Writing the Formulaic Novel: Yes, Please

by Sharon Tjaden-Glass

In a previous post, I wrote that I had a great concept for a new novel while I was writing my last book, Becoming Mother. Of course, I didn’t have the time to pursue it while I was finishing my last book, but I scribbled out some pages in hopes of not letting the idea get too far from me.

Three weeks ago, I went on summer vacation from teaching. This is my time to write. Pretty much my only, luxurious, uninterrupted time to dive into a creative project.

I wanted to make the most of it.

Even with all uninterrupted time, writing did not come easy this time. Every time I would sit to put my characters in a scene, I would get blocked. What would he say? How would she act? What happens next?

And then the dreaded, What’s this story really about again?

Argh. So frustrating.

How could I write this story if I couldn’t even get my mind around it?

I ignored it and plowed ahead, letting the scenes take me where they wanted.

Boy, did I get lost.

I kind of started developing an understanding of the characters that I was writing about, but I still felt like I didn’t really know where the story was going. But worse, I didn’t feel like I could see into the soul of these people.


Last Thursday, totally in a funk, I closed the “Working_Draft_3” document that I was hammering away at. Then, I pulled this book off my shelf.

Marshall Plan

I bought this book several years ago when I was looking for ways to improve my already-written first novel.

I’ll be honest about my first impression: I scoffed at it.

This guy was presenting a “formula” for writing a great novel. It gave you guidelines for how many sections to have in the beginning, middle, and end, depending on the final word count. It pretty much laid out a lock-step guide for crafting a novel.

Great art is not formulaic, I’m sure I thought. And I’m an artist.

Yeah, but I was also a novice. I didn’t really know the first thing about crafting engaging and well-paced scenes inside narrative arcs.

I wanted to break the rules before I even knew them.

And that’s how I ended up with 400 single-spaced pages of plot-gone-wrong.

And a beast of a novel that was far to wily for me to tame after the fact.


When I revisited this book last Thursday, I thought, Yes! This is exactly what I need.

I need structure–badly.

My idea is great. But this book helped me work through some of the biggest challenges in creating an engaging and believable plot and characters.

I used to think (secretly) that I was too good to write a formulaic novel.

Nope. I’m not.

I’m not above it at all.

I’ve got a lot to learn, and I’m ready to learn it.

And in that spirit, I’ve plotted out all 48 sections of this new novel, complete with three formulaic surprises and worsening failures for the lead character from start to finish. I also spent time creating characters notes so that I could understand my character’s inner struggles and conflicts.

Now, when I sit down to work on a scene, all I have to do is look at my notes on the current section that I’m writing, review my character notes, and jump into it. I realize that I don’t have to have this all finished before I return to teaching–because I can just look back at my notes and remember where I’m going.

I’m on my way to my SFD–my shitty, first draft.

Pride, swallowed.