The Raw Ingredients of the Writing Recipe
All About Genre #2
By Leigh Holland.
What is a “Story”? Most of us jump right into discussing characterization and how-to-tips, but we never seem to stop and ask ourselves this most fundamental question. A story is food for the mind and heart. Like most dishes, it follows a recipe. The basic recipe is:
Once upon a time and place, a hero went on a quest to achieve a goal, encountering conflict along the way.
Ideally, this recipe includes a climax and resolution as well. But this is the basic ‘story’ recipe. Every story has four raw ingredients. Without these, it’s not a very good story. These raw ingredients are the “PICS”, or the bigger picture:
- Plot– this is the sequence of events. Events occur in smaller segments known as scenes. Scenes can be broken down into even smaller segments, called ‘beats’. There are usually at least one or two sub-plots within a larger work, woven in and connected to it.
- Idea– this is the story seed. For it to work, it must develop from an idea into something more solid. My family plays a game on long car rides called the “What If” game. One person starts with a “what if” scenario. If the next person likes it, they expand on it. If not, they throw a new idea out. Here’s an example of one of our games:
What if zombies are really the next step in human evolution?
What if instead of trying to eat our brains, they’re trying to pass this gift of evolution on to us?
What if the zombies pity us because they’re immortal and we die?
What if the zombies live in superior cities far away and the survivors really live in the abandoned, inferior places?
What if the zombies don’t talk because they communicate telepathically with each other?
What if they’re deciding right now about whether or not to end the existence of the inferior survivors?
What if our zombie hero keeps trying to communicate with his mom and girlfriend, two survivors, and he’s desperate to stop the leaders?
3. Character– these are the people who inhabit the story. The main character and antagonist should be three-dimensional. Characters very close to the character should also have depth. Minor characters, not so much depth is needed. You need to be aware of the motivation of every character appearing in each scene, even if it’s just the paperboy determined to deliver the Sunday paper.
Three dimensions means we see: 1. The mask the character shows the rest of the world at large, including their body language, clothing style, general appearance, habits, and obvious quirks, 2. The mask beneath the first dimension, namely, the reasons behind the character’s choices and actions, including any elements of backstory essential to making the story work, and 3. The character laid bare under pressure, who the character truly is deep down when everything is on the line.
4. Setting– this is the time, place, environment, world that the story takes place in. To do this right may often require a lot of research and some travel. The setting isn’t just a pretty backdrop. The fictional world brings mood, meaning, and can tie into your theme.
What does this have to do with Genre?
All the genres and subgenres under the Fiction umbrella are stories. They all contain these four raw ingredients. In fact, each genre contains these elements in a specific amount. As we move along in the series, I’ll provide a recipe for how many parts of each raw ingredient goes into the recipe for that genre.
Isn’t that writing to a formula?
That’s like saying all chili is the same. I think these folks would disagree. No two cooks make chili the same way. I’ve never eaten two batches of chili, even from the same cook, that taste the same. There are so many endless variations on a single dish. In fiction, there are many “dishes” or genres, and there are endless variations on each dish, even when using the same raw ingredients.
I want my writing to be creative and dynamic.
And it certainly can be, even when writing with your audience’s expectations in mind. The tricky part is balancing their expectations of the genre and keeping it in tune with your developing story. There are other elements that every writer puts into their work that creates their own unique stamp, such as theme (meaning), all the details of the four elements above, narrative and descriptive voice, and how you build your scenes. Genre simply provides readers with a fairly broad set of expectations. What you do within that framework is up to you as the artist.
What is the most important element in a story?
If the PICS are the raw ingredients in our story recipe, conflict is the stove we cook it on. Raising the temperature at various points is like raising the stakes for the hero. Conflict arises from one or more of these elements and will continue until the source of the conflict is resolved.