The Sarah Dessen formula(s)

I love Sarah Dessen.  She has a lovely variation of the girl-meets-boy, classic teen romance storyline that always keeps me coming back for more.  I haven’t read her newest book, The Moon and More, yet… but I’m sure it will fit this formula!

Sarah Dessen Summer Romance Formula

Summer Vacation…

That Summer, Keeping the MoonThis Lullaby, The Truth About Forever, and Along for the Ride all take place during summer vacation.

+ Summer Job…

Halley from Someone Like You works at Milton’s Market with her best friend Scarlet.

Colie from Keeping the Moon gets a job at the Last Chance diner with Nathan.

Macy from The Truth About Forever works at the library, then gets a job at Wish Catering with Wes.

+ Divorced Parents (1 Famous Parent)…

That Summer – Haven’s parents are divorced and her father is remarrying the local TV weather woman.

Keeping the Moon – Colie’s mom is single and a well-known exercise guru.

This Lullaby – Remy’s deceased father was a famous musician who wrote a song about her. Her mother is a novelist.

Along for the Ride – Auden’s father is a novelist, who has remarried.

Divided by 1 Quirky Guy

Norman (Keeping the Moon) is a long-haired artist whose parents kicked him out of the house; he collects sunglasses.

Dexter (This Lullaby) is in a rock band whose big hit is the song “Potato Opus.”

Wes (The Truth About Forever) is another artist, instead of painting like Norman, he does metal sculpture.

Owen (Just Listen) is really into music and works as a DJ for a radio station

Eli (Along for the Ride) is an insomniac

Dave (Whatever Happened to Good-bye) is a prodigy who decides to attend a public school just for the experience

Toss in a few Easter eggs…

= a sweet love story 🙂

BONUS: The Sarah Dessen After-School Special Formula

1 Famous Parent/Guardian

Lock & Key – Ruby’s brother-in-law was the creator of UMe (the Sarah Dessen version of Facebook)

What Happened to Good-bye – McLean’s father is sorta like a Chef Gordon Ramsey

+ Serious Issue (sometimes x 2)

Someone Like You deals with teen pregnancy and death; Dreamland deals with abusive relationships and drug abuse; Just Listen deals with eating disorders and rape; Lock & Key deals with parental neglect; Whatever Happened to Good-bye deals with identity.

+ Missing Person

In Dreamland, Caitlyn’s sister goes missing.  In Lock & Key, Ruby’s mother disappears.

+ School Year

All of the above novels take place during the school year.

=a not-too-heavy examination of various social issues, with a hopeful ending


V.C. Andrews: The Formula!

So there is, literally, a V.C. Andrews formula.  We all know V.C. Andrews is dead, right?  The family estate hired a ghostwriter to continue her legacy (of torrid novels about incest) and I’m pretty sure he (Andrew Neiderman) works off a formula.  Or did.  I stopped reading V.C. Andrews novels after the Hudson series… or, in the middle of the Hudson series… It was definitely after the mini-series, Wildflowers and Orphans, which I did read, and which broke the strict formula of the earlier series, and the newer books coming out now seem to be shorter series with only 2 or 3 books… still the same torrid novels about incest, however!  Some things never change 🙂

Anyway, I do not have the official formula here, just my own:

The cut-out covers are required for all V.C. Andrews novels.

Begin with a young girl, just blossoming into puberty.  Name her something that is also a word, and also usually a natural element – this will be the title of the first book.  Be sure you can spin her name in a series of metaphoric titles for the next 4 novels!

  • Heaven (Casteel series)
  • Dawn (Cutler series)
  • Ruby (Landry series)
  • Melody (Logan series)
  • Butterfly, Crystal, Brooke, Raven (Orphans series)
  • Misty, Star, Jade, Cat (Wildflowers series)
  • Rain (Hudson series)
  • Cinnamon, Ice, Rose, Honey (Shooting Stars series)
  • Willow (DeBeers series)
  • Robin, Teal (Broken Wing series)

*It is worth noting that of the series actually written by V.C. Andrews herself, this does not hold true.  Cathy (Dollanganger series) and Audrina (My Sweet Audrina) have normal names. 

Her mother has died giving birth.

  • Heaven & Ruby’s mothers died while giving birth to them.
  • Dawn’s mother dies in childbirth when Dawn is a teenager.

She grows up with a poor, yet loving family.

