Monday, April 26, 2021

It's All in the Timing

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 9

I've been thinking a lot about pacing this past week. In any narrative piece of entertainment, pacing is the speed at which things happen in relation to other things. Sometimes this means how fast the action driving the story forward occurs in comparison to other elements of the story, like plot and character development. It can also mean how quickly the main plot progresses in comparison to elements of the subplots.

Getting the pacing right in a story is a difficult balance between keeping readers interested in the story by moving the plot along at a good clip while spending time to build thematic depth to provide meaning to the plot and developing the characters into something more than 2-dimensional plot movers.

In the somewhat distant past, authors had more time to develop this depth because entertainment moved at a slower pace. Don't believe me? Look at a movie from the 1940s and compare it to a move from the 2010s. Books are the same. Whenever I reread a favorite book from my childhood, I am amazed at how slow the story moves. I mean, Tolkien literally spends four pages of the first chapter of The Hobbit having Thorin orate an exhaustive history of his forefathers accumulation of wealth in the mines of Moria and their eventual defeat at the hands of Smaug.

A modern author likely would sprinkle the pieces of that story throughout the first third of the book instead of dumping it all at once in chapter one. The pacing of stories changed forever with the advent of television, which told shorter stories that moved through the three-act structure in 22 minutes for comedies and 42 minutes for hour-long dramas. 

Today, many mainstream movies follow the same formula for pacing: Within ten minutes you must introduce the main characters and their salient backgrounds and issues because the "inciting incident" ( the first crisis that drives the plot forward) must occur by minute 10 (page 10 of the script). Because so many movies move at this quick pace, that films that don't follow this formula (often indie movies) are often labeled as "slow."

Inciting Pacing Examples

I'm not immune to this feeling either. In the past week, I watched two different pieces of streaming entertainment that brought all of this to the forefront for me. First was the season finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I had not realized until after episode five that this season was going to end with episode six. 

Up to that point, I hadn't understood the pacing of the plot. The subplots introduced in episode one had lain fallow for a couple of episodes and I had wondered at the time why we weren't seeing more of the two main characters' home lives (which were introduced in depth in the first episode). But with only six episodes, it began to make sense to me. 

The subplots reared their heads in each of the two-episode "act" of the season plot structure, and then came to the fore again in the final third of the story to bring everything together. The pacing, which seemed odd when I was expecting eight to ten episodes made a lot more sense in a six-episode story arc.

The other streamed show I watched this past week was an indie movie called The Vast of Night on Prime. This 90-minute movie tells a Twilight-Zone-esque story set in the American heartland in the 1950s. I kid you not, this movie spent at least 20 minutes (more than one-quarter) of the movie introducing the relationship between the two main characters as they moved through the parking lot of the local high school talking to families arriving for a big basketball game. It felt to me (as I said) s-l-o-w! 

Now, I love indie movies and I appreciate a well-made film that takes its time to tell the story. Also this past week, I watched Nomadland, the Academy-award winning movie about transient elderly people living in vans and traveling around the West from part-time job to part-time job. It was wonderful. Even though the pacing wasn't Fast and Furious, it maintained my interest because it invested me in the characters and their lives immediately.

But Vast of Night didn't work for me. I think, in part, because each of the interactions the two main characters had with different people in the parking lot didn't differ enough to stand out. They just became this long, walking tour of sameness (which maybe was the point; this was white, middle-class America in the 1950s after all, which was about to be turned upside down by some strange, Twilight Zone happenings. But it lost me before I got to the inciting incident. The movie didn't give me enough reason to wade through the parade of blandness.

What does all this have to do with cooking?

Okay. Thanks for bearing with me through this long intro. I know, ironic, isn't it? The final piece of the pacing puzzle occurred to me while I was cooking a big meal for a Sunday family dinner honoring my daughter-in-law's birthday. I had decided to make a butterflied leg of lamb using a wonderful recipe I found a couple years ago. 

