books like The Luminaries, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Ernest Kline’s Ready Player One, and my current obsession – Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I know what you mean, Susan. When I was writing the post, I thought of several authors who seem formulaic or non-formulaic of whom I’ve only read one novel, so I decided not to mention them. 🙂

          Of the authors in your interesting list, I’ve read multiple novels by only John Irving. He is definitely non-formulaic, though there are some recurrent elements in his work — quirkiness, for one thing!


    • Thank you, jhNY! Fascinating! I really hope the Brontë Parsonage Museum can buy the miniature book. As the article noted, it would be a shame if a book by the 14-year-old Charlotte Brontë ended up in a private collection with few people seeing it.


  4. I’m really getting into Kate Quinn’s breed of historical fiction. She specializes in incredibly strong and quirky female characters and very fast-moving plots. I eagerly await her next book. Along those lines, I also have been loving Martha Hall Kelly’s historical fiction series. For straight up historical reading, I also enjoy Erik Larson very much – he has a definite flare for the “gripping” historical accounts. Last but certainly not least, I cannot discount Jane Austen’s formula for the independent leading ladies. I could go on a lot longer with this topic, but typing is very hard for me post wrist-break! 🙂 Love talking literature here, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So sorry about your wrist, M.B. 😦 Good luck as you recover from that.

      Historical fiction has a formula in a way, but of course each title in that genre has its differences. I’ll be starting Kate Quinn’s “The Huntress” (which you recommended) within a day or two. 🙂

      And, yes, Jane Austen’s work also has a certain formula (including romantic difficulties followed by romantic successes), yet there’s plenty of variety to keep readers interested amid her six novels. Plus superb writing, of course.

      Thank you for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I very much enjoyed your analysis on this one. There are positives to both but it’s also good to mix things up a little. I have read a few authors that followed a formula so closely that it could be the same novel told many times. It seemed more like the characters were given different names, occupations, and hangups, but the way it plays out is the same. On the other hand, like Reacher, Jack Ryan is somewhat formulaic, too. Investigate, uncover bigger and badder trouble, neutralize bad guys, go back home.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sometimes formulas can work really well! An author who had a formula but still managed to keep things interesting every time was Sue Grafton, who wrote the Kinsey Millhone series about a female PI in small-town California in the 80s. Every time Kinsey gets hired for a shady case that has more to it than meets the eye—but somehow Grafton managed to come up with something different each time.

    Liked by 1 person

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