  • Dollanganger series – While the family did well enough for themselves, after the father dies the family faces financial ruin.
  • Casteel series – Heaven’s family is dirt poor.  Her father and stepmother are not exactly loving, but Heaven and her siblings are close and Heaven cares for them like a mother when her parents run off.
  • Cutler series – Dawn’s family moves around a lot.  They are poor but are very loving.
  • Landry series – Ruby lives with her grandmother.  They are poor but very loving.
  • Logan series – Melody lives with her parents in a poor mining town.  They are very loving.
  • Hudson series – Rain’s family is poor and hardworking and very loving.

Insert parent death here:

  • Dollanganger series – Cathy’s father dies in a car accident
  • Casteel series – Heaven’s stepmother leaves a suicide note
  • Cutler series – Dawn’s (not real) mother dies in from complications from childbirth
  • Landry series – Ruby’s custodial grandmother gets sick and dies
  • Logan series – Melody’s adoptive father dies in an accident at the mine
  • Orphans series – all the girls are orphans

The girl then goes to live with a rich family she never knew she had, due to some family secret.

  • Dollanganger series – Cathy and her siblings go to live with their grandparents, who had disowned their mother Corinne after Corinne married her own half-uncle/brother.
  • Casteel series – Heaven goes to live with her maternal grandparents
  • Cutler series – Dawn goes to live with her biological mother, from whom she had been kidnapped at birth
  • Landry series – Ruby goes to live with her biological father, Pierre, who had an affair with Ruby’s mother
  • Logan series – Melody’s mother brings her to live with her father’s family, who had disowned him
  • Hudson series – Rain goes to live with her biological mother
  • DeBeers series – Willow goes to find her wealthy birth family

The women in that family are CRAZY.

  • Dollanganger series – Cathy’s mother and grandmother lock the four kids in the attic.  The mother hopes to keep the kids secret until her father dies so she can get the inheritance.  The grandmother mother tries to kill them with arsenic.
  • Casteel series – Heaven’s grandmother blames Heaven’s mother for her father raping her, and goes crazy
  • Cutler series – Dawn’s stepmother Lillian calls her “Eugenia” and makes her work as a maid, Lillian had also arranged for Dawn’s kidnapping
  • Logan series – Melody’s uncle is a Bible-thumper

Sprinkle in a little rape or incest – that’s how you get the authentic V.C. Andrews flavor:

  • Dollanganger series – Cathy and Chris explore their budding bodies in the attic, and Chris later rapes Cathy after finding that she has kissed her new stepfather.  Their parents were also related.
  • Casteel series – Heaven has a relationship with her uncle Troy, who is also her mother Leigh’s uncle.  Leigh was raped repeatedly by her father, and this was how Heaven was conceived.
  • Cutler series – Dawn has a relationship with Philip, who she later discovers is her half-brother.  After she breaks up with him, he rapes her.  Dawn later marries Jimmy, who she grew up with as siblings.
  • Landry series – Ruby has a relationship with Paul, who she later discovers is her half-brother.  Ruby’s mother was raped by Paul’s father.
  • Logan series – Melody’s mother Haille married her adoptive brother Chester.

Sometimes the families like to sell their children:

  • Casteel series – When times are tough, Heaven’s father sells his children off.
  • Landry series – After Ruby’s mother has an affair with a rich married man, she gives birth to twins, and sells one for the man to raise as his own with his barren wife.

Don’t forget to end the series with a prequel about the evil stepmother, mother, or grandmother and how she came to be such a cold, cold woman.

  • Garden of Shadows is the Dollanganger prequel about Olivia, Cathy & Chris’s grandmother.
  • Web of Dreams, the Casteel prequel, is about Leigh, Heaven’s mother.
  • Darkest Hour is the Cutler prequel, from Dawn’s evil stepmother Lillian’s point of view.
  • Tarnished Gold, the Landry prequel, is Ruby’s mother Gabriel’s POV.
  • Olivia is the Logan saga prequel, told by Melody’s evil grandmother.
  • Gathering Clouds was a prequel to the Hudson series, although whether or not it was actually released is a mystery to me… I never finished this particular series…

So there we are… And the above are many, many reasons why memes like this one exist:

horror movie tropes and what they say about us

If you’ve seen as many horror movies as I have, you’ve probably noticed that there are only a few different plots.  I came up with 7… can you think of any others?

1. Isolation

You head out for a camping trip.  There’s no cell reception out here, and of course your car breaks down.  You might seek the help of the people who live way out here, but guess what?  They’re crazy.

You’ve seen this movie before: Wrong Turn.  The Hills Have Eyes. Deliverance. Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Sometimes it’s just one psychotic murderer living alone; most often it’s a whole family, usually inbred, deformed, cannibalistic, and ready to kill.

