by Sheila Connolly
Recently I had dinner at a renowned restaurant with a big-name chef in a Boston suburb. Since this was sort of a celebration (yet another birthday, sigh), I opted for the Tasting Menu with Wine Pairings. In general this is something a chef puts together to showcase his (or her!) preferences and talents. This one did not disappoint: it was outstanding (and that wasn’t just the wine pairings talking!).
But this is not a food blog. Being of analytical mind, after the meal I reviewed what I had eaten, trying to decide what unified the five dishes, and also trying to deduce what message the chef wanted us to take away. It came down to one word: balance.
I noticed that both my husband and I tasted the individual components of each dish first—most often the sauce, then the separate elements (protein, vegetables, starches). They were uniformly tasty. But something magical happened when we took the first bite that combined all the elements—and that’s where the genius of the chef showed. Everything worked together to create a sum that was better than any of the parts taken on their own.
The same thing applies to writing. I’m sure we’ve all read books in which the plot is brilliant but the characters are wooden; or the characters are endearing or frightening but we’re left wondering just what the heck they were all doing together on the page; or the language was beautiful and sometimes even stopped us as we admired a particular turn of phrase, but the story was flat-out silly. Sometimes the parts are enough to keep us reading—we’ll forgive the weaker elements because the stronger ones are so good.
But in the really good books—the ones you remember for a long time, the ones you try to persuade your friends to read—all the elements merge seamlessly. You believe in the characters, you don’t stop to question the twists and turns of the plot, and the language doesn’t intrude upon the story but reinforces it. Not every writer can pull this off. There’s no tidy formula, no algorithm that tells you, “oh, I haven’t mentioned any emotion lately—better have someone react” or “my protagonists have been doing an awful lot of talking in the last three chapters—maybe it’s time for something to happen.”
Yes, we as writers do think about things like that, but it’s not like we work with a chart (okay, maybe some people do, but not me) with columns labeled “Romance” and “Plot Point” and “Explanation” and so on. The ones who write like that we call Plotters; the ones who fly by the seat of their pants and make it up as they go we call Pantsers.
But the point is, whichever approach you (the writer) choose to take—structured or intuitive—you have to achieve a balance, so that all the parts weave together, so well that the reader doesn’t even notice. And that’s the art and the mystery of writing a good book. We all aim for it, but there’s no guarantee that we’ll succeed. But we keep trying!
Coming June 3rd (yes, that’s tomorrow!). Nell Pratt tries to balance her job, raising money, nurturing her still-new relationship with an FBI agent, and solving yet another murder.
For more details, see www.sheilaconnolly.com