This recipe is pretty fiddly. After butterflying the leg, you spread a pasty herb rub all over the meat and then let it sit for an hour. You then broil both sides for 8 minutes (turning at least once on each side for even cooking) and then let it rest again for another 10 minutes before popping it into the oven to bake for about 50 minutes (until it reaches 140 degrees internal temp).

Now, this particular night, I decided to make a couple of easy side dishes that I knew I could put together in that last 50 minutes of cooking time to make sure that everything was ready at the same time to be put onto the table. We had crispy-baked potatoes wedges and steamed broccoli. I've made both of these dishes many times so know how long each takes to prepare, preheat, and cook. 

I also wanted to bake cheesy-garlic biscuits (you know, Red Robin biscuits), which I mixed so I could bake in the bottom oven while the lamb was broiling in the top oven.  Then, after the biscuits were done and the lamb rested, I could put the lamb down in the lower oven with the meat probe, and then start on the sides.

This constant moving from main dish to side dish, from one oven to another (plus the toaster oven for the potatoes and the stove top for the steamed veggies) is what the pacing of cooking is all about. (Plus, don't forget the prep time to get to the cooking stage at the right time.) It's a balancing act that requires precise timing. How long does each dish need to cook? How much prep time is needed? Does the meat need to rest afterward? Can a dish be kept warm without losing its flavor and visual appeal? 

These are all questions a cook must answer before starting a meal if they want everything to be ready in time for everyone to sit down to a multi-course meal and absolutely analogous to the pacing in a story. (See part 3 of this series for more on the connections between subplots and side dishes.)

When I write a novel, I must balance the necessary points of the main plot alongside the required development of the main character so that the events driving the story along reach the critical point at the same moment the character has the major breakthrough in their development that allows them to be in the right place (both physically and mentally) to handle that final crisis.

In addition, if I am weaving subplots throughout the novel that will interact with the main plot at that same critical juncture (perhaps bringing a secondary character to the point of crisis at the same moment as the main character but through a completely different story line), the pacing of that subplot must be carefully manipulated so that everything comes to a boil at the same moment during the climax. This was the issue I had with Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I didn't understand the pacing because I didn't expect the climax to occur after only six episodes.

So, just like when I am juggling the preparation of different side dishes so they are ready at the same time as the main dish, when I am writing, I must juggle all the parts of the subplots and all the character and theme development alongside moving the elements of the main plot along so everything comes to fruition at the same time during the last act. Plus, I must do all of this while not losing the reader's interest.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Make a (Three-Course) Meal of Your Story

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 8

I've discussed this topic tangentially a couple of times during this series (see part 1 and part 3), but I wanted to spend a full blog talking about how to construct both a full meal and a complete story.

There is a reason why the "three-course meal" and the "three-act structure" are important concepts in their respective arts. 

For one thing, the number three has mythical power in the world. Both Christianity and the ancient Egyptian mythos have a holy trinity (Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Osiris, Isis, and Horus). Greek mythology has Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the underworld. The Norse — and most mythologies — break the world into three realms (Asgard or heaven, Midgard or Earth, and Nilfheim or the underworld or hell). 

Humans often break sequences of life into threes. We are born, we live, we die. We go through adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Thousands of years ago, the Greeks believed in the Fates who governed the three phases of life. Today, modern feminine philosophies have rediscovered the trinity of maiden, mother, and crone, who lend their particular strengths to women at certain phases of their lives.

This concept of beginning, middle, and end is powerful and ubiquitous, which is why chefs and writers use it in their art. Any piece of fiction or fine meal can feel incomplete without all three concepts present, which can send patrons away from the experience feeling unfulfilled. 

So, let's take a look at the three phases (courses or acts) of both and see what they provide and why they are important to complete the experience.

Act One — Salad / Appetizer

A salad course or a set of appetizers served before the entrée often set the tone for the entire dining experience, but they also help "wake up" the taste buds of the diners and prepare them for the flavors that will be presented during the main course. This course should be light and refreshing and should never weigh down or fill up the diner. You want this course to whet the appetite of your patron so they move on to the main dish with relish and gusto.