It’s the fear of those who are less civilized than we are.  It’s a fear that no matter how many bells and whistles our cell phones have, these things will not save you, nor do they make you any different from them in the end – after you have to dig down deep to find your own inner killer to survive.

It’s a very primal fear, from a time when humans, living in forests and remote areas with only a fire to keep the darkness at bay, had to be aware of all those little sounds and fear those that might be wild animals or enemies threatening their lives.

Most deeply, I think, this is a fear of being alone.  Humans are social creatures, and we fear that being isolated will make us crazy.  It’s funny how those inbred mountain people are always deformed and dirty and ugly – it’s never a beautiful crazy isolated family bent on killing you out there in the woods.

2. The Devil Exists

Sure, you’re an atheist, but your spouse/kid/best friend is acting really weird.  The doctor’s can’t find anything wrong, but your local priest knows what’s up: s/he is possessed.

There are countless movies about possession: The Exorcist. The Devil Inside. Possession. The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The Last Exorcism.  Paranormal Activity.  The Omen.  The Amityville Horror. 

I wonder if the idea of being possessed carried as much horror back in the days when church was part of everyday life, and witches were burned at the stake.  I would think that the idea of being possessed would be that much more horrible, given that you’d likely end up dead – accused of witchcraft.

Now, with society not dependent upon religion, with separation of church and state and a reliance on science and technology, most people don’t believe in demons or the Devil.  We fear the failure of science, or we fear that which is higher than science – the existence of Satan, inversely proving the existence of God.  When society has mostly rejected the existence of God, isn’t the idea that He exists frightening?

3. Technology

You get a video text message from an unknown number on your phone.  After you open it and watch it, weird things start to happen… like ghostly creatures came right out of that text.

The Ring.  Pulse.  One Missed Call.  A phone, a video, a website.

This was a fad in horror movies that seemed to originate in Japan and has mostly died out. One take on this is that this is the fear we have become too technologically oriented.  Everyone has a cell phone, everyone has a television, and something that is killing people through these outlets would have access to almost everyone.

The other take on this is that we are afraid there is some aspect of technology that we don’t understand.  Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park talks about how we’ve advanced technology by piggybacking on what others have learned, while not really understanding all the implications of that advancement.  In Pulse, ghosts live somewhere in the technological ether.  Who knows?  I know I can’t tell you exactly how my cell phone or laptop works, and I don’t usually understand why they decide to stop working.  Is there something else out there?

And what does it say that this type of horror movie is on the decline?  We are more comfortable with our technology?

4. Plague

Everyone seems to be coming down with that virus that’s been going around.  You’re still healthy, for now.  Then people start dying… and some of them start changing…

Here you can count almost every zombie movie ever made, some werewolf and vampire movies, and movies like Contagion, The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak, and The Stand.

This fear is biologically ingrained in us.  The human race has been nearly decimated by plagues.  We haven’t had a huge plague in a long time, thanks to science, but given the growing population, there’s a feeling that we might be due for one, as nature’s method of equilibrium.

The fear of spreading disease is the focus in most of these movies.  Zombie, werewolf, and vampire virus movies up the ante with those catching the disease becoming aggressive carriers.  You can’t simply quarantine these patients to protect yourself.

5. Aliens & Foreigners

You’re on an exciting trip to a strange new land where you don’t speak the language.  At first the natives seem friendly… then you realize they want to steal your kidneys/insert an anal probe.

Yes, I’ve lumped alien movies and movies like Hostel, Turistas, and The Ruins all together. It makes sense (and not just because immigrants are also called aliens!).  We are xenophobes.  We fear those who are not like us.  We assume that our familiar tribe is friendly and all outsiders are unfriendly.  There are not many movies about friendly aliens (outside of kids’ movies) – we assume that aliens are going to be unfriendly.  Likewise, the above movies about traveling to foreign countries serve to remind us that we need to fear those outsiders.

This fear shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that wars are fought over such prejudices every day.

6. Mirrors

You are brushing your teeth when you notice something odd about your reflection.  Or maybe it’s the killer standing behind you.

Candyman and Mirrors are the only two movies I can think of that have built a plot around this fear, but this scenario shows up in almost every single horror movie I can think of.  Mirrors show us a part of ourselves that we can’t see.  We fear one day looking in the mirror and seeing a different face looking back out at us.

