I think of a lot of things in terms of flavor. Numbers, for example: I think 3 would taste like a cracker, 9 would be sweet and 5 seems kind of metallic. I’m not going to claim synesthesia, but I have natural associations that drive me in that direction.
I think these associations are a powerful tool to evaluate and improve your writing.
Great dining experiences revolve around three things: beauty of presentation, complexity of flavors and flow through dishes. I’m going to start out by saying that I’ve only experienced serious fine dining once in my entire life (though I’m saving up to change that). I recognize that not everyone has access to super-gourmet cooking, and I don’t want to be tone-deaf here.
However, there are lessons we can take away from the ultimate dining experience and apply them to our writing.
In fiction, the beauty of presentation is a simple metaphor: your language. If your language is bland, it’s like you wrapped up your book in greasy paper and threw it out the drive-through window. On a per-paragraph basis, presentation is the single most important element. People will forgive a lot of terrible stories for nice language, just as they will for food.
Don’t believe me? Check out FancyFastFood.com to get your socks rocked.
The more expensive the dining, the more likely you are to experience challenging flavors like the vaporous burst of truffles, the earthy bitterness of fermented vegetables or meats, or deliberately acidic, under-ripe greens. Start to think of your characters and events as the flavors in your story.
Look for those pairings we prize in everyday life, and don’t blend like with like. Find the sweet and salty characters and mix them together. Take a subtle person and pair them with someone oppressively loud. If your story calls for a bitter defeat, follow it immediately with a minor comfort–a light cream sauce on fresh greens.
Weird fact: I associate basil with magic/mysticism. I wonder why that is…
Try this exercise: Assign a food to each of your characters. Maybe one of them is like a tira misu. How does that character reflect the cakey softness of ladyfingers? The smoothness of sweet cream and mascarpone cheese? The wet, smokiness of roasted espresso? The bitter dusting of cocoa powder? Pick apart the flavors until you have your answers.
One of the main differences between fine dining and a normal meal is plain: Normal meals consist of a lot of one course, fine dining is a series of tiny courses designed to take you on a journey. When I go get a burger and fries, that’s it: burger, fries, soda. A meal at a top Michelin-rated restaurant, however, takes four hours and transports you through a host of mental states.
Fine dining doesn’t start with heavy, suffusing flavors. It starts with an appetizer and tea, or something light and crisp with just a hint of excitement. Your fictional hook should yield those complex and challenging flavors, but not saturate the reader’s palette and desensitize them to the coming story. You wouldn’t start off a flight of beers with an IPA, for example.
When a book is a lot of a single course, I call it Twinkie Fiction. I like Twinkies. I eat them pretty regularly, in spite of the near-instantaneous regret that they engender. I like candy and chips. I’ve got a kid, so there’s a fair bit of McDonalds in my diet, too. So, if I want to read something that won’t challenge me and goes straight into my bloodstream like a spoonful of sugar, I’ll read CASINO ROYALE.
There is NOTHING WRONG with writing books that serve a single purpose. It just ain’t my jam.
Write your great meal.
Whether it’s twelve courses of the strangest, rarest ingredients known to humanity or a fantastic apple pie, ask yourself why we love the foods we do. I totally dig frosted animal crackers, but they wouldn’t be what they are without that pinch of salt. Make sure complexity makes its way into your characters.