In stories, the first act serves the same purpose. As a writer you are introducing the readers to the tastes and themes of the story. This is where you introduce your characters and set the stage for the main  conflict those characters will face. You want to give readers a little taste of what's to come and make them hungry for more.

A light touch is critical in both of these settings. The flavors in the salad or appetizers should complement and provide a preview of what's to come in the next course. If you go too bold or spicy, you will shock the diner's palate, which can make the rest of the meal taste bland or, worse, sour, stale, or just wrong in comparison.If you disclose too much information in act one, you may accidentally disclose vital plot points that can make readers lose interest in the story during act two as everything becomes too obvious.

A good first act or course entices people to continue on to the next part. It sets the stage for what's to come, but also makes the patron hungry for more. It whets the appetite but never sates the hunger.

Act Two —Entrée

The entrée should build on the themes introduced in the first act or course, but also develop deeper and more complex flavors. For example, if you are serving a lemon fish main dish, you might introduce some citrus to the salad course. But if you don't add something more to the fish than just some lemon juice and zest — say some garlic or paprika or even pesto to add some zing, then the fish is just going to sit there, not adding anything to the light, fruity salad that you introduced to set the stage.

In your story, this is where your character begin to develop and become 3-dimensional people with real problems, past issues that impact how they react to present situations, and complex relationships with the other characters in the story. This is also where you deepen the plot with some pressing dangers or interpersonal conflicts that drive the story forward. 

Act two is also where you introduce the subplots, which as we've discussed, are analogous to a meal's side dishes (see Part 3, Of Side Dishes and Sub Plots). As mentioned in that post, both side dishes and subplots help you deepen the tastes or themes that you are presenting in your meal or story. They can provide important counterpoints to the main dish or theme or complement that main piece to provide a point of comparison that helps reinforce that theme and bring it to the forefront from a different angle.

Let me give you example. I have a novel in development where the main characters are chasing another character who has betrayed them several times in the past. Throughout the novel, the leader of the "heroes" keeps lashing out at his companions because he personally went through a completely different betrayal recently. He doesn't blame his companions, but that past event keeps coloring his decisions. In the end, this subplot must resolve — the character needs to learn to trust again — before the main plot can resolve.

Act Three — Dessert

Think about how you feel when you eat dessert. You feel happy and, hopefully, sated — without feeling over full. That is exactly what most writers are going for in act three of their stories. They try to bring all the strands of the story together in a satisfying conclusion that sends reader away happy that they read the story and satisfied in how it concluded.

As with the first course, you want to keep a light hand here. A heavy dessert can weigh down the rest of the meal in the diner's stomach, making them feel uncomfortable. It's also vitally important to get your flavors just right. Too sweet and the patron may not be able to finish the dessert. Not sweet enough and you run the risk of not satisfying that particular appetite the often puts a smile on people's faces.

The same goes for your writing. Outside of Lifetime or Hallmark movies, most people aren't looking for a highly saccharine ending to a story. Too sweet is often seen as "unbelievable" by readers because life just doesn't work that way. On the other hand, if you end the story on a down note, readers may feel cheated out the victory they were hoping to see for the protagonists that they have been rooting for all along.

When I am writing (and also when I am watching some movies), I often hear the words of the sick grandson (played by a young Fred Savage) in the classic movie, The Princess Bride, when his grandfather tells him that the bad guy in the story — Prince Humperdinck — won't be killed at the end of the book: "Jesus, Grandpa! What did you read me this thing for?"

It turns out, the writer (the wonderful storyteller William Goldman) knew exactly what he was doing. The good guys win and the Prince gets exactly what he deserves, which, for a bully like him, is not to be killed, but to be shown just how cowardly he truly is and then left to live with that knowledge. This is what a great dessert or final act does. It completes the meal or story with the perfect capper, the sweetest taste you can leave in the the diner's mouth without going too far or being too heavy-handed. 

Then, if you've done your job by setting the stage for the main meal with a light, enticing appetizer, deepened the flavors you introduced in the first course with a rich, full, filling main course, and then topped it all off with a perfectly balanced dessert, your diners and readers will leave the table satisfied but also craving your next offering