Thoughts on Formula and Character

I've lately become a huge fan of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I like the twists and surprises and I find D'Onforio incessantly amusing.

However, I've reached Season 3, and I've begun to notice a problem: the formula is too constricting.

Now, I'm a big fan of formula. I think formula is great. Was it Aristole who said something about an expected narrative outcome giving us cathartic release? Or was that someone else? Anyway, I think the classic narrative structure + genre formula is possibly one of the most enchanting literary creations known to writers . . . and whatever literary types like to say, it will never go away or be supplanted or be replaced.

What I mean by formula, as opposed to the narrative arc, is when set-up, climax, and resolution follow a typical pattern. Mysteries are formulaic. Romances are formulaic. Action movies are formulaic. The same types of things happen at the same point in the narrative arc. Some people will argue that House is formulaic (they are probably right).

Take the original Law & Order (before Moriarty left, and I stopped watching): opening scenes present some kind of crime; detectives investigate for 20-30 minutes; D.A.'s office takes over for 20-30 minutes. Same thing every week and, after awhile, very similar crimes since there are only so many mystery cases under the sun.

Humans are capable of infinite variety, however (which is why writers plunder the newspapers so often), and this is where formula is saved from tediousness. So long as the particulars vary, the formula is a useful tool rather than a constricting jacket (yes, I just mixed my metaphors). In the original Law & Order, the court cases, however similar in terms of argument (how many times can we explain "fruit of the poison tree"?), were differentiated by their individual nature: this week we are dealing with the Mafia; next week, it will be two lovers; next week, a family freud. And not just any lovers or any family freud--a particular set of lovers; a particular family freud. (I confess, I can't distinguish between Mafia episodes: not my favorite subject.)

Thus, the end of the episode (usually in the court room or D.A.'s office) can end in a variety of ways: guilt, innocence, plea bargaining, retribution, our heroes mulling over themes as variable as parental influence or sanity versus insanity.

There is variation within the formula.

Likewise, although a House episode almost always ends with House's epiphany, the particulars that led up to the epiphany vary, and what House gleans from the epiphany also varies. House himself also changes.

This brings us to Criminal Intent, Season 3. The formula for Criminal Intent is a crime is committed, Goren and Eames investigate, three or four twists ensue, Goren confronts the bad guy and delivers a monologue.

The last is the problem. Because Goren is the focus of the show, the emphasis is on the monologue, not the uniqueness of the case; the monologue from one week could be easily transferred to the next or to the one after. Nothing new is added to Goren's understanding or the audience's understanding of Goren.

I think this does a disservice to D'Onforio, but for the purposes of this post, what interests me is the problem of variation within formula: change within structure. Too much change and the show runs the risk of turning into a soap opera and/or self-imploding (Buffy, for instance). Too little change or variation and the formula strangles the elements within the show that keep people watching.

Frankly, I don't know where the tip-over point comes or how writers an avoid it. I think one solution is to write organically which I'm sure has been said before! Organic writing means that plot outcomes rise naturally from the plot particulars. One reason I enjoy House so much is because the writers are just so darn good; it's a pleasure to watch such effortless writing at work. What makes it good (and effortless, supposedly) is this business of organic writing. Whatever occurs, the characters respond not as the writers need them to respond but as the characters would "naturally" respond. Yet the writers never lose control over the unwinding plot.

I say "naturally" respond because in real life, people do things out of character all the time. Linear time being what it is, new challenges and problems and just old age continually demand from us new reactions. I don't think people ever react completely out of character, in the sense that they turn themselves into something they are not. But there isn't always an internal consistency (last week, she got mad at a student; she has to get mad at her students every week!).

However, good writing does need internal consistency. I became aware of this lately while reading a romance novel (romance novels vary tremendously in terms of writing skill). In this particular novel, the main character--heroine--behaved however the writer needed her to in any given situation. If the writer needed the heroine to be suddenly bold and demanding, by golly, she was bold and demanding. If the writer needed the heroine to be shy and uncertain, yup, there's that shy and uncertain woman. In real life, that does happen: a bold person can be shy in certain circumstances. In a novel format, it's just confusing. After awhile, I started to think the hero should start packing his bags (hint: she's a psycho, man).

Most of this is just bad writing: I got the impression, that the book was written while the author was attending a writing class. Members of the class read a certain passage and said to the aspiring author, "You know, I think you should make the villain a little more human--people aren't all bad, you know. Give him some depth here." So, the author gave him one line of depth, which promptly disappeared for the next 150 pages.

This is simply an inability to pay-off one's set-up. Or to recognize that sometimes, a villain should just be a villain, and your writing buddies are idiots.

Still, even with good writers, I think the problem of organic growth versus necessary formula poses a problem. And if I knew how to solve it, well, maybe I'd make a million bucks. Or maybe I'd just be one more writer with good unpublished stuff!


1 comment:

Cari Hislop said...

For years I was put off writing because some idiot told me that the only way I could write a whole book was by plotting/planning the whole thing out first and I being an idiot believed them. Can there be a better story-killer? Why would anyone want to know everything before they start writing? Boring!

I finally realised that to write a book I had to accept that I know nothing. I'm a glorified secretary and if I let the characters do their thing the story writes itself. I'm still learning though, with my last book I thought it was a short story so I kept trying to end it when it was only half done.
In an alternate universe where all my characters live they probably have a special name for me, and it's probably somthing rude in French!