The other day, I came across a reader review of one of my books, which described it as formulaic.  And I’d agree… and I’d also call the reader who wrote the review either lazy or an idiot, if not both.  All books are formulaic, at least all books that more than a handful of people want to read.  Books require the formula of passable style and grammar, although better style and grammar are definitely a plus.  They require the formula of a plot of some sort.  They require the formula of some sort of resolution. In short, a book is an organized formula for providing entertainment or information, and possibly a great deal more.

So what do lazy idiots who use the term “formulaic” really mean?  According to A Handbook to Literature, “formulaic” is a term “applied to a work that relies excessively on set patterns of plot, character, sentiment, and language.”  The problem with this definition is that all fiction relies on patterns of plot, character, sentiment, and language, and that there is no standard for defining “excessively,” except in the mind of the reader or reviewer.

As a writer, once I’ve set the parameters of a story, I try to make the systems and the characters true to themselves, if you will.  The magic systems or technology are consistent throughout.  The characters develop more as the story progresses, but those developments are a result of who they are and what happens to them. This, frankly, creates a problem for some readers, because people behave like people.  They seldom do strange things, and when they do, it’s for very good and logical reasons, at least to the character in question, and much of what shock there is in what I write comes from characters taking situations and abilities to their logical ends in order to accomplish what they feel is necessary. Formulaic?  I don’t think so, because I don’t find it “excessive,” and most of my readers don’t seem to… or if they do, they like that kind of order and organization.

Part of determining what is “excessive” is strictly a matter of personal taste.  While technically I think George R. R. Martin is a good writer, I find his use of violence and brutality excessive, and I could claim that his best-selling series is “formulaic” on those grounds.  The same could be said of Piers Anthony and his Xanth books, given the incredible overuse of puns.  And I, or any other well-informed reader, could make a similar case for any number of well-known and even critically acclaimed writers.

As in the case in many instances of comments about books, the use of the term “formulaic” may reveal far more about the reader or reviewer who uses the term than about the book being reviewed because, as I said at the beginning of  this commentary, in the broadest sense of the word, all books are formulaic.


13 thoughts on “Formulaic?”

  1. jack says:


  2. No. Just tired of stupid comments and tired of being expected to say nothing about them. As should be obvious from the comments and reactions here on the blog, I’m open to reasonable differences of opinion, and I’ll even listen to unreasonable ones presented cogently [not that I’ll necessarily accept them].

  3. CRM says:

    I think that this issue of being “too formulaic” relates to the question of what the purpose of fiction is. Why am I reading this particular novel? Do I want to something that makes me question my personal or societal values? Something that makes me think about consequences? Sure, sometimes. But sometimes I just want to read to read a book with a well-defined conflict, a beginning, middle and end, and the good-guy winning at the end. I’m looking for expected and familiar elements.

    Sometimes I’m looking for escapism and comfort. Often, “great literature” as defined critically and academically is very uncomfortable. Mr. Modesitt’s books don’t shy away from addressing serious issues such as the ethics of personal or political power, gender equality, and so on, but they still contain the expected, comforting elements that I want. The right people fall in love, the bad guys get what’s coming to them, Chekov’s Gun get’s fired–Those are the kind of things that make me want to go back and re-read a story over again. I get to find a world that goes beyond just having more work, more taxes, and more medical bills.

    An author can have several different goals in telling a story. It can be for simple entertainment, to say something about society, for fame or reputation, for the artistry of it, or just for financial gain. I’m probably forgetting some reasons a professional author might give. But I think that often professional critics ignore the author’s intentions and try to fit it all into an academic literary model. And of course, what an author puts into a book might be completely different from what I, as a reader, get out of it. That’s part of being human.

  4. Rehcra says:

    You are being touchy, It’s an opinion and there for whether the person is technically right or not doesn’t even matter, it is just there way of describing how your book made them feel. They can’t be wrong and have a right to voice their opinion.

    That being said you ,of course, are perfectly in the clear on voicing your opinion about their opinion and being touchy about it. Personally, I think more authors should voice their opinions about negative reviews every once and a while. If they don’t then it can come across as if the reviewer is more emotionally involved with the work then the author; which just seems wrong. Then again not everyone can walk the line of calling something someone said stupid instead of the person who said it as as close as you without going over.


  5. Josh says:

    I have only read some of the Recluse books and Empress of Eternity. While i see common themes between them. I didn’t see any formulaic between the two sets of books. Although in the Recluse series i did see something of the same in main character development. But that’s why i liked those books and came to expect that sort of thing. If someone doesn’t like to read what you right they can go read something else.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    Calling a writer ‘formulaic’ is like saying a chef ‘follows the cookbook,’ accusing a racecar driver ‘only turning left,’ or reprimanding a physician who ‘uses the algorithms too much.’

