If you’re human, you have a favorite dish. Doesn’t matter what it is. It’s your comfort food, your go-to when you don’t want to be bothered with choosing, or what you remember the most often when you’re away from home and want something really good. It may be simple and easy to fix, or complicated and time-consuming, but it’s the one thing you turn to when all other dishes fail.
This applies to creating stories, too. They have characters, places, narrative, beginnings, action, middles and endings. Those are ingredients, and how you treat them determines how the story will proceed. You may have a favorite genre, such as steampunk or Regency romance or mystery. All have specific ingredients or qualities that make them part of a genre. You can make all these ingredients into something as complex as beef bourguignon (beef burgundy), or you can make your story as simple and familiar as mac and cheese.
I like making chocolate chip cookies. I have the Tollhouse recipe memorized. I could make a batch in my sleep. But I have a secret ingredient that makes them more than just regular chocolate chip cookies. Well, I have two, but I’ll come to that.
The recipe itself is uncomplicated. The ingredients are simple: eggs, butter, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt, chocolate chips.
But let’s dig into that list of ingredients. Instead of just brown sugar, I use dark brown sugar. Why? It has extra molasses, more than light brown sugar. More flavor. I use vanilla, a particular brand that seems to have a brighter flavor than regular vanilla. I use unbleached flour. The chocolate chips are heavier in cacao than the other chocolate chips, but they don’t cost any more than the others. I want some serious chocolate chip cookies, so I add a little more than just the usual ingredients.
There’s your story: a little more than just the usual ingredients. You add bits and pieces of information here and there, like rich, dark chocolate chips scattered through cookie dough, that draw your readers into the story. You describe neighborhoods and countryside and villages, cities and towns as if you’ve lived there half your life. You know the people down the street and next door, because you invented them.
Oh, but wait! Your people don’t live on a street or in a neighborhood. They live on a large island with an inlet bay that nearly splits the island in two, and the two populated halves of the island have been fighting over fishing and sailing rights to that water body for longer than human memory.
The neighborhood and the island are the same thing as the cookie dough in my cookies. They hold the chocolate chips, vanilla, and sugars that enrich the story. They make it whole and believable. You should be able to stand at the head of the inlet bay in the center of that island or in the middle of the park on the square in that neighborhood and give me, your reader, an idea of what it’s like to live there and who those other people are, just as you know the ingredients in your favorite recipe so well that you can recount them from memory.
Your cookbooks, to use a metaphor, are easy to find: the Chicago Manual of Style. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. The Oxford Dictionary. Roget’s Thesaurus. Since there is a wealth of material available online for reference, you can search by subject matter. Better yet, you can go to the library and find even more stuff in the stacks. Do not ignore the work of people you never heard of. They may add more than just exotic flavor to your stories.
If you’re still in school, there should be an English teacher somewhere who may give you extra credit for work you do outside of class and who may be able to push you into doing better work than you ever thought you could.
Now, with any recipe or any story, there are requirements you have to meet. Recipes require specific ingredients and specific methods. If you don’t follow those guides, the recipe fails. There’s nothing wrong with trying to vary the recipe, but the first few times you use it, follow the instructions. Get familiar with it, and then make the variations to suit yourself.
The same holds true of a story, whether it’s one page, a novella, or a full-length novel in a series. It has to have a start, middle, and ending. The characters really do need a conflict of some kind, something that needs resolution, and the ending should satisfy the needs of the characters. This is how stories work. It does your reader no good to have wonderful character descriptions (midnight-dark 80% cacao chocolate chips) if they don’t do anything. Where’s the conflict, or the problem, for the characters to solve? What’s the ending? What’s the argument?
If you have all the cookie dough ingredients standing by, including that bottle of real Madagascar bourbon vanilla, but you never get around to mixing them into cookie dough, you’ll never have a batch of chocolate chip cookies. But you can mix the dough, refrigerate or freeze it, and come back to it later, and you just might find that setting it aside for a while gives you a better batch of cookies.
If you create a catalog of characters, put them to work. If you can’t figure out where the story goes, that’s fine. Set it aside. Do something else and come back to the story later. But don’t throw out what you’ve already created. Let it ferment, and see what happens to those characters. Give them something to do.
Oh, the two secret ingredients in my cookies? The classic recipe calls for one teaspoon of vanilla. I use two teaspoons of vanilla, plus the dark brown sugar instead of light brown. Go ahead: Hand me a plate of chocolate chip cookies and put me into the middle of the story. Draw me in.
Just add a little more flavor.