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What is a Formulaic Genre?

By Devon Pryor
Updated May 23, 2024
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In literature, the term formulaic genre refers to a category of literary works in which the elements of fiction are so similar from one work to the next, that they seem to follow a predetermined formula. Formulaic genre is different from literary genre. A literary genre is simply a category in literature in which the works are characterized by similarity in form, style, or subject matter. Similarities in one or two of these areas make one literary work fit into one or another category, or genre. However, a literary work is said to be formulaic, or part of a formulaic genre, when this similarity is so notable, that the reader may feel like he or she has read the work before.

Within a formulaic genre, the plot lines, characters, settings, style, and other elements of fiction are so similar from one work to the next that the work can often seem unoriginal or predictable. This is not necessarily seen in a negative light. According to some literary opinions, a work may only be an acceptable example of its genre if it adheres to certain guidelines or expectations associated with that genre. The work may only seem to fit within a literary genre if it contains certain predetermined elements of fiction.

For example, a romance novel is not a romance novel without some kind of love affair, which is usually marked by certain events and emotions. The couple meets, and falls in love. Perhaps they become separated, long to be back together, overcome obstacles keeping them from being together, and all the while, the reader is privy to the way these events make the characters feel. In the end, lovers are reunited in one way or another, and this is usually where the plot ends.

All of the above mentioned elements may not enter into each and every romantic plotline, but these are typical, predictable, and therefore formulaic elements of a romantic storyline. The more elements of fiction that one literary work has in common with others in its genre, the more it is thought to be formulaic. For example, if a group of literary works shares the same setting, style, character types, and similar events that enter into the plotline, the works can be called formulaic. The idea is that these works were written in accordance with a formula that determined the overall outcome.

A literary work that is thought to be part of a formulaic genre may be called a work of formula fiction. This term is often used in popular culture literary criticism. It implies that the plot of a story has been reused, or the characters in the story are not original, but rather stock characters that have been written before. In the realm of literary criticism, calling a work a formula fiction is usually considered slightly defamatory, as it implies that the writer was uncreative and unoriginal.

Works of fiction that strongly and clearly exhibit the characteristics of their genre may be referred to as works of formula fiction. This is often the case with works of fantasy fiction, in which elements such as dragons, magic, witches, spells, and magic potions are nearly certain to be found. Another example of a formula fiction, or a work belonging to a formulaic genre, could be a Western story. A formulaic Western will not only have horse chases and shootouts, but will likely also feature a bow-legged town Sheriff who protects the townspeople from a bandit who insults other cowboys while drunk in a saloon. This will lead to a duel in the middle of the dusty town at high noon. These elements are what make a work part of the Western literary genre, but when they are repeated or overused, the work becomes an example of formulaic genre.

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