I like food and I like food analogies. So, here’s a good one.
To put it otherwise: once you got the basics about making sure vegetables are tasty, meat is cooked, and seasoning can be fun, you’re good with experimenting.
Baking, on the other hand, is a chemical process that can easily be thrown off if you mess with the ratios, so don’t experiment unless you’re experienced.
Bread-making is an esoteric process control by ancient chaos gods, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, if you experiment you may end up summoning the Devourer of Worlds.
People think that writing is like bread-making: pray to the gods and maybe sacrifice a goat beforehand, and there’s no guarantee of success.
However, I would argue that writing is more like cooking: once you’ve got a few elements under your belt, you can experiment to create something knew. Sometimes, it’s awful, mostly, it’s pretty good, and occasionally, you’ve created the next worldwide food craze.
So, what are the elements of good writing? I’d say there are seven.
Setting is where the story takes place. It can be as specific or as vague as you want so long as it provides the arena in which the story can unfold. Maybe it’s “Somewhere in the desert at night” or it’s “October 16th, 1972 in the bedroom Helen had shared with her husband for fifty years, in the house on Mulberry Street in the small town of Haven, New Hampshire.”
The setting is kind of like your cooking vessel. It provides the environment in which the story can happen. It can set the mood and be a touchstone to help orient (or disorient) the reader.
Certain vessels are better suited to certain cooking types – and certain settings are better suited to particular stories – but I can tell you from experience, you can still saute onions in the bottom of a stock pot if you don’t have a saute pan.
When you’re cooking, you really need a fat to grease the vessel. It makes sure nothing sticks, makes the good you’re cooking tastier, and adds satiety to your meal. You might be able to go without when cooking, but it really improves your food.
Similarly, a theme is sort of the background “thing” that your story is actually about. It’s “what’s at stake.” It’s the story you’re trying to tell outside of the plot.
Try to write down what your story is about. Not a summary of the plot, but what it’s really about. That’s the theme. For example, on Monday 7/14/19 I’ll be posting a short story called “The Curse of the Bear.” I love that story, and what it’s about is “You can’t overcome the pressures of society until you can accept yourself as you are.” That’s the butter. Or olive oil. Or whatever.
Now, look, you can go without a real theme. Just like you can just boil chicken and steam broccoli, but you’re not going to get a very tasty meal.
Conflict is the heat. If you’re going to cook something, you have to apply to heat to it. Or, in the case of ceviche, acid. But sushi doesn’t need cooking. Neither does salad. How does conflict apply to stories here? Shut up, the analogy isn’t perfect, besides, sushi rice isn’t raw and please don’t slap raw meat onto your salad. Also, roasted nuts and seeds are far tastier on a salad than raw ones, so try it.
Anyway, conflict is the heat. It’s what keeps your readers hooked. It creates tension and anxiety. Conflict is what has to be resolved in order to have a plot.
Here we get to the meat and potatoes.
Characters are the food you’re cooking. They’re the ones getting cooked by the conflict and they’re the ones being processed through the plot.
Now, all characters are going to have certain qualities: history, motivations, personality, and development. You have the protagonist and most of the time you have an antagonist, but maybe not, unless Nature or Self become a separate character in those conflicts.
You can have a lot of characters or only two, or maybe only one. And different characters are suited to different conflicts. Just as a tough piece of meat does better with a long, low heat, a character with a lot of issues is going to do better in a conflict of Person vs Self.
Plot is the process of cooking. Okay, this is where the metaphor gets really iffy.
There are certain steps you have to take when cooking, and they have to be taken in a certain order. You can mess things around sometimes, but, there are certain ways you cook that will get you to a particular dish. For example, if you’re going to make gumbo, first you need to make a roux.
Now, Christopher Booker argued there were nine basic plots, but only seven were worthwhile. This is a really good article about it if you want to read it, but briefly, they are:
Overcoming the Monster (eg, the movie Fern Gully)
Rags to Riches (eg, Cinderella)
Quest (eg, Odyssey)
Voyage and Return (eg, The Road to El Dorado)
Comedy (eg, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Tragedy (eg, Medea)
Rebirth (eg, Beauty and the Beast)
Mystery (eg, literally anything by Agatha Christie)
Rebellion against the One (eg, The Giver, or really any dystopian fiction)
Each food you cook is going to take a different cooking time. Potatoes take longer than spinach. A thick pot roast is going to take longer than scallopini chicken.
Your story is going to require careful pacing in order to get a good meal out of it. Or… something like that.
Pacing is where you build and relieve tension. A story that goes by too quickly exhausts a reader, but one that goes by too slowly bores them. Pacing also allows you to give the reader a break. Maybe you need to give the reader a laugh after so much emotional anguish. Does it break pacing? No, it creates it.
Point of View
Finally, POV is the seasoning. Now, don’t act like I’m just throwing this in here because the metaphor is getting away from me.
Let me tell you a story: my brother-in-law grew up without eating any seasoning. His mother never used any seasoning whatsoever when cooking. Mashed potatoes? They were were boiled and mashed, and that was it. If you wanted salt or pepper on it, you could add it at the table.
My sister moved in with them while they were looking for a place to live, and BIL started taking over cooking. His parents so enjoyed his cooking that they begged my sister and him to stay even after they purchased their home.
You need to season your food when you cook, of you’re going to have a very sad meal. If you don’t have the right POV, you’re going to have a very confused story.
Now, you can have multiple POV characters, you can have first, second, or third person (limited, multiple, or omniscient). You could have past, present, or future tense going on. You could have an unreliable narrator.
If you’re going to make a great curry, you need like a million different herbs and spices, but all you need for a good steak is salt and pepper. If you’re telling a simple, linear story, you may only want a single, first person POV. If you’re telling a complex story with a ton of actors, you may want multiple first person POVs, or omniscient third person, or multiple third person.
Having the right POV only improves a story.
So what are you supposed to do with all of this?
Every story needs every element listed above. That’s that.
But, not every scene needs every element.
I saw a tweet this week which is why I’m writing this article at all. The original tweet asked if the author should cut a chapter that didn’t drive the plot. A lot of the responses were they, indeed, they should. If it doesn’t drive the plot, cut it without mercy. (and I’m sorry, I can’t find the tweet.)
I argued otherwise. I argued that as long as the scene does at least two of the seven above (establish setting or POV, set pacing, create conflict, develop character, enhance theme, or drive plot), it’s worth keeping.
A story that only has scenes that drives plot screws with pacing. A story with scenes that only develop characters has no real plot. A mess of POV creates a disaster, but without characters development or conflict, no one will care.
A well-crafted story, like a well-crafted meal, has every element, at least once, in the process.
Good luck, my friends, and just keep writing.
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