January 20

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Scene and Structure: How to Narrate Like Top Chef


In my review of Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure, I outlined his idea of fictional cause and effect: events in a story generally follow, says Bickham, a three-part sequence:

Stimulus – internalisation – reponse.

In other words: something happens to the protagonist, she reacts to it internally, and then she does something in response to it.

This insight sounds really obvious. On the simplest level, Bickham is claiming when someone is reading your story, they have an unconscious expectation that things will happen in a certain way. They expect this sentence by sentence, in the very language of your fiction. When something happens, we must know why. When someone does something that affects another character, we must know how that other character reacts.

This, for example, says Bickham, is bad writing:

Joe threw the ball to Sam.

“Sure is a nice day!” Sam said.

What happened to the ball? The reader expects that causes, in a fictional narrative, will have effects. Are you trying to be some enigmatic postmodernist puzzle-maker? No? Then you have to show what happened to the ball.

“Sam, catching the ball smoothly, said…”

Now, this is, clearly, a very basic piece of craft advice.

On a deeper level, however, Bickham’s framework makes an intriguing argument about the nature of fiction, and the nature of reading it. Fiction, he suggests, is not like real life. And his point about cause and effect hints at a craft issue of which, I feel, many aspiring fiction writers have an incomplete grasp. I feel like a lack of knowledge of this principle has doomed many otherwise publishable, enjoyable works of fiction.

The principle is this: as readers, we begin every work of fiction, or every fiction-like narrative, with the presumption that we will, on some hard-to-define level, know more about that story than we can ever hope to know about real life. When we are presented with a fact or event or action in fiction, we assume that we will understand, from some or other human perspective, what that event means. The writer must present, Bickham suggests, more than just a run of scenes in which people do stuff: she must also convey, at the same time, the significance or weight of those scenes.

If Bickham is right, then the experience of reading fiction must surely be shocking, uncanny. In real life, one is frequently unable to know what anything means. In real life, we experience many of life’s most tumultuous events in a state of suspended, anxious numbness, and their emotional weight only hits later — sometimes years later. Every day of my life, I carry around in my brain mental models of other people’s characters — and my own character — and I use those models to predict how everyone will behave, and how I myself am supposed to behave, but I am frequently proven wrong, especially about myself.

When I read fiction, in contrast, I know far more about the people I meet there, and how their world works. When I see a fictional gun on a fictional mantelpiece, I know, at some point in the story, it will go off.

This should be jarring, unearthly. And yet, as a matter of fact, we experience well-written fiction not as an awkward break from reality, but as something soothing, delightful. Good fiction, in fact, feels more natural than real life: hearing “once upon a time,” we perk up, as if for the duration of the story, we have come home, to the place we truly belong.

Metaphysical interlude:

Bickham gingerly suggests, in Scene and Structure, that the nature of fiction implies that life has meaning. Fiction prizes cause and effect, and this hints, perhaps, that the real life has more meaning, more logic and sense, than we generally believe. Things happen for a reason, and therefore, human life has real value.

Personally, I don’t share Bickham’s confidence about life. Rather, as a follower of William Blake, I would instead propose that the nature of fiction hints at a grander vision of the human mind. We are meant to see more than we do, and be more closely connected — to each other, and to reality — than we are, or believe we can be: the lover is more a part of her beloved than she knows, and vice versa. As this is a fallen world, inhospitable to human imagination, we can only rarely live this way: yet we can regain our natural state in the experience of fiction, of narrative, of art.

That’s why narrative’s absurd coincidences and simplicities make sense to us: we are meant to be living that way all the time.

Back to the craft of fiction:

What all this implies is that we aspiring fiction writers should probably be narrating more. Readers will expect to understand and grasp more of our fictional narratives than our instincts might suggest to us. What we think is perfectly clear, they will find opaque, and eventually dull.

Now, obviously, this is just a craft idea. If you are happily writing an enigmatic, minimalist, postmodernist, visionary novel where the reader is meant to be frustrated and bewildered, and the drafting is going great, and your agent is calling every day to read more, and your mother hugs you, her eyes wet with happy tears, when you read passages aloud to her — then, sure, ignore this advice. You should just finish your masterpiece. In a future post, I want to point out ways in which certain minimalists are not really as minimal as people tend to think, but that’s not really the point: if writing is going smoothly, don’t worry about issues of technique.

If, however, this is not quite the situation you find yourself in, continue reading. Let’s talk about Top Chef.

Take, as an example, this story by me. Imagine I’ve handed it into your workshop. The first sentence reads:

You go up to the mountains with Alli. The drive is slow and the car’s engine worries you with a clicking noise, sometimes from the left side, sometimes to the right.

Perhaps the rest of the paragraph describes the drive, the scenery, the season. The second paragraph seems like the beginning of the story proper:

In the living room of Alli’s summerhouse