Formula or Freedom?


by Allen Arnold, @TheStoryofWith

When you sit down to write, how much free reign does your story have?

Can it go where it pleases or do pre-determined guardrails restrain it? Is your story evaluated on how original it is – or how similar it is to what’s popular in the marketplace? Does the cover have permission to wear an unexpected look – or must it mirror other covers in the genre? Can your story be as long or short as needed –or is it locked into a traditional word count?


With so many creative people working in the world of story, how did we become so comfortable with the familiar; so dependent on formula?

The reasons are…predictable. When something works, businesses tend to want more of that something. There’s the pressure to repeat and systemize success, driven by a false belief that the next breakthrough will come by recapturing that same lightning in a slightly different-colored bottle. Yet that never works. What propelled the first book was its originality…not a repeat of what had already been done.

That’s the problem with formula. The pull to the proven and predictable doesn’t lead to what’s fresh or what’s next. It leads to more of the same.

It feels low risk. But it’s actually low creativity.

When readers experience excitement over a breakout novel, they don’t really want the author to keep offering variations of that same story. Rather, they hope future books will be equally radical, fresh, unpredictable, and unique. They want to travel with that author to new places in new ways. When that fails to happen, readers eventually yawn and move on. At a certain point, they grow restless with the overly familiar…no matter how well edited the story or how famous the author. The problem isn’t the craft but the creativity.

So how do you take readers to new places with each novel?


First, do the hard work of discovering your unique voice and style. Among other things, you must continue seeing and experiencing new things. When authors let their own lives become too predictable, the stories will follow. A problem of formulaic stories may point to a life lacking spontaneity. If your days are a bit too similar, find ways to eradicate formula from your life first.

Then – and this is key – you must stay on the journey of discovery rather than growing comfortable, setting camp, and settling into the same. As your life grows, your voice will grow. As you scale new heights, you’ll face more obstacles and more breakthroughs. Let your stories do the same. Surprise us with what’s now awakening your heart rather than give us another serving of what once did. Show us the view from the new peak you just climbed rather than write from the old one that is safe.

The cure for the common always starts with the creator.

After all, God is the original Creator and he never follows formula. Look at the wild and unexpected ways he creates in Genesis. Then look at the stories that follow in Scripture.He ushers individuals and nations into adventures as unique as they are. He comes through for them in counter intuitive, breathtaking ways, sometimes early and other times at the last second. Rather than offer formula, he offers himself. He is an ever-present, wild, loving, surprising Creator. Jesus was equally unpredictable. In the New Testament, no one knew what he would do next – yet his followers did know his voice. That’s an essential combination for storytellers.

You want readers to recognize your unique voice as you write stories where readers have no idea what you will do next.

In your life and your writing, it’s time to move from formula to freedom. If this resonates with you, I share more on the wonder of actively and intimately co-creating with God in my book, The Story of With: A Better Way to Live, Love, and Create.

You have God. You know your voice. Now blaze a new path with the story you’re writing and the story you’re living. Then do it again next time…but in a new way.That’s how you set your stories free.

Writing tips creativity



Numbering Your Days with One Word by  Beth K. Vogt

How Christian is Your Fiction? by Dan Walsh

How to Show and When to Tell by Susan May Warren

The Story of With: A Better Way to Live, Love, & Create

“Unique and powerful, The Story of With will take readers deep into the discovery of their own identity. “Bravo! This fascinating blend of storytelling and teaching will shift the thinking of all who take this journey.” New York Times Bestselling Author, TED DEKKER

“Through allegory and invitation, Allen Arnold ushers us into a journey of imagination, insight, wonder, and wisdom…Read The Story of With!” New York Times Bestselling Co-Author of Captivating, STASI ELDREDGE

“This is your invitation into deeper identity, intimacy, and imagination with God. Like finding the place you’ve always longed to be. The moment you finish this book, you’ll race to grab one for a friend. Highest Recommendation!” Bestselling Author of The Long Journey to Jake Palmer, JAMES L. RUBART

“Allen has written a roadmap for dreaming with God. The Story of With is a beautiful, revelatory parable, filled with wonder, mystery, and adventure.” Author of Prone to Love & Untamed, JASON CLARK

– From the Foreword –

“You are not alone. Whether you’re a free spirit, an office exec, a writer, musician, college student, or tired parent—your soul, like mine, knows life is meant to go beyond rat races and rare applause. This book speaks to that belief. And if you’re not careful, you may find tears warming your eyes as you read because finally someone is naming your weariness, your striving, your questions of why you just can’t quite make it, or the emptiness that hit because maybe you did. It is into those places The Story of With reaches—fusing allegory with application—to offer fresh perspective, restored hope, and a rebirth of creativity.”

—From the Foreword by Mary Weber, Christy & Carol Award-Winning, Scholastic Pick Author of the Storm Siren Trilogy.

Allen Arnold is the author of The Story of With, an allegory that reveals a better way to live and create through the doorway of identity, imagination, and intimacy. His mission is to help people actively pursue and transform their talent by discovering how to pursue it with God. As the founding Fiction Publisher for one of the world’s largest Christian publishing houses, Allen oversaw the development of more than five hundred novels. He knows first-hand how common it is for creators to become disheartened, overwhelmed or burnt-out–as well as what it takes to help the dreams of writers become reality. In his current role at Ransomed Heart, he oversees content from the mountains of Colorado for the ministry. Before becoming a Board Member for ACFW, he was awarded their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 for his substantial contributions to the world of Christian Fiction.