As writers we often look for new devices to improve, change, grow our skills.  Some writers refer to this is adding tools to our writing tool boxes.  I thought I’d talk a bit about one of my favorite devices, the elegant and sophisticated  WAVE FORMULA.

The wave formula writing device was first described by Edith Wharton, and quickly became a standard for writers in the mid-late twentieth century, though it has fallen out of favor more lately. While it’s fallen from fashion, it still works as a good writing exercise, especially teaching you (forcing you to find ways) to show instead of tell. Wave Formula appears in three parts, to solve a writer’s common  problem: How to introduce a character to the reader quickly and succinctly. 
The presentation in three parts:

1.   Feelings of the character
2.   Actions of the character, or gestures
3.      Dialogue of the character

Ms. Wharton said this device was like a wave making its way to the shore.
1.      The motive or feelings is the power of the wind driving the wave.
2.      Action or gesture is like the wave as it suddenly appears, rising, rolling up the beach.
3.      The dialogue or speech is like the foam on the crest of the wave as it breaks and spills over.

Wave formula was popular, in part because writers did a lot more telling and lot less showing back then.  But it’s still a fluid, smooth, effective introduction of a character, and with little twists, it still works.


Here’s a few I’ve done over the years to keep my skills sharp.  (And yes, the first is in that unpopular POV…universal.)


Angrily, Josh tossed the picnic basket to the sand, scattering sandwiches, the lovely grapes he’d chosen and washed with such care. “I didn’t ask you here to talk about Robert.  I asked you to lunch to talk about us.”

Amused, Cheryl laughed, the sound oddly chilling.  She stood from the sunny yellow picnic blanket and propped a hand on her hip. “Us? There is no us, Josh.  Never has been. Never will be.”

Confusion swept through him, followed quickly by embarrassed warmth which he knew showed on his fair features. Tommy wiped his damp palms down his dress slacks, the gesture wrinkling the fine fabric, unlike the denim he usually wore. “Good morning, Mrs. Robinson. Um. I really like that, um, outfit. Ma’am.”

Pleased with the effect of the blood red polish on her nails, Emily held out all ten to admire them. “I do declare, there is something about red nail polish that is purely decadent, don’t you think?”

Drunk and prevented entrance to his own home, Cameron roared with anger. He beat the door with his fists, the sound booming as he screame. “Evelyn, you open this door. You hear me? You open this door or you’ll regret it! I promise you. You’ll regret kicking me out of my own home!”

Do you *have* to introduce a scene or character in this order and with this presentation?  No. Of course not. As we’ve said many time before, there isn’t just one way to write. A writer can introduces a character, emotion and dialogue any way he wishes. This is the wave formula method, and it stimulates us to write with the active voice when the exercise itself draws us to passive voice.
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14 comments to Device: WAVE FORMULA

  • OK, I’m game. I’ve go a scene I need feedback on anyway because I’m afraid it is confusing to the reader not acquainted with Roman customs and names. But I’ll be nice and only post the beginning this time. 😉 If anyone feels inclined to tackle the whole little sucker, there’s more where that comes from. 🙂

    (chapter 1, Rome, September 8 AD)

    In the shadows of a colonnade, a young man had turned his back to the parade. His toga with the purple stripe fell in perfect folds, his fair hair was properly combed into the high brow of a sharp-nosed face. “I wonder if they cheer for Germanicus.” He pronounced the name with barely hidden contempt. “Or his late father.”

    “For both, I think,” said a dark haired officer in cuirass and leather kilt, crested helm tucked under his arm. “His father’s memory may still be strong, but Germanicus has gained a victory.”

    “The leader of those barbarians has accepted a bribe, that is the true reason he made a treaty with Rome. Caius Horatius, you cannot be so ignorant not to see this parade and the free grain are part of a scheme to keep the plebs quiet.”

    Caius Horatius Veranius grasped the rim of his helmet more firmly, biting back an angry reply. Publius Cornelius Lentulus, member of one of the most ancient families in Rome, had a talent for insulting people. “Even Tiberius found words of praise for Germanicus, and you know he seldom does. For anyone.”

    Lentulus shrugged and brushed an invisible dustspeck off his toga. “Germanicus is his nephew, after all; Tiberius has to keep the pretense of family ties.”

