Formulas and frames

by limebirdster

I was teaching a unit on legend writing recently and, in order to ensure that the children included all the features of a legend, we used writing frames. For those of you that have never encountered them, a writing frame has each section of the story listed with a space for notes or ideas. It’s basically a very detailed plan, ours was paragraph by paragraph. First paragraph – setting. Second paragraph – introduce good character. Third paragraph – introduce bad character and problem. Fourth paragraph – solution to problem. Fifth paragraph – ending.

(If you’re wondering why the stories were so short, the children were nine and half of them were writing in their second language.)

We used another writing frame for persuasive letter writing: Introduction; first argument and evidence; second argument and evidence; third argument and evidence; conclusion.

And the frames worked well. The higher attaining children wrote very long paragraphs with ambitious language (everyone was obsessed with the word iridescent for some reason – iridescent jewels, iridescent sword, iridescent castle) and the lower attaining children wrote well-structured stories that they most likely wouldn’t have got anywhere near if we had just told them to write a legend.

But the very prescriptive plans got me thinking about similar stories that are written by the same writers. Because while their stories were not identical, there were obviously very alike, they had all followed a pattern or formula because that was how they were told a legend should be written.

And while my class was 30 children writing 30 stories to 1 specification, some authors also seem to have found a formula that works and stuck to it book after book, writing stories that they know their readers will enjoy. Now I’m not saying that all of their stories are the same by any means but I know that if I pick up a Jodi Picoult book I’ll find a family embroiled in a courtroom drama. I know that most Harlan Coben books will involve a character’s past catching up with them in an elaborate way with so many plot twists that I can barely keep up with what’s going on. They’ve found something that works and they’ve run with it.

Writers tend to stick to a genre, they might publish something in a different genre but they’ll still be referred to as a horror writer, or a crime writer, or a fantasy writer. I’m sure that there are many reasons for this but the question that I want to ask is what about you? Do you have a tried and tested formula that you love? Do you want to try a bit of everything? Do you think that one is easier that the other? Is thinking of new stories that fit a particular more difficult than switching between genres after every story?

Looking at the word documents on my computer I’m bouncing around between every genre I can think of never getting anything finished so maybe finding a formula and sticking to it is the way to go. What do you think?

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8 Comments to “Formulas and frames”

  1. I’m still finding my way and try different genres to a point, more like adding a different flavor to my usual I believe. :-)

  2. I’m thinking of a comment someone made at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop I attended last year. She/he said that Richard Ford’s books (most recent book “Canada”) all deal with father-son issues. I do think that authors tend to explore the same issues over and over again because they’re “obsessed” with those issues in their own lives.

    Your post also brought to mind something else I’ve read about how children have learned the structure of language/story within their own culture by the time they’re five years of age. That’s why certain structures appeal to mass audiences while others that challenge those structures may find a smaller audience. A smaller group are willing to step outside their “norm.” I know that I have to work very hard to break my writing free of the norm.

    I love James Joyce’s epiphanies and I sometimes feel lost or shortchanged at the end of a story if I don’t feel a character has changed enough or has found some new insight.

    • I haven’t heard about children learning structure of story, that’s really interesting! It is difficult to write outside of the norm, but it can definitely be worth trying something new!

  3. So far my stories aren’t confined to a single genre, but they all feature a female archaeologist as a main character. Despite what some people might think, they really aren’t disguised versions of me!

  4. Interesting question! I would think it’d be harder to stick to one genre, theme or issue book after book. The way ideas come to me from all over I’m not sure I could stick to just one. But I’m still new at this and have much to learn. Ask me again in 10 years after I’ve published a few things – I may have a completely different answer ;)

  5. I really try to make myself do different things in my writing, it’s such a challenge. So far I haven’t settled on any one genre to write in. I know my reading preferences often align themselves with what I want to write, and I find that interesting.

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