What Shall I Write About Today?

Stop by for the musings of your cordial host, Richard Hartzer

What shall I write about today?  Well, my last post got a little heavy, but I know it involves an important and timely topic, so I felt compelled to share it. Today I’ll lighten things up a bit and talk about a recent epiphany I had. 

A couple weeks ago I did something I almost never do…I let my wife have the remote and watch what she wanted to. There are many times I can’t find something I really want to watch, but I dare not relinquish the remote, so I find something on TV I can at least tolerate. I know, I’m shallow sometimes. Then there are times when I feel extra nice (or guilty) and I let my wife choose what we watch. On this particular day she chose to watch a marathon of “Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman” on Hallmark. I found the show to be cheesy and formulaic (more on that later), but it was during the commercial breaks that I was stricken with a sudden realization that will change the way people all around the world (or at least those who bother to read this) view TV movies. Allow me to share. Are you sitting down?  Ok, here goes…Hallmark romance movies are just Lifetime movies…in reverse. 

You think I’m crazy, don’t you. Or at least a little crazier than you already thought I was. Just hear me out. Think about the plot of your typical Hallmark romance movie…especially the Christmas movies. They go something like this:

  1. Girl despises boy. He’s either trying to kill her career, or he’s disgusting and annoying, and even though he’s incredibly handsome, she wants nothing to do with him
  2. Girl and enemy boy fall victim to some sort of calamity that forces them together
  3. Relationship deteriorates farther because she hates him even more, and she sees him as an enemy. 
  4. Girl sees boy in a moment of tenderness (talking to a small child, helping an old lady cross the street, etc) and realizes he’s not as boorish as she originally thought. 
  5. Relationship between girl and boy slowly begins to thaw and she realizes how much she loves him. 
  6. Girl and boy are in love and appear to be on their way toward a “happily ever after” life.

That pretty much summarizes every Hallmark romance movie I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Now, contrast that with your typical Lifetime movie and see what happens.

  1. Girl and boy are in love and appear to be on their way toward a “happily ever after” life. 
  2. Relationship between girl and boy slowly begins to thaw and she realizes how little she loves him.
  3. Girl sees boy in a moment of rage (yelling at somebody, pushing an old lady down in the street, etc) and realizes he’s not as great as she originally thought.
  4. Relationship deteriorates farther because she loves him even less and she sees him as an enemy.
  5. Girl and enemy boy fall victim to some sort of calamity that forces them apart.
  6. Girl despises boy. He’s either trying to kill her, or he’s angry and sadistic, and even though he’s incredibly handsome, she wants nothing to do with him.

See? At first you thought I was delirious for even suggesting such an idea; but admit it…you’re nodding your head thinking “Holy moly, this man is a genius (even if his comma and semicolon usage is subpar at best).”

I’m not one to say, “I told you so,” but I did. 

Most of these movies are examples of formulaic storytelling. Personally, I don’t like it when stories are too predictable and cliched like that. I’m fine with a story in which the main characters don’t end up together. I like it when the ending isn’t all sunshine and puppy dogs (unicorns are OK). I appreciated the fact that the parents didn’t get back together in “Mrs Doubtfire” (Spoiler Alert). Oh wait…Was I supposed to say “Spoiler Alert” before the actual spoiler? Oh well. Too late now.

I like to be surprised by a story and I like to be taken on a journey I didn’t expect. If a story is cheesy and formulaic I tend to dismiss it as lazy storytelling. When I’m writing I often think to myself, “What does my reader expect to happen next?” and immediately rule out the next several ideas that pop into my head. I like to be unpredictable when I write. Aardvark cornucopia dishwasher!  See, you didn’t see that coming, did you?  Because I’m unpredictable. 

We’ve established the fact that I’m not fond of predictable, formulaic storytelling, but I also dislike storytelling formulas. I see articles promoting things like “The Five Traits to a Successful Novel” or “Every Good Story Must Follow These Steps In This Exact Order Or Nobody Will Read It” and I cringe. First of all, I’m a stubborn man so I bristle anytime anybody tells me what I need to do. You’ll notice I said “bristle” and not “refuse to do”. That’s one reason I’ve managed to stay married for 17 years. But back to storytelling formulas. 

Writing is an art. And like all art, it cannot be quantified. Writing is subjective and it speaks to different people in different ways. To suggest that there is one surefire formula for writing is like suggesting that there’s only one recipe for baking a cake. Or only one direction to drive on a one-way street. There are virtually unlimited paths to a great story, and the beauty lies in the fact that they are all different. And we are all different. Your storytelling path may resonate with some, but not others. Their path may not resonate with you. And that’s OK. One is not less beautiful than the other. 

So go ahead, forge your own path. Write the story that’s in your head and heart, even if it doesn’t follow a traditional storytelling formula. Break the rules if you want to. Be a pirate. It’s your story. It’s art. It’s beautiful. Arrr!

That being said, come back for my next post in which I discuss the value of storytelling formulas and why formulaic storytelling is great (even after I railed against them today). Seriously, that’s my next topic.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to reclaim the remote before the next episode of “Dr Quinn” comes on. 

3 thoughts on “The Formula of Writing

  1. Dalen Flynn says:

    Couldn’t have said any of that better myself. Fun read!


  2. The power of story is a beautiful thing, but not when it’s boring and too predictable. An expected twist of fate isn’t a twist, is it? Good observations, Richard. However, you have to know the rules before you can break them. I prefer Hero’s Journey/Quest plot lines.


  3. Jackie Smith says:

    My mom used to say “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” The same is true about writing, as you said. I doodle around with writing myself. People say I should write a novel. Gaaad! That is a lot of work! I’d need a really mean editor on me night and day to do that. But, I did write a good short story one time, though. I’d interviewed for a teaching job after an 8-year hiatus to raise my children. It was for a language arts position at a middle school that had chosen writing as their school improvement goal for the year. The principal asked me in the interview for an idea to help them with that goal. I said off the top of my head, “How about having a faculty writing contest and letting the kids vote?” I got the job, and first faculty meeting, the principal assigned everyone my idea (sort of)–writing a piece for a faculty anthology. Thankfully she didn’t say whose idea it was or I might not be alive to write another day! Well, I felt the pressure to write a really good story, even though I had gotten a C in a story-writing seminar course my senior year in college. I just thought, “What would captivate a middle schooler’s attention?” I recalled a harrowing misadventure from my youth and morphed it into a story–one that the kids all really loved. That was 1994, and I’ve never written another one. So, Rich, perhaps you will inspire me. Can’t wait to read YOUR book!


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