Mirrors also make us aware of how narrow our field of vision is… and how easily someone can sneak up behind us…

7. Ourselves

There’s a killer on the loose, and he seems to be killing everyone connected to you.  You run around trying to figure out what the connection is, maybe trying to figure out some shadowy memory from your past that might explain it all.  Then you suddenly realize you’re the killer.

This plot twist is used in a number of movies: Haut Tension (High Tension), Frailty, Silent House.  The audience is first made to empathize with the main character, feeling their fear at the horrifying events taking place, then the audience feels that moment of realization that the main character is not who they thought.

This fear is probably similar to both Mirrors and Isolation – we fear something hidden deep down in our psyches, and we fear what horrible things we might be capable of.

the Possession Story formula

This week I am examining the common formula for a story about demon possession, using the following 5 movies:

The ExorcistThe Exorcism of Emily Rose The Last Exorcism The Possession The Devil Inside

Start with a young woman, just hitting puberty.

  • The Exorcist: Regan is a 12-year-old girl
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Emily is college-aged young woman
  • The Last Exorcism: Nell is a teenage girl
  • The Possession: Em is a teenage girl
  • The Devil Inside: Maria is a young mother

You might want to base your exorcism story on something in Real Life:

  • The Exorcist: based on the real life case of Roland Doe (a pseudonym), who was approximately 13 years old
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: based on the real life case of Anneliese Michel, who was about 20 when her possession started
  • The Last Exorcism & The Devil Inside: while not based in real life, both of these movies is shot in documentary style

Dress your main character in a white nightgown:



Said young person might innocently dabble in the occult:

  • The Exorcist: Regan plays with a Ouija board (Roland Doe does the same)
  • The Possession: Em finds a dybbuk box (said to imprison a Jewish demon) at a yard sale

We need some foreshadowing:

  • The Exorcist: Regan has an invisible friend named “Captain Howdy”
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Emily sees objects move on their own
  • The Possession: Em has an invisible friend, a woman

The parents seek medical or psychological help for their child:

  • The Exorcist: Regan is taken for a number of medical tests
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Emily is diagnosed with epilepsy and depression
  • The Possession: Em is taken in for an MRI

Crazy shit goes down, according to the four typical signs of demonic possession (from Wikipedia):

  1. manifestation of superhuman strength
  2. speaking in tongues or languages that the person cannot know
  3. the revelation of knowledge, distant or hidden, that the victim cannot know
  4. blasphemic rage and an aversion to holy symbols or relics
  • The Exorcist: (1) Regan’s head spins and she levitates (2) she speaks in French, Latin, and backwards (3) she knows information about Father Karras’s mother (4) she cringes away from Holy water and the crucifix
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: (1) Emily holds contorted positions for hours (2) Emily speaks in Hebrew, Latin, ancient Greek, German, and Aramaic
  • The Last Exorcism: (1) Nell stabs her brother and kills a cat (4) screams at the sight of a crucifix
  • The Possession: (1)Em stabs her father with a fork (2) she speaks in a deep voice (4) when her father reads her the Torah, the book is thrown out of his hands by an invisible force
  • The Devil Inside: (1) Maria murders several people during an exorcism attempt (2) she speaks in different accents (3) she knows that her daughter had an abortion years ago

In addition, make your possessed character contort herself:


Gross stuff comes out of their mouths:

  • The Exorcist: Regan vomits pea soup
  • The Possession: a swarm of moths fly out of Em’s mouth

Words or marks appear on their skin, or you can see stuff crawling around under their skin:

  • The Exorcist: The words “Help Me” appear on the skin of Regan’s stomach
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Emily develops stigmata
  • The Possession: a hand moving under Em’s skin is visible
  • The Devil Inside: Maria has cut inverted crosses into her skin

Give the demon a name:

  • The Exorcist: Pazuzu (an Assyrian demigod)
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: 6 demons, including Legion, Belial, and Lucifer
  • The Last Exorcist: Abalam
  • The Possession: Abizu (“Taker of Children”)

Bring in the religious expert, in a recognizable costume:

  • The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Devil Inside: Catholic priests
  • The Possession: a Hasidic Jewish rabbi
  • The Last Exorcism: a reverend

And remember, the demons always win [spoilers!!]:

  • The Exorcist: Pazuzu returns in the movie’s sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic and possesses Father Lamont; in the book’s sequel (and subsequent movie) Legion/Exorcist III, Pazuzu continues to possess Father Karras’s corpse, among others, to commit serial murders.
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: The demons harass the lawyers defending Emily’s exorcist
  • The Possession: As the rabbi exorcist leaves the scene with the demon trapped in its box, he is in a fatal car accident – leaving the box unharmed and ready for its next unsuspecting victim.
  • The Last Exorcism: Nell has been possessed at the command of the cult her family belongs to, and they kill the exorcist
  • The Devil Inside: The demon causes a car wreck and is presumably at large

I have been plotting my own take on a possession story… which will turn all of these cliches on their heads!