    With clapping of hooves and the rhythmical thud of nailed sandals on the flagstones the cavalcade approached them. It was but a small cortege since most of the legions had remained in the winter quarters at the Danube to guard a restive province. But the men who marched were attired in their parade uniforms, the officers’ cuirasses gleaming with gold and sparkling with jewels, scarlet cloaks bright in the sunshine. Flowers people had thrown crushed under hooves and boots, releasing their perfumes into the air.

    Veranius lifted his arm in salute while Lentulus watched with an expression of studied boredom when the man riding beside Germanicus caught his attention. Instead of the Roman uniform he wore an ermine-trimmed cloak of finest deep blue wool over a plain mail shirt, blond hair cascading from under the helmet onto his shoulders in outlandish fashion.

    “Germanicus offering one of those long maned barbarians the place at his side,” Lentulus hissed when the group had passed them. “This is unheard of!”

    A tall man clad in mail and trousers who stood beside Veranius spun, hand on his swordhilt. Reddish hair, partly braided, framed a pale face now turning red with the anger that smoldered in his blue eyes.

    Veranius put a hand on the man’s arm. “Irminric, please don’t start a fight,” he said in Batavian. “Publius Cornelius Lentulus is of an influential family, and your status as envoy could not protect you if you attacked him.”

    “I know,” Irminric grunted but relaxed his stance. He would not show that pompous Roman his anger. It was an honour to be sent to Rome as ambassador, and he would not dissappoint his chief and his father.

    “Caius Horatius, I had no idea you speak the tongue of those barbarians,” Lentulus drawled.

    “I’ve learned the language of the Batavians as child,” Veranius replied in a cold tone.

    Around them, people began to walk off in groups, and slaves appeared to clean the pavement. One of them glanced at the men from under the hood he wore over his tunica as he passed them close. Muted cheers sounded from the Forum where the members of the Senate gathered.

    Irminric turned to Veranius. “Who was the man in the blue cloak riding beside Germanicus? He looks like from our tribes.” He spoke Latin now, ignoring Lentulus who sneered at a phrase he seemed to have gotten wrong.

    “He’s Gaius Julius Arminius, prince of the Cherusci. Leader of the Cheruscian horse, and the man whom Rome can thank that the Pannonians couldn’t break through our lines in that last battle.”

  • Gabriele,
    This wasn’t actually about wave formula (not that it had to be) so I can’t comment on that, but I can comment on what you are concerned about — the names and Roman info. I don’t read much historical fiction, so if I’m off base here, maybe one of the others will chime in and tell me to bug off. (grins)

    I agree that as an opening, this passage contains too many full names, and too many relationships. It feels as if you want/need the reader to know certain historical things and relationships *before* you start the book, and are trying to give it all to them in a conversation.

    This results in an info dump that slows down the reading pace, without focusing on the conflict of the book. In fact, I still don’t *know* what the book is about, and in today’s market, I need to be able to see that within the first few paragraphs.

    Why not make a list of everything you need the reader to *know* as history and relationships, and dribble it in as you go, over the course of the first 100 pages. This would let you open with a bait and hook, maybe just the conflict part. Or just the relationship between Veranus and Irminric.

    Again, I don’t read historical fiction, so I may be all washed up here. Anyone else have thoughts?

  • I love historical fiction, and in particular Roman fiction.

    It is obvious that you are familar with Rome and the custom of the parade after a victory. I think you are worried about the blonde haired guy confusing people?

    He did confuse me becuase he wears the robe of a Senator yet he has the look of a German Barbairan. I can only assume that he rose through the military ranks of a German based Legion, but at around 8 AD – it would be a stretch.

    Your names seem proper and I don’t see a problem there. The only thing I have to really say about htem is that Romans usually had proper names (used in matters of formality or State) and common names which were used amongst their friends/family. So I don’t think this guy would be using the proper name of his friend unless it was a formal occasion or something.

    Overall, I liked it and would love to read more. I am planning on doing a Roman fiction story sometime soon myself. I thought about writing a story based in the Dacia region around the Fall of the Empire I think.

  • Mark and Gabriele, this is what I like to see! Writers chatting to writers, giving and getting input. It also reminds of the question often asked by non-writers … Where do you get your ideas?
    (delicate ladylike snort)
    We get them everywhere. Ideas aren’t a problem. It’s finding the time to put them to paper, to turn them into books.
    We need a longer lifespan to get all the stories down.

  • Mark, you mean Lucius Cornelius Lentulus? He’s as Roman as they come – there were blond Romans and Greek. 🙂 But maybe I should not mention the colour of his hair at this point.

