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When a Formula Isn’t Formulaic

Buried in the Slushpile

Lots of authors think they hate formulas when it comes to writing. They say that structures are confining and stifle creativity.

But they don’t have to.

Story structures like the Hero’s Journey or Three Act or Fairy Tale style plots do not inherently limit how or what a person writes about. They simply provide guideposts for what readers expect and connect with in children’s books.

But let’s actually look at a framework and creativity in action in real children’s books.

Take the Hero’s Journey plot structure in the works of Robin McKinley, specifically her middle grade book The Hero and the Crown and her YA/Adult novel Sunshine.

Now, McKinley uses the Hero’s Journey framework in writing many of her children’s books, but in these two she specifically parallels them to a greater degree than any of her other works. Nearly every major character in Sunshine has an analog to the characters in The Hero and the Crown. They serve the same purpose in the story and behave in similar manners.

In case you’re curious, they breakdown in this way:

Character ArchetypeHero and the CrownSunshine
Main Character/ProtagonistAerinSunshine (Rae)
Mentor/Love InterestLutheConstantine
Sidekick/Love InterestTorMel
Antagonist (Major)Aerin’s uncle AgsdedBeauregarde
Sidekick/SupportTalatSOF officer Pat

And the list goes on…

From there, these same sorts of characters then go on a classic Hero’s Journey. Originally detailed by Joseph Campbell, screenwriter Christopher Vogler turned the Hero’s Journey into actionable plot story beats in his book The Writer’s Journey.  (A must read if you are into writing fantasy books or love plotting.)

Both books hit all the major story beats at the same time and in a similar manner. Even some of the detailing in the books are similar. To get to Agsded at the end, Aerin must climb a never-ending set of stairs. To get to Beauregarde at the end, Rae and Constantine have to fight a never-ending onslaught of minions. And (SPOILER!!), both ultimately succeed by throwing something at their adversary.

Sounds the same right? Formulaic even.

But these books are anything but cookie cutter. No one reading Sunshine would think it’s a recycled rehashing of The Hero and the Crown.

Because that’s where creativity comes in.

Story structure doesn’t stifle a writer’s creativity. It provides a framework for creativity to spread and grow.

Recommended Reading:

The Writer’s Journey

The Hero and the Crown


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