The Dystopian Formula

I’ve been reading a lot of dystopian novels lately, and I think I have figured out the recipe! Check it out below, with examples from 7 different YA dystopian novels/series.

The Giver by Lois LowryMatched by Ally Condie

Start with an “ideal” society, usually formed after a rebellion that no one really remembers:

  • The Giver, Matched: everything is clean, happy, ordered, and mostly colorless
  • Divergent: everyone is divided into factions based on their ideals
  • Uglies: everyone is beautiful, therefore there is no fighting or self-esteem issues
  • Delirium: no one can be possessed by passionate love, which is what destroys happiness
  • Unwind: abortions are illegal, and it’s easy to rid yourself of those pesky rebellious teenagers
  • The Hunger Games: everyone in the Capitol is rich and happy now that the rebellions have been contained

Add in one milestone that occurs during the teen years:

  • The Giver: everyone is assigned their ideal job at age 12
  • Matched: everyone is assigned their ideal mate at age 17
  • Divergent: everyone given an aptitude test and allowed to choose their faction at age 16
  • Uglies: everyone gets plastic surgery to become a Pretty at age 16
  • Delirium: everyone gets surgery to remove the deliria part of your brain at age 18
  • Unwind: everyone between the ages of 13-18 can be “unwound”
  • The Hunger Games: everyone in the Districts between the ages of 12-18 must be put into lottery for the Hunger Games

Sprinkle in some weird rules or customs that no one thinks to question:

  • The Giver: you are given pills to eradicate sexual feelings
  • Matched: you carry three pills with you at all times; one is an anti-anxiety med and the other wipes your memory / no one knows how to write, even though they can read, type, and learn how to draw or paint as children
  • Divergent: there is technology to create serums that give the receiver lifelike simulations which others are able to watch, and yet no one has a computer, phone, or other means of communicating
  • Uglies: children are not raised with parents, and meat is grown on genetic farms
  • Delirium: the government shows them videos of people dying for love as a scare tactic
  • Unwind: you can’t have an abortion but you can abandon your unwanted child, or later basically kill them
  • The Hunger Games: there is technology like giant screens to broadcast the Games, but no one in District 12 has access to a computer

Supplement with a generous helping of invented vocabulary:

  • The Giver: giver, receiver, carer, releasing (killing), sameness
  • Matched: aberration, anomaly (someone genetically “different”)
  • Divergent: dauntless, erudite, candor, abnegation, amity
  • Uglies: littles, uglies, pretties, crumblies, specials, rusties, and lots of slang: bubbly, icy, bogus
  • Delirium: amor deliria nervosa, Invalid (uncured person), Book of Shhh
  • Unwind: unwinding, tithing (giving your 10th child to be unwound), harvest camp, storking, retroactive abortion, clappers (suicide bombers), umber (dark-skinned), sienna (light-skinned)
  • The Hunger Games: tessera (entries into the lottery), tribute (those chosen from the lottery), nightlock, jabberjay, mockingjay, muttation, tracker jacker

Stir a new person who opens the main character’s eyes to the flaws of society:

  • The Giver: The Giver, who transfers his memories of the society’s past into Jonas
  • Matched: Ky, an aberration, who makes Cassia aware that she is not allowed to choose anything
  • Divergent: Four, who teaches Tris about fighting and about being a Divergent
  • Uglies: Shay, who doesn’t want the operation, & David, who lives outside of society and is happy being an Ugly
  • Delirium: Alex, who Lena falls in love with just before her surgery
  • Unwind: Connor, Risa, and Lev meet each other and their different situations and upbringings lead them to a great understanding of what unwinding is
  • The Hunger Games: Peeta?  Haymitch?  Not sure who fits the bill here.

And the flaws are (spoilers):

  • The Giver: no one understands emotion, death, or pain
  • Matched: the government controls everything
  • Divergent: factions create friction (duh!)
  • Uglies & Delirium: the government makes citizens easy controllable with brain surgery
  • Unwind: unwinding is really like murder
  • The Hunger Games: the government is totalitarian and forces children to kill each other

I am hoping to make regular posts where I try to figure out “formulas” for various genres of novels or movies… suggestions welcome!