Can You Write a Successful Short Story Using a Formula?

Mary Robinette Kowal claims you can write short stories using a formula. I watched her classroom lecture on Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube channel and decided to give it a try.

Did it work?

Actually, yes! I wrote a flash fiction piece called “Cordelia’s Curse,” and Dark Recesses Press published it in their e-zine.

You can read “Cordelia’s Curse” here, free! It’s the first time that someone else created an illustration for one of my stories. I thought that was cool!

Astute readers may notice a common element between “The Hay Bale” and “Cordelia’s Curse.” But I took the flash fiction piece in a completely different direction, heh-heh-hehhhhhh.

If you do read my flash fiction piece, look for these formulaic steps:

  1. An opening action the MC does that describes her mood.
  2. The location defined by a sensory detail.
  3. A genre-specific detail.
  4. An explanation of what the MC is trying to do and why.
  5. An explanation of what is stopping the MC from doing what she wants.
  6. Try-fail cycles. Maybe a few.:-)
  7. A closing that mirrors the opening and shows the changes that have happened.

Will I write all my stories using a formula? Of course not, but it was an excellent exercise in story structure.

Thanks to all who emailed and asked how my move to Texas went and if we’re all settled in. Actually, no, we’re not settled in. We planned to rent when we got here while we looked for a small place to buy, but no one would rent to a couple with a hound dog and four cats. So we’re shacked up at our daughter and son-in-law’s place. The hubster is telecommuting from the guest room. Our daughter suddenly had to have surgery, so I became an impromptu nanny for the newborn grandson. I’m no longer working, so it’s like this odd situation was meant to be for now!

Feature image by Dan-Cristian Padureț on Unsplash.

79 thoughts on “Can You Write a Successful Short Story Using a Formula?

  1. Cordelia’s Curse is fantastic, Priscilla. Every bit as creepy as The Hay Bale. Great experiment with short form.
    And I didn’t realize you were moving to Texas! Several other writer friends live there as well. I’m hoping all goes well with your daughter’s surgery and you’re able to get settled in soon as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do not believe in writing by formulae. However, I do believe that if you read your preferred genre for any length of time, the formulae will seep into your bones and you will find bits of them in your work, if you look for them.

    Hope all your family are well and you can enjoy the time with your grandbaby.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree. I shy away from anything that is formulaic. I’m an organic writer myself and find that to be motivating and makes it fun for me. I want to discover the mystery and how the character resolves the issues, so no preplanning that might misdirect the story or the character. But I can see how a formula can create a structure for writers to practice on and learn the flow of storytelling. Reading, of course, can do the same thing.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. That was a chilling and heartbreaking story, Priscilla and I did notice tie into Hay Bale. I got so caught up in the story, I wasn’t paying attention to the formula. I hope your daughter is doing better. Sounds like it worked out where you ended up, and I hope you find your perfect place soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Cordelia’s Curse, Denise. “Chilling and heartbreaking” are compliments for that sort of story.:-) My daughter is progressing. She’ll be back to 100 percent I’m sure before too long. Thanks for the good wishes re our house hunting!


  4. I think that is a great structure for a short story, and I must try it! Great piece of flash fiction, totally creepy (like the Hay Bale), poor little girl! I wanted her to be one that got away!! Hope everything is well with your daughter, and you are enjoying your nanny time! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a chilling tale that was, Priscilla – loved it! Sorry the move to TX didn’t go as you’d hoped, but you’re right about the way things work out sometimes. I can’t say I’ve ever written using a formula, but I wouldn’t mind trying it sometime with a short story.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I always enjoyed these kind of writing guides and challenges during university. I also sometimes do them for poetry. Either writing to a formula or writing to a known poetry form that I wouldn’t usually stick to (I personally prefer free verse). And sometimes the results can be surprisingly good!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for sharing the video, Priscilla. I’m not a big fan of formulas, in general, but I agree the results can be great, and I’ve read many illuminating texts that detail the main elements of most storytelling. As a reader, I do enjoy formulaic stories as well, but I do love some pretty out-there ones that seem to break all rules too. Cordelia’s Curse is fabulous. I hope your daughter gets better soon and you end up settling well once all the difficulties are ironed out. It is a good thing that you’re there right now, and it has worked well, so you’re right. Perhaps it was meant to be.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oooo! I’m so glad to see you left a post about your move. I had been wondering how it was going. Perhaps not the way you had envisioned but perhaps that was, as you pointed out, for a reason.

    And clearly the tips you gleaned about formula and story structure worked. Cordelia’s Curse was great. Left a comment there. I’m so impressed you did all that in a flash story. You always impress me with the economy of your words and this was another stellar example of your brilliance!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. HI Priscilla, it is a great thing that you were there and able to step in and help your daughter with her baby. Isn’t it amazing how life just comes together so well sometimes. This is an idea I have often wondered about, writing to a formula. I’m going over to read your story now.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This sounds like a fun experiment to try! I am against the idea that stories can be written according to a formula as my appreciation and understanding of creativity is unbounded, BUT I do acknowledge that there are certain techniques and methods that can make any story a little bit sounder and more engaging.
    Thanks for sharing your experience with this!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Writing to a formula could be helpful with writer’s block, get the creative juices going so to speak 🙂 I’m glad you were there for your daughter and that she’s on the road to recovery now. Hope you can find a home for your fur-babies and you!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I think of story structure as a map rather than a formula—a set of principles, not rules. Fortunately, that map works for long and short fiction, and can be used to preplan or edit stories.

    Reading the earlier comments, I recall drowning in details—analysis paralysis. I’m not one to give up, so I studied the many story structures. Patterns emerged that helped me understand the importance of having a map.

    If anyone wants to tap into my prior research, visit the Tame Your Book website and enter “exploring how to structure a book” in the search field.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I was recently in a writing workshop where the workshop leader had us write a 10 sentence story by having a specific “prompt” per sentence. I was skeptical when I heard the exercise, but in the end, it actually worked and several of the participants and I had created some decent flash fiction drafts!

    Liked by 2 people

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