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.
They 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 can 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. One 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?
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