01 December 2022

Formulas Aren't Just for Chemistry

O'Neil De Noux's Random Thoughts of Nov. 4 brought up author Frank Yerby, which brought back a lot of memories, reading all the books my mother hid in the back of the closet.  My mother had both "The Foxes of Harrow" and "The Devil's Laughter". (Which are probably the best) I read them both on the sly, and went on to read a lot more.  Mostly disappointing.  (In fact, "An Odour of Sanctity" easily ranks among the worst novels ever written, and that includes the complete works of L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand.)  Still, back in the early 60s, they ranked among the hottest non-porn books you could read, along with Ian Fleming and Jacqueline Susann.    

Besides prurience, one of the things that I learned from reading Yerby was that they had a formula to them.  I know, shocking, right?  And here I'd been reading Nancy Drew books by the wagonload.  But Yerby's were - well, today I realize how sexist the damn things were, with a dash of S/M thrown in here there and everyfreakingwhere - but so obviously formulaic...  Almost all of them revolved around a male protagonist, who was super-alpha male without being extremely tall, handsome and muscular. Indeed, like the James Bond girls in the all of Fleming's novels, he's often damaged - in "The Devil's Laughter", his nose has been severely broken; in another novel he has a permanent limp, etc.  But every man who sees him recognizes - and tells other men! - "that is much, much man", and every woman who sees him wants him, even if she hates him for it.  (She hates him because he'll cure her of her frigidity, which is every incel's dream, revealed 60 years ago.)  

Speaking of the women, Yerby men all fall for and sleep with at least three women in the course of the novel: the Pure One, the Evil One, and the Damaged One.  
Spoiler alert: he ends up with the Pure One, who has been always waiting for him, just him.  And the Evil One always gets her comeuppance.  And the Damaged One generally dies or goes mad.  

Once I figured out the formula, I could tell you within the first three chapters what the outcome would be. But isn't that the point of all romance novels?  (BTW, if you want to read Frank Yerby novels today, you can go to the Open Library and borrow them.)

Formulas, of course, have a long historical provenance.  And the rule of three is EVERYWHERE:  The traditional plot structure of most of Shakespeare's romantic comedies contrasts three courtships:  the major, "noble" lovers whose courtship is of a high, romantic nature (Rosalind and Orlando), and then a middling one (Silvius and Phoebe, or Celia and Oliver), which alternates romanticism and reality, and the finally a plebian, comic one (Audrey and Touchstone). That's of course, from As You Like It, but you can see the same pattern in most of the others, even (at the end) The Taming of the Shrew.  (Kate & Petruchio, Bianca and Lucentio, Hortensio & his widow.)

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice contrasts Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, Jane Bennett and Mr. Bingley, and Charlotte Lucas and Rev. Mr. Collins.

And Anthony Trollope did this all the time.  (As you know by know, I'm a huge  Trollope fan.)  A classic example is Can You Forgive Her?, where the three courtships are complicated by two suitors for each lady:  aristocratic match (Plantagenet Palliser & Lady Glencora, who's in love with the ne'er do well Burgo Fitzgerald), middle match (Alice Vavasor & John Grey & her villainous cousin George Vavasor), plebian comic match (Mrs. Greenow and her two suitors, Squire Cheeseacre and Captain Bellfield.)  
BTW:  Mrs. Greenow is the reincarnation of the Wife of Bath, and the novel is worth reading just for her.  

There's nothing wrong with formulas when they are well done.  Formulas can be satisfying, or boring, depending on who's doing it.  But it's also a delight when you find something that starts out formulaic and then corkscrews in unexpected ways to keep you constantly awake and entertained.

And now, leaving the realm of novels, romance, courtship, we are going to move on to something completely different:  1988's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, an official Australian-New Zealand co-production, directed by Vincent Ward.  Here's the official synopsis from the official website:

"Griffin is nine years old. He’s haunted by fragments of a dream.

He envisages a journey. A celestial city, a great cathedral, and a figure roped to a steeple, about to fall….

It is Cumbria 1348, the year of the Black Death. A medieval mining village lives in fear of the advancing plague. Griffin’s older brother Connor returns from the outside world in a state of despair, until Griffin tells of his dream and reveals their only source of survival:

Make tribute to God. Place a spire on a distant cathedral. Do so before dawn or the village will be lost.

Griffin embarks on an extraordinary journey with Connor, Searle the pragmatist, Searle’s naive brother Ulf, Martin the philosopher and Arno the one-handed ferryman. In his vision together they tunnel through the paper thin earth to a new world, a fabled land of hellish extremes, unfamiliar as the distant future of the antipodes, 1988.

But Griffin has a chilling new premonition… for one of them, the journey will end."

To paraphrase Rob Lopresti: "Ho ho, I hear you say. A medieval sci-fi story. Got it.  To which I must reply: You don't got nothin'."

And you don't - I can assure you that, the first time you see it, no matter what you think is going to happen next, or where you think this is going, you will be wrong. But each and every twist turns out to be absolutely perfect...

Exciting. Interesting. Anything but formulaic. Wonderful.  And that's what I love.  And every time I watch it, I love it all over again.  


Check it out.

Meanwhile, BSP:

My latest story, "The Closing of the Lodge" is in the latest AHMM:  

My story, "Cool Papa Bell", is in Josh Pachter's Paranoia Blues;

And on Amazon HERE


  1. Congratulations on your new stories. I still remember the Navigator with affection since I reviewed it for our then local paper back in the day. It is an imaginative flick for sure.

  2. Thanks Janice. The Navigator holds up well on repeated viewing, too. I've turned all my grandkids on to it.

  3. Eve, I'm in the middle of your "Lodge" story now. Good one.

  4. I enjoyed the majority of Alistair MacLean stories (not counting his latter novels set in North America), but I came to realize he used a trick, and then he reversed the trick, which is still the trick, but I felt a little sad when I'd start a new novel and could guess the trick. (sigh)

    I must see The Navigator.

    So are you saying if you cross L Ron Hubbard with Ayn Rand, their love child (there's an oxymoron!) could be the black hole of literature, thus ending civilization as we know it?

  5. Moody, moody is The Lodge. Exploring abandoned public buildings is fascinating.

    I recall what you said about the letter v as a vowel so I could pronounce the name.

  6. The Navigator is available for free on Tubi (with ads) via Roku.
    And yes, I think that a Hubbard/Rand offspring could be the Damien of literature. Or Cthulhu. Your choice.
    Isn't the Lodge fun?

  7. I just watched the Navigator again 3 weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is one of my favorites. I loved " Cool Papa Bell". You did a great job with the voices.


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