The Lure of the Writing Template: Why Filling in the Blanks Doesn’t Work

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

Template is an ambiguous term in writing. It can refer to a writer’s personal style sheet used when developing a story, tools for brainstorming, or worksheets to figure out various plot and story arcs. However, it can also refer to an exacting form that promises the perfect story by following blindly along.

When templates are used for developing stories or to help keep writers focused, they’re useful. But when they dictate how writers should write their books and tell their stories—especially if they give false hope as to the marketability of those stories—they lead writers down a dangerous path.

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Cooking is a forgiving skill. If the recipe calls for half a cup of tomatoes and you like tomatoes and put in a whole cup, odds are the meal still turns out yummy. But baking is hardcore. Add too much salt and your dough fails. Whip cream too long and it turns to grainy mush.

Writing is not dissimilar. Great stories contain similar elements, but how we mix them results in completely different tales. When we treat writing like an exact science, with every beat measured to the page and every major turning point exactly the same, the story suffers.

Instead of a delicious mental meal, we get generic packaged cookies. They might not be terrible, but they don’t make you want to eat more than one, and they taste like dozens of other bland, generic cookies on the shelf.

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The danger of writing templates is that instead of finding the right details for the story we’re trying to tell, we’re looking for details that fit a particular template at a particular time. We think, “This is when something has to die,” and twist ourselves into knots forcing it in. Or we think we need an emotional character arc when no arc is needed. We add mentor characters who have no business in the story, and rely on cliched characters to fill roles a checklist tells us we need.

When we’re cooking a novel, those literary ingredients are mixed to flavor the story in the way we want to tell it. But when we’re baking with a template, we’re adding ingredients exactly as the recipe states, even if the story suffers for it. Templates far too often force us to bake a cake when we really want to make a scone.

When you understand how to tell a compelling story, you know what aspects of storytelling to use to create the desired emotional response from your readers. You pick and choose the details, beats, and turning points that serve your story, and ignore the aspects that don’t.

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The difference between story structure and a writing template is this:

  • Structure uses proven story constructions that humans have used since stories began.
  • Templates suggest the only way to write a novel is to follow an exact plan to the letter.

Using a structure that suits your personal storytelling style to help keep you focused and give you a foundation on which to build a story is a good thing. It’s a tool, nothing more.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

6 thoughts on “The Lure of the Writing Template: Why Filling in the Blanks Doesn’t Work”

  1. How do we determine if any given book was developed using a template? That seems necessary if we are then going to claim they don’t work.

    • Ask a competent editor – or a Hollywood greenlighter.

      Most of the competent editors, by now, are working for magazines or webzines (or freelance), so they are concerned primarily with short fiction; greenlighters, of course, are working with films; but the basic principles are the same.

      There is, however, one difference arising from the decision to pursue different audiences.

      Editors of written fiction can tell when a story has been written to template – they are very good at this – and reject it out of hand, because such stories are too predictable to satisfy an audience of lifelong readers.

      Greenlighters require screenplays that are written to template, because nothing else is predictable enough to risk tens of millions of dollars on. Since their target audience consists primarily of teenaged boys (who are not yet jaded enough to reject formulaic writing) and Chinese cinema-goers (who expect American movies to be dumb, and watch them for the special effects), they don’t worry about being too predictable.

      David Farland, who has worked extensively in both industries, is a good expert source to consult on this.

      • How does a competent editor determine if any given book was developed using a template? What evidence do we have that competent editors can accurately make such a judgement? If a competent editor says a book was not written using a template, how do we know he is correct?

        • Ask a good editor. I’m serious. If you spend years on end reading thousands of stories out of the slush pile, you learn to recognize the patterns. When a new pattern suddenly emerges and you get swamped with a certain type of story, it generally means one of two things. Either bad writers are trying to follow the last big trend, or a bunch of suckers have bought a new template.

  2. Oh, at first the OP was mystifying, as I couldn’t believe that large numbers of fiction writers were using narrative templates. But the whole post makes it clearer. She specifically refers to writers or editors who think Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat,” or Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, are the equivalent of the 10 Commandments straight from Mt. Sinai. Obey or be stoned, I gather.

    I recall a movie critic who said that the trope of a cop turning in his badge was soooo played out that movie viewers could actually predict the moment when the scene would occur. Paint by numbers does get old, especially for experienced audience members. That’s why it helps to read widely, in your genre and out. And read with an editor’s hat on, so that you can analyze whether an element works in a story, and why. Don’t mindlessly follow the rules.

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