Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Formulas of Fiction

I think about formulas a lot.

I don't think we live in an era of more formulas than the past. When I talked to my grandmother, when she was still alive, she would talk about going to see movies with her friends, and the terribleness of them. She didn't think of them as terrible, though. She knew: this one is a pirate movie, this one is a love story, this one is a western.

In the formula is comfort, routine, a series of rules that order the universe and define our place in it.

Most of television works within formulas: sit-coms, reality shows, contests, game shows, even the nightly news. If you watch regularly enough you can say: Oh, this is my favorite segment.

Games work the same way. Chess is a game of pattern recognition. Even games of luck, Samurai Swords or Settlers of Catan, depend on pattern recognition, weighing the odds, choosing when to play defensively or when to try your chances.

Books, I think, depend on this most of all. The genres, of course, sci fi and mysteries and romances all use a short hand in their settings and characters to define their places and people. Even when an elf is not a Tolkien elf, the author either defines the difference clearly or doesn't call the creature an elf, because he has to let us know he's changed the formula.

I love things that break patterns. A brilliant move in chess, a great episode of Doctor Who or How I Met Your Mother, the twist of a good book. But I love to fall into my routine as well, playing a stupid game for hours as a way to keep busy without engaging. It satisfies some very basic need. I'd call it relaxing, if not quite fun.

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