The Story Remains the Same


Country Cooking is a PBS show, actually a spin-off of America’s Test Kitchen, which is a visual representation of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. The show depicts typical American recipes – country cooking, the show says – and shows viewers how to work them to achieve the intended results, rather than typical results.

chemicalsThey also do pragmatic tests to determine which, if any, products are superior to others. Things like plastic wrap, toaster ovens, food processors, kitchen tongs, you name it, they’ve probably tested it. And they tell you which ones performed best, which had the best performance-to-cost ratio, and which they like and use in the test kitchen.

Without fail one product or food stands above the rest. Without fail the recipe or process or both must be adjusted to achieve the desired results.

What do we learn from this?

Not all formulae are created equal.

Whether you’re making a pot roast for dinner or plastic wrap to sell to consumers, the formula(s) you use make a difference. Deviate from the formula and disaster awaits. The flip-side of that statement is, not all formulae are created equal; therefore some formulae are superior to others.

Writing has a formula believe it or not. I see it played out every day on TV and in movies, though I struggle to find it in novels and stories (don’t ask why, I can’t tell you). Some writers don’t know this and they sit down to write at their peril. The formula is like a recipe. Lots of creative types are against any formula or recipe. They believe they ingredientscan and should create on the fly, as the muse moves them. (I’ve always called this pants-seat writing.) But in every art form I’ve experienced, there is a well-trod path to successfully creating the art itself. It’s been forged and worn by those who came before and who have made the mistakes the formulae and recipes are designed to save artists from.

I’ve written both ways. I find writing with a plan, a formula, easier. It gives me the secrets of where to put what when in a story. But I don’t always follow a plan or recipe. As when I cook, writing this way tends to be hit or miss. But the simple formula for successful storytelling has worked for millennia, and will continue to work. Just as the basic structure for art has survived for hundreds of years and is tried and proven.

Some artists and writers have learned the principles so well – sometimes without even knowing it – they can write instinctively and use correct recipe proportions and structure. Others guess and try to wing it. The latter group tends to be the camp of drafters, drafting draft upon draft until they finally stumble upon the formula. The rest, who follow the recipe, are polishers.

But as with recipes, sometimes the process relies upon execution. A good recipe can be ruined by bad execution. For example, two TV shows with similar themes – Ghost Whisperer and Medium – make great examples. They’re both formulaic in approach. Both try to stick to the storytelling recipe. MoreBestRecipes_Cover_500One of them executes brilliantly, the other does not. It’s the same among the CSI franchise of shows.  One of them – the original – stands head and shoulders above its spin-offs. Better writers maybe. Whatever the case there’s a notable difference in the quality of the shows.

So having the recipe down is important. It’s not everything though. Not by a long shot. I’ve learned the recipe, the formula, recently. My execution of that plan hasn’t been tested yet, but will be.

How about you? Are you a plan-follower, a recipe-cooker, or do you do more of your work spontaneously and by feel? If you’re not a writer, and we adore our readers by the way, can you tell the difference when you’re reading? or watching TV? Can you see how the formula guides the end result to make the product?

-JDT-

All original content © 2009 DarcKnyt
ALL rights reserved.

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25 thoughts on “The Story Remains the Same

  1. Recipes require more than just following the directions and putting the appropriate amount of each ingredient. The preparation devices need to work properly as well. Baking is best with an electric oven. Cooking on the stove is best with a gas range. How the food is whipped should it require a beating is more important than people realize.

    But I’m lazy and have a good rapport with the take-out places near my home.

    Well, true enough. I like it when the ingredients need a beating. They’re so naughty.

  2. I generally like the end result better when I have followed the recipe with my writing. It is a curious thing…I generally get more positive responses when I don’t follow a recipe. Perhaps recipes take the spicy edge out of poetry?

    My wife’s always been fond of “tweaking” recipes. Once you know them well enough, why not? But the basic framework should remain the same. You can’t make Chateaubriand with chicken, y’know? 😉 You’re more than talented enough to add the spice back to the recipe, chile-sandwich eater. 😉

  3. You’re not going to say which ghost show you like better? You probably already did in a previous post but I don’t remember. I like Medium, don’t watch Ghost Whisperer.