    LEM is definitely NOT that type of writer. Being accused of being so would – SHOULD – make him a little touchy. Any reasonable person would be. If something makes me irritated, a little mad, and I want to vent… blogging seems a reasonable choice.

  7. Ryan Jackson says:

    Not to mention the very valid point Mr. Modesitt made about every book being formulaic. Sometimes that’s even the point. Look at Wheel of Time, have the fun of that is recognizing which Myth is being channeled at a given moment and then from that knowing the skeleton of what’s going to happen but not the details.

    Due to having read through all of Recluce, Corean and Spellsong as well as the first of the Imager books, I can say I do see the basic structure of the story. That’s part of what makes me want to read them. I want to see what’s different this time around, what details changed.

    The story is always the same in broad strokes. So is life, so is every life, from our current situation to a peasant living in Egypt. The details make the difference and Mr. Modesitt has never failed to deliver those details or make each character a unique person.

  8. jack says:

    Despite my earlier comment, I do have a great admiration for your books. I have been a reader all of my life, and will be until the end. You are a good author. Do I like every thing you write? No, but 100% satisfaction isn’t part of the deal. Occasionally I will re-read a novel that I have fond memories of. Decades later I am sometimes disappointed. Like sitcoms, Burroughs & Anthony should remain in that fondly remembered past. I do believe that your novels will stand the test of time. The Parafaith war was the first of your novels to cross your path. I eagerly await each new installment in your bibliography. I place your novels on par with Tad Williams and David Brin. Now you may not agree with my assessment, but it is meant as a compliment.

  9. I never took your comment as a judgment on the books themselves, but, as Wine Guy implies, if a writer isn’t a bit touchy about what he or she feels is inappropriate, inaccurate, or unfounded criticism, it’s pretty clear to me that unless the writer points that out, there’s no guarantee anyone else will. Also, as I pointed out in a much earlier blog, not all opinions are of equal value — except to the opinion-holder. We’ve seen this even in the scientific community, where experts in one field have sometimes proved to be far less expert outside their field, and often don’t seem to realize it.

  10. Jake B. says:

    “Consider a Spherical Cow . . . .”

    Upon seeing complaints of formulaicity from lay reviewers, I’ve wondered if they are taking unity of style, to go Aristotelian for a moment, for a formula. I am pretty sure I would recognize Mr. Modesitt as the author were I to start reading a new novel from him without seeing the cover. But the same is true of Wendell Berry or Dorothy Dunnett (not that the poor old girl will be writing any more books) or any number of other authors.

    It is true that a lot of protagonists in Mr. Modesitt’s early novels were similar wrt to their backgrounds: sf versions of Navy Seals, if you will. But that certainly hasn’t been true more recently. When I saw him push a couple different elements in his style to the point of deliberate parody as embodied in characters in _The Eternity Artifact_, that was pretty clear.

    1. Ryan Jackson says:

      I don’t know that you can even claim similarity on characters, early novels or later.

      Some have similar backgrounds, but again, that’s real life. Back grounds don’t equal personality, just general shaping. Backgrounds aside, I’ve seen that type of claim aimed at various novels, the first and third Recluce novels come to mind. But Lerris and Dorrin are drastically different people with very different catalysts that begin their trials. That they both start out as children of powerful people on a unique little country and then get kicked out really doesn’t hide that to anything beyond a shallow look over.

      I have seen a few times where I think two characters are very similar, but they’re usually in completely different worlds, so the world and the circumstances change and it becomes interesting to see how a certain outlook and approach would apply to different scenarios. Even with that similarity there’s usually glaring differences (IE I feel Lorn and Alucius have very similar outlooks and approaches.. Right up until you look at their views on being leaders/rulers and their efforts to approach those views.)

  11. Steve says:

    I am willing to bet that what the “critic” deems formulaic is attention to detail, careful world building, plausible characterizations, or any number of things for which readers seek out your books.

    I agree with the point of your essay. Except for attacking the person as lazy or idiotic, it was a logical, reasoned arguement. However the attack was likely the underlying point of the essay. I am certain it was delicious to write.

    Unfortunately, calling the person lazy and idiotic was unnecessary and makes you appear “touchy”. Your essay would have been more persuasive without ad hominem attacks. As a successful author you are held in high esteem and reguard that is above the pettiness of this “critic”.

    I have learned from personal experience that the satisfaction of personal attack, especially when you are “right”, is fleeting.

  12. Except it’s not a “personal” attack, since I didn’t mention the writer or where the review was, and since I extended the description of “lazy and idiotic” to anyone who writes that kind of review. Perhaps you could characterize it as a personal attack on thoughtless and lazy reviewers in general, and I’d certainly admit I’m touchy about thoughtlessness and laziness…in not only reviewers, but in all fields.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *