Writing a good story is like cooking a great meal – only with less clean up afterward.
(You can tell what I’m thinking about as I roll up my sleeves to tackle a huge pile of dishes)
There are an amazingly diverse number of ingredients for today’s cook: foods and spices from all over the globe, from every culture. You can throw a meal together, you can buy pre-packaged crap, or you can cook a great meal. What does it take to prepare something memorable that lingers not only on the palate of your audience but in their minds well after the meal is done? There is the traditional or classical route where you combine time-tested ingredients with tried and true methods of preparation. Often such meals draw on more than just flavors for the impression they make on the mind and stomach.
I had such a meal last night full of traditional and family variations on the Jewish Seder meal for Passover. The use of bitter herbs and matzoh recalls Passover stories to mind for the diner. The spiritual significance enhances the act of eating just as allusion to myths, religion, or classical authors can do the same in a work of fiction. The combination of traditional ingredients, each one made unique by the particular cook and family, makes each meal distinctive and yet successful. This is true with works of fiction using the classical elements of writing – those techniques extolled by agents and publishers and books on writing.
The other way to prepare a great meal is to find new combinations and flavors and like the Iron Chef amaze the palate as if with a revelation. Of course bear in mind that such rule breakers have to be highly trained and very experienced. Their talent as innovators is matched by their skill in the kitchen. I would maintain that is so with the literary innovators. It’s not so easy to break all the rules and actually present something edible.
If you don’t believe me let me relate a little personal experience. I once was served a meal by a woman that had not bothered to learn to cook. She decided it was easy and thus all she needed was some ingredients. She microwaved lamb wrapped around sage stuffing, served it with mashed potatoes and followed up with a dessert of her own devising. The lamb was like leather with crumbled cement filler since she’d given it no juices to cook in. The mashed potatoes included raw lumps of potato as she’d cut the tubers to different sizes and some had not cooked all the way through while others had dissolved in the water. The worst was the dessert, however. It was mandarin wedges served with chopped dry roasted peanuts on top.
Writing like cooking is a skill. Learn your ingredients, learn your cooking times, and practice what is time honored and known to work, and then you can start experimenting with breaking the rules.