    The praenomen was only used in close relationships and Lentulus and Caius Horatius Veranius don’t get along well enough for that, lol. I use the cognomen in the narrative because it’s the most distinctive part of Roman names. After all, we only have a dozen or so ‘first names’, that’s not enough to populate a novel.

    The German Barbarian who has risen to the rank of a praefectus in the Roman army is Arminius. And here I see the problem – I’ve assumed that name would ring a bell for anyone who’s interested in Roman history because he is taught in German schools. Not so in the US, it seems. 😉

  • Lol Faith, I have a batch of plotbunnies under my bed, and they breed. 😀

    I see the problem about a hook. If you read the entire scene, things should become clearer, but maybe a writer doesn’t have an entire scene these days. The main historical conflict is only going to develop and as I said to Mark, I wrongly assumed the names of Arminius and Germanicus would ring a bell to anyone interested in Roman history. They probably ring a bell only in Germany, though. 😉

    The personal conflict is between Lentulus and Veranius, Lentulus and Irminric, and Irmniric and Rekahari (who will appear a few lines past this snip). ALU is a developing into an epic with a helluva interweaving conflicts, so it’s not so much the When of starting but the How. I wish I could find another scene to use as first one but this one will tie in with the end.

    Maybe I’ll have a look at the POV or cut the frist part about the reason for the victory celebration, but then the characters will appear in even shorter space.

  • Btw, I got the idea for A LAND UNCONQUERED when I visited the site that most archaeologists claim to be the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest aka Varus Battle. I had the Roman bug pretty bad already and on the way home I was busy developing characters and personal conflicts that would play out on the foil of that battle and Germanicus’ campaigns a few years later. 🙂

    Mark, in case you want to read the entire scene, it’s the first one on my snippet blog:

  • Damn, that is Publius Cornelius, Lucius is the other name in the family and the of one the antag in COLD CALEDONIA’S BLAST, the third book in my trilogy.

  • I wonder if this would work for first person POV as well as it does for third?

  • Gabriele>> Yeah, I recognized the name Germanicus, he was a very important Roman afterall. I guess I focused on the wrong question. I was just under the impression that the only times that Aincent Romans had blonde hair, it was due to a wig. I don’t really recall any incidents of blonde hair unless their was some Gallian or German blood involved.

    I can understand the whole naming issue now that the relationship between the guys is known. I thought they were closer.

    I love the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. I believe it was Augustus that was known to scream out “Varus! Give me back my legions!” for years afterward.

  • Natalie, it would. I’ve used it, actually to better effect.

  • After reading your snippet. I have to say I liked it. Your characters are not cookie cutter and seem individualized. You haev a good grasp of Roman custom and historical accuracy. All in all it appears to be a nice read.

    My only complaint would be a need for more descriptions. I love vivd descriptions and so that could just be me. Here we are watching a Triumphal Entry Parade but we get about a paragraph about it. ALso in describing the parade and all of the wild sights associated with it, it would give you a wonderful chance to build up the characters more before the knife gets pulled.

    Anyways… that was my only issue. Otherwise, good job!

  • Thank you, Mark. I’m a bit light on description, but you’re have a good point, maybe I’m too sparse sometimes. I suppose I was worried that the introduction of 4 acting and 3 named characters was dragging the whole thing already, and adding more details about the ovation parade (Germanicus got his triumph in 16 AD after he didn’t conquer the Germans 😉 and this will be the final or semi-final scene in the book) would make the beginning even slower. After all, Faith misses a hook and she has a point as well – the action really starts when the knife gets drawn but that is too late to come up with 4 characters at once; I wanted to introduce them step by step and give them a bit of a profile.

  • Mark, I think the Caesars were blond; at least they are in McCullough’s series; and if I remember correctly, Achilles is described as blond, so the colour was not restricted to the north and the Celts. But this is an easy thing in my particular case; I cut the word ‘fair’. 🙂

    Yes, Augustus said that, or at least the quote is ascribed to him. The battle of the Teutoburg Forest is a fascinating subject for a novel, but even more so the character of the Cheruscian prince Arminius. What drove him, a Roman-educated , decorated officer and member of the equestrian order, to kick the Romans out of Germania? For a long time, it was siad to have been patriotism, but that concept didn’t exist in 1st century Germania, a land setted by a dozen or more tribes that at best shared an overall culture, only in 19th century Germany. 😉