I have two passions in life: cooking and writing. My mind seeks out connections and I often link my passions together. I wondered if I could identify some key ingredients in prose that, like cooking, were essential to composing a solid story.
I don’t think many chefs would argue that two of the most versatile ingredients for any dish are salt and butter. Add to that the rack of spices that can nuance the flavor, and you have all the components for either a brilliant dish or a ruinous one.
Salt Has Attitude
In cooking, salt magnifies the other flavors around it, but too much overpowers everything. A similar element in writing it voice. There’s some argument about what voice is. Some think of it as simply the style of the author. Others, consider it the thoughts and expressions of the character. Either way, it elevates the writing.
I consider voice to be both of these elements, and each can benefit the story if used in the correct amounts. First there’s authorial voice, which some call style. This is the subtle use of word choice that makes one author identifiable no matter what is written. I think this is most strongly evident in third person narration with a strong narrator.
Modern fiction has veered down the first person narrative road, thus confusing the issue of authorial style and a character’s point of view. The latter is what most writer’s consider voice. Here, the entire world is filtered through the lens of the point of view character. A strong personality will elicit an equally strong narrative.
As with true salt, too much voice can easily slip into the territory of the rant or stream of consciousness. Plot is lost and what remains is pure character. This ceases to be a narrative.
The Butter Speaks
Not every dish has butter. I’ve cooked plenty with simply a little oil and some veggies. Yet none could argue that butter adds richness. I’ve heard restaurant chefs say that when their meals don’t taste up to par, they simply add butter. And let’s not even go to baking. Can you honestly bake anything without butter?
In writing, one element also adds a rich taste to any narrative, and that’s dialogue. Yes, you can have stories that have little or no dialogue, but no one could read that sort of thing all the time. It would having an essay every day. Dialogue is essential to narrative. When I read more than a page of my writing that has no dialogue, I worry.
Conversely, there are brilliant stories with almost all dialogue. My first thought goes to “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemingway. Here only simple actions and dialogue fill this story. Screenplays also rely heavily on dialogue, just as some cooked dishes rely on a heavy dousing of butter.
A good cupboard is filled with over a dozen spices. In small amounts, these will make a dish soar. However, it is so easy to over spice. I recently cooked a minestrone soup, but ran out of chicken stock. Using water, I wanted to bump up the flavor. I dumped on the dried oregano. Too much, in fact. The meal was hardly palatable.
The same goes for writing. Some techniques, while amazing in small doses, drag the narrative down in too large amounts. Take figurative language. Prose is not poetry. A few metaphors go a long way. We want our readers to connect with the character and become involved with the plot, not obsess over our word play. I think most authors get trapped by this because they want to show off their skills.
Cussing also falls into this category. I’m not against dropping in a four letter word here of there. But some writers sprinkle in curse words as if they were salt. Yes, that might be how people really speak, but narrative amplifies life, not imitates it. We strive to write a better-than-reality depiction of real life. Just like a contemporary painter can create a realistic composition that rivals the true subject matter, the writer must pick and choose when to allow cursing into his or her story. Think: am I including this word because it’s the best word? Can I achieve this emotional value in another way?
Cooking Up a Good Tale
Now that you know some of the basic flavors and spices that make up a story, go out and cook one up. Remember, salt it with voice and butter up the dialogue. Add some spice, but only a dash. Let the plot and characters speak for themselves.