Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Story's Recipe

 Recently I read one of those books that made me lose my sense of time.   You know that feeling.  It's when you close the book and come back down to earth  a bit disoriented to realize hours have sped by.  It didn't seem possible!  But it happened.  Somehow you forgot about the world and narrowed your focus to the emotions of the characters.

And, of course, the writer's burning questions are:  how'd she do that?  And:  how can I do that?

I didn't think about it while reading, of course!   I just enjoyed.   But once the story is finished, I can't help reopening the book to search for the "secret ingredients," as if the story were written from a recipe in a writer's cookbook.  Really, what is in there?  And while I do feel a little guilty about dissecting magic, I can't stop myself.  Because while reading the story satisfied my craving, now I have the urge to try the recipe. 

Of course, I'm over simplifying things, but that's the thing about recipes.  Food recipes don't really teach you how to cook and story recipes, even the ones pulled from a delicious book, don't really teach you how to write.   At most they're a template for experimentation.   

So, I'm not too surprised that, after jotting down lots of notes, the story recipe reads a lot like my mother's recipes: "a handful of this, a dash of that."   The only guarantee in following this recipe is that it will never give the same result.  

Still, I can work with it.  I can still recognize the choices the writer made in selecting a story's recipe.  It's as if the writer had a specific meal in mind and browsed through cookbooks looking for a certain themes/recipe that would fit.  Not only did she know what she wanted, she knew what she didn't want.  She ignored many, many recipes because the ingredients weren't the right combination or in the right proportions.  And she considered other things like, how many guests/secondary characters are invited?  How many courses/chapters and scenes or overall transitions will be served?  

So let's look at a recipe.  I'll call it the "snowbound recipe."   I  think the story I read used a version of this recipe and it's one I think a lot of readers crave.  In fact, when so many books have this theme it could be called cliche, but I prefer tried-and-true.  It goes something like this:

Snowbound Recipe
Strand one hero and one heroine together in a snow storm. 
Simmer 3/4 of the story in a 24 hour time period.  
Put the outside world  and real world responsibilities on hold to be reintroduced at the 3/4 mark. 
Actual "snow" is optional.  Substitute with anything that traps the two together.   For extra intensity, add an external problem the characters can't do anything about.

 Sounds good, don't you think?   It's not a fancy dinner party, but this recipe takes advantage of some built-in "tricks."  They might not seem like magic on their own, but  consider how the ingredients work together. 

This recipe/theme helps add a natural restraint and acceleration, if you will, for two areas.  I won't call them problem areas exactly, but more like writing tendencies.  It's that "heavy-hand" we sometimes get for a certain ingredient, such as secondary characters.  And, while this recipe doesn't ban secondary characters,  it make it a bit more difficult for them to take over.  You can add "a dash of secondary characters," but they're more like sprinkles. 

Also, the 24-hour time span has an interesting effect on transitions, specifically in the advance and retreat between the hero and heroine.   This push and pull is key to a romance, but it's a challenge to seamlessly craft those emotional transitions. 

In our snowbound recipe, every moment in the here and now is important.   Time is accelerated.      Consequently, within a short time span, relationships can advance on a different time scale then "real world" conventions typically allow.  Because sometimes when time is sped up, you s-t-r-e-t-c-h time.  The television show "24" proved that with action, but emotionally this hold true as well.

For instance, in "real life" we think in terms of how long it's supposed to take to get from point A to point B in a relationship.  Or, in other words, first, second or third base!  There's a lot of starts and stops in building a romance.   Attraction, a parting of ways, regroup while apart and think about what's going on, get back together because of the get the idea. 

The snowbound recipe works a little different.  The transitions are still there, but there's not a lot of opportunity for characters to regroup and the real world conventions seem less important.  And what are the characters to do when you take away "why not?"  Somehow, the snowbound recipe changes the rules and stranded strangers skip a lot of the getting-to-know-you-steps.  It's fast, but it seems right.
It's not the only way to go, but I'm thinking it makes a lot of sense to limit the focus as a way to lose our sense of time.  The characters find this interlude an escape from the real world and the reader can escape as well, losing a sense of time.

Still, there are some risks with the snowbound recipe.  There's the finish, which might read something like:   Set on fire at 3/4 mark. 

All the things set on hold have to be reintroduced and the real world has to be faced.  Even after a big finish, there's another challenge.  The hero and heroine have the chance to regroup and they surface from their interlude a bit disoriented to remember it's only been 24 hours.   Can they turn an ending into a beginning?

 I've seen many variations.  Often this recipe gets wrapped up with a "to be continued" feel that can work.  It's continued in the reader's mind, that is.  Or another variation is cutting the "simmer" time down from 3/4 to 1/2.  Then the second half is spent exploring the consequences of the interlude more fully.   It's up to how you vary the recipe.

Maybe we don't always need a recipe, but sometimes they can be just the thing for learning a new "trick" or two.

Can you think of other romance themes/recipes?  What advantages to your writing style might they provide?  Would you avoid certain recipes?


  1. I really like this idea of "writing recipes". I too want to know how a writer accomplished something, especially if I'm swept up into the story and unable to analyze it as I go. That means there's something extra special there, and I need to know how it happened. LOL

    And recipes can end up with such different results thanks to each individual cook-writer's way of doing things, even with the same ingredients.

    I'm trying to think of a romance theme/recipe, but my mind has gone blank. I can definitely see an advantage to using them though. I think I've tried certain ones just because I wanted to see how my characters would respond in certain situations--or I wanted to see if I could pull it off. LOL

    Great topic!

  2. Donna, I think one of the interesting things about writing recipes is we can start with an ingredient/situation and the recipe builds from there.

    For instance, I'm using a variation of the "Snowbound Recipe" for my shorter story, but I think the ingredients were being collected and placed on the shelf until I found the right recipe. I can see the list of ingredients building over a long period of time. I had a secondary character waving her hand trying to get my attention, so I "called on her" in the writing prompt at your blog. That quieted her down for a while. Then I read the novel with the "snowbound recipe/theme" and I thought (or she started waving her hand again!), that's the kind of recipe for these ingredients.

    So maybe it's a "what came first, the the chicken or the egg?" thing. LOL


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