    Actually, Ness did that for me. Yes, we adore Medium and I can barely sit through Ghost Whisperer. If JLH wasn’t such a sweetie (I remember her since her Disney days), and so pretty, I wouldn’t watch it at all, probably. 🙂

    In writing, I measure like my old granny did cooking: by “finger-widths” and “big spoonfuls” and “half a jelly jar.” Makes it hard to translate into a recipe which can be followed by others, and even by myself, but I’m trying to quantify the feeling of rightness.

    It’s only important that you know the basic recipe. The basic story structure is all you really need; the skeleton. The fleshing out can be done by pinches and dashes and such. 😉 At least, I think so.

    Now, in cooking, I follow the recipe to the letter and it still turns out wrong about half the time. Hope you’re having a wonderful day. 🙂

    Not bad, not bad. How ’bout you? 🙂

    • Even my son mocks Ghost Whisperer! LOL

      I confess, GW is like the stupid romance novel version of the “I talk to dead people” genre. I only watch it because I like Jennifer, and I like stupid sappy know it’s going to be happy endings sometimes. It’s my mindless drivel and Darc wouldn’t watch it if not for me. Not that he “watches” … that’s really more like his check the email time.

      But Medium rocks. MUCH better written. 🙂

  4. I rarely follow direction to a T. All family recipes were taught by ‘eye’ and taste. Even when someone gives me a recipe I still will ‘eye’ everything and it always comes out perfect. But maybe I am just awesome and can measure without proper tools? I can easily tell what a pound is just by picking it up.

    I think it’s certainly a gift to do so, Vodkabeforenoon. 🙂

    I spend a lot of time reading recipes and just make mental notes of the key components and just wing it. I do this even with cake recipes. You think it would be a fail since baking is a science but over the years I seem to have a grasp of the main components to make cake light and airy with little instruction. I think when you do something very often it just because natural and written instruction becomes less important.

    This is true with writing as well. Do the recipe often enough, follow the formula enough and you learn it by heart, then it can be done on instinct.

    I think the down side is a lot of good family recipes do get lost. No one remembers how to make Titi’s famous lemon cookies because she just ‘eyed’ it. And no one remembers how exactly the cookie taste except that they were ‘good’ and an old holiday tradition.

    And in writing, if you’re just “eyeing” it, it may not be re-creatable a second or third time also. And that’s the reason for the plan. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and sounding off! I appreciate the read and comment.

  5. I am definitely a recipe-follower. Don’t have the confidence to be otherwise. 🙂

    I didn’t always follow recipes when cooking; when I didn’t, my results were hit and miss. It’s the same with writing. Without a story plan, I do well sometimes and lousy others. I’m going to at least keep a framework in mind going forward. Thank you for stopping by to read and sharing your thoughts with me. 🙂

  6. I am a recipe follower for the most part, which means I am constantly polishing. What I like best is when a recipe becomes mine, when I have deviated enough so that I no longer look at the original set of instructions.

    That’s the goal with all art, I think. To know the rules so well and be so facile with them you can break them as needed to achieve your goal. 🙂

    Writing is like that. I have an idea for a story, a poem, a thought. I seek out previous “recipes” for a similar dish. However, when I finally sit down to write, the proportions, the ingredients and the cooking are mine.

    As it should be! But having that foundation from which to work is fantastic, isn’t it? Makes the rest so much easier!

    So, just as there are no real original recipe, there is no original thought. It’s in the execution.

    In my very humble opinion, of course.

    It is indeed! Thank you for sharing your insights with me, Berna, and taking the time to read and comment. 🙂

  7. Your analogy works very well for me. I have writing recipes. But they are my secret recipes. And I like to create new recipes.
    Some readers enjoy spotting the recipe, while others rather not.
    Does knowing the ingredients make it more, or less, enjoyable?
    Yes, I agree. Formulas and polish make better writing.
    I don’t watch tv so I don’t know about the shows you mentioned.
    Lovely to discover your blog today.

    Thank you Pyrit. I appreciate the kind words! It was very nice to have you join me today. I’m grateful for your time in reading and providing feedback. Thanks again!

  8. I don’t like cooking by a recipe. I don’t cook much, but if I do it’ll either be something really plain, or I’ll get inspired to put together a casserole or a meatloaf that may only be loosely based on things I’ve cooked in the past.

    And cooking that way is fun. Writing that way can be fun too, but it’s generally not for the weak-of-skill (which are the writers who want to do it most frequently!).

    I get bored easily with formulas. If I can figure out the formula to a TV show, I’ll stop watching it. There should be something twisted in there, something just unexpected enough to keep me thinking.

    Oh, make no mistake — plot twists and unexpected turns are able to be added to the formula, and in fact, MUST be added to the formula. If not, the result is a bored reader — just as you said. I guess I should’ve mentioned that aspect, but yes, it’s there. Staying on formula doesn’t prevent the interesting and heart-stopping twists and turns. In fact, it provides even more room for them, IMO. 🙂 Good to see you today, Spark!

    • 🙂 I suppose to be fair I was thinking of reality shows, which I believe are somewhat scripted, but usually quite badly. They tend to fall prey to being too predictable more than fictional shows, which at least are consciously trying to be original, even if they’re not very well-written. I think reality shows allow themselves to be more formulaic because they can fall back on the excuse that it’s supposed to be reality. Guess what – I watch TV because reality is boring! Therefore I don’t want more reality. Usually.

      I know, what is UP with that?! Who wants REALITY on TV?! If you want reality, go live a LIFE! JEEZ! And you know what? Check the credits on any reality show. There’s a list of writers. Know why? Yeah, you know why. 😉

  9. Meh.

    I say screw the recipe.

    I’ve always hated planning.

    Refer to it if you get really stuck, but if not, just get stuck in.

    You can always rectify later.

    http://lunckyinc.wordpress.com/

    x

    Well, it’s true you can always rectify later (at least with writing), and I know plenty of people who aren’t interested in following a plan. They think it stifles creativity, or it cools down the writing process because they can’t launch fingers-first into their “story”. But it also stops having to revise too much to get similar results. Ultimately, revisers are going to re-work and re-write their draft(s) (there will be more than one) until they get something like the formula. For me, it’s just a matter of saving the time and effort. I’ll polish rather than re-write if I can, but that’s me. To each their own! 🙂 Thank you for your comment and the time you spent reading my post today. I appreciate it! 🙂

  10. Interesting post. I started to weigh in, but then I thought better of it. I’m not published yet, so what do I know about whether my writing method works.

    Oh, no, you can’t go there Linda. You have to have confidence you know how to write, even if what you’ve written isn’t proven yet. This is the basic structure of storytelling I’m talking about here, and the reluctance I see from so many to use it, and the difference in execution among those who do use it. Not all writers are created equal. So if you have something you’d like to add or see something I missed, please sound off. I’m a wannabe too but that didn’t stop me from writing the post. Jump in. The water’s fine, and I don’t allow sharks.

    I am, however, relieved that you revealed it’s Medium you prefer. I’ve never seen the other show, but I love Medium. Thing is, I like the realistic family interaction in that show as much as the psychic storylines.

    So do we! Notice things in those interactions too — the way the front of the refrigerator is cluttered with alphabet magnets, kids drawings, school notes, a tattered calendar; the clutter on the countertops in the breakfast scenes; the way they eat their meals from a large bowl, family-style; all wonderful elements which just add to the realism. It’s a great show. 🙂

    • The basics are the story has to have a beginning, middle, and end … and each has to logically follow the other. That’s about as formulaic as I get. Maybe it’s different in genre. If you compare books to movies … I write indies.

      I don’t know if it’s different with literary fiction. I think the basics of storytelling might cross genres, and while I agree the story requires the three elements you’ve listed here, I think there’s also other aspects which might be needed. You raise an interesting point though, and I’d have to research that to find out the answer. Thanks, Linda! 🙂

  11. Great tie in. I know the recipe for writing and adapt it according to my story’s needs. I work best mapping out a few steps ahead or just winging it. I cook pretty free-spirited too. People often ask me how I make such and such, and I have no clue what to tell them other than the ingredients. I just intuitively know how much of a spice to sprinkle in for something to taste good.

    I think that’s fine for those who know the ins and outs of the recipe well enough. Yes, it must be adapted to the individual story. Allergic to peanuts? Don’t use them, substitute hazelnuts instead, or maybe pecans. Lactose intolerant? Use soy milk instead. That’s the idea, I think. Don’t love oregano? Dial it back and use more thyme. That’s what a recipe is for — to provide a sound foundation on which you can build. The story structure formula provides no list of spices, that’s up to the individual writer to supply. 🙂 It’s been really liberating to learn this process. Now … if I just wrote something … 😉

  12. I don’t trust myself to make something correctly without some sort of help. It doesn’t have to be a recipe necessarily (but they are nice), but at least having something there to guide so that I don’t totally under/overcook the meat or mess up at all.

    That’s me too. I need the help. And in writing the story structure is the help. Thank you for coming by and saying hello, softballgirly78! 🙂

  13. I cook a few things well and none of those have a set recipe or formula to them. Yes certain ingredients have to be present to make the food what it is supposed to be (chili, spaghetti sauce, for example) yet I tweak it every time I make it so it is never exactly the same way twice.

    I couldn’t have described writing with a story structure plan in place any better if I’d tried all day, Delaney. Thanks! That’s perfect! The main ingredients have to be there, but how you use them and tweak them and work with them? Well, that’s all up to the writer or chef! 🙂

  14. Hey, Darc, now you’re cooking in my kitchen! I teach cooking and it amazes me how many vital details in any recipe tend to get glossed over by individual cooks. The difference between a level teaspoon and a heaping teaspoon, for instance. How thin is 1/4″? Stuff like that.

    Your story ingredients are your characters . . . now do you heap them? or roll them thin?

    It’s up to the cook . . . or the writer!

    This was fun!

    Glad you enjoyed it, Louise. 🙂 I think character is certainly the main ingredient, but I think other ingredients of equal import are neglected from time to time too. Concept, theme, structure, scene construction … all major elements which may or may not get adequate attention from writers, especially me. 😉

  15. I don’t know if I agree… I think that some of the greatest art was created on the fly… Not every art form can be placed in a box or a template… Just doesn’t seem very natural for me, the subject being art and all…

    Well, there are certain rules every art form requires to be successful. For instance, with drawing, the basic proportions and construction of the human body are well-set and established. Artists learn the rules perfectly so they can break them effectively when necessary. Of course no two artists do things exactly alike, but the way a body is drawn is done from a template of sorts. Painting techniques, sculpting techniques, drawing whether traditionally or digitally — all of them have the rules established for their method. Not learning them is a detriment to an artist who will error and stumble along until s/he learns those rules by practice and experimentation. Same thing with writing. Thanks for stopping by. Interesting screen name you have there.

  16. So, Darcknyt, are you writing a book on the formula, and that’s why you never actually stated it? Maybe I would agree with your formula, maybe not. Maybe I’m thinking you’re talking about rules like: every book is 300 pages divided into a three act structure, with this happening on p.100 and that happening on p.200, etc. But maybe that’s not what you’re talking about.

    Not a prayer of writing a book on writing Linda. I’m still a learner, which is why it behooves me to ask whether or not the same “rules” apply to literary fiction as to commercial fiction. (The answer is, some of them. But with greater flexibility, because the stories AREN’T plot-driven.) Some of the formula is what you’ve listed here — story structure, specifically, but there’s more to it. Concept, theme, character, scene construction, and writing voice are other elements of it, though, and some of those are intangibles. That’s why I used the analogy of the recipe — it’s different to suit different tastes. I think the three-act story structure is critical. The way it’s used and executed, however, is as individual as fingerprints.

    I don’t know why I never said what the formula was. Maybe because to me, I don’t have it all yet. I’m still a learner as I said, and I’ve only discovered one piece. I’ve been practicing identifying that three-act story structure in TV shows and movies. But there’s more to it, and I can’t state it emphatically because I’m not an expert at it.

    Bottom line is if it works for you don’t change a thing.

    That’s just it, I’m betting you have a formula you use. All you need is the beginning, middle and end to make the formula come out for you, but there’s more to it than that. You might be doing a lot of it on instinct because it’s so second-nature to you now. For people like me, it’s not yet. So I have a lot I’m willing to change and I will cling to what works as soon as I find it. Promise.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comments. I really liked being spurred to think it through that way. 🙂

  17. Kudos to you!! You got on the main page of wordpress as one of the best blogs today!

    You rock!

    Thanks, Yellowcat! I was pretty surprised and thrilled when I got the email today. Of all the millions of blogs they have, they managed to find mine, and it’s been an honor. The hit count has me frothing at the mouth too. 🙂

  18. Definitely,
    I do a little of both (my recipe is to make it up as I go) But it seems for me “the conditions” have to be just write.
    For me it’s the ingredients that have to be there and unfortunately have to be prepped just right (temp, sliced diced or puree’d, chilled, thickened, thined, etc) and those conditions of the ingredients, for me, change drastically depending on the situation or desired “meal prepared” or “story written”.
    I am not a writer, I am much more of a reader/commenter/arrogant/ want to do it all type of person.

    I’m dusty, thanks for the informative post Dark.

    I think we’re all a little like that Dusty. Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts with me. I’m glad you did. 🙂

  19. I have just now started to write with a recipie and am finding it to be much easier. Also, the results tend to come out better. But I will always remain a fan of winging it when it comes to writing… there is something pure in just writing for the sake of writing, I think.

    I think winging it is more fun in a lot of ways. But knowing the recipe well — by heart in fact — will allow us to wing it without fear! 🙂 Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with me! I really appreciate it!

  20. I don’t follow a recipe unless I’m looking to produce the exact product. For me, writing is a deep reflection of what I’m thinking and what I feel. Thank goodness I have different thoughts moving through my mind otherwise every piece that I write would ultimately carry the same tone. I know that writers, for the most part, have their unique way of getting a thought across, but if they follow the same formula for each story they may end up with a similar product.

    There’s some truth to that, but overall, the differences come in theme, scene execution, writing voice, and concept. The story structure aspect is a tried-and-true formula or recipe which has stood for thousands of years. I don’t think sameness is a problem unless the author has issue with it individually.

    Have you ever noticed that some famous singers and writers produce music and stories that sound so similar that you can tell it’s them without knowing for sure? Every song on their CD sounds identical or every book carries that same familiarity. I realize that people want to be recognized and perhaps deliberately stay within their genre, but creating new ways of telling the story is what keeps the story fresh.

    I don’t know if I agree. There’s a sameness to all movies, all plays, all TV shows, and yet the variety in them is undeniable. We keep watching them. And they are INVARIABLY based on the three-act story structure, with HARD and FAST rules attached. But we still enjoy them and they manage to inject enough variance most of us don’t pay attention to the underlying skeleton structure. I think that’s the key. How well the writer can execute the elements ASIDE from structure decides whether there’s generic sameness or not. With music, I think bands find a signature “sound” and try to stay within it. The amount of variety they can produce is dependent on their skill as musical writers, same as authors. At least, I think. Not being a musician though, I’m going to shaddap about that one. 🙂

    I suppose it all boils down to what we feel works best for us.

    Yeppers! But I still say having strong familiarity with the recipe allows freedom to explore and experiment. But that’s me, and just one writer’s opinion. 🙂

    Nice blog!

    Thanks! I appreciate the time you took to read and voice your thoughts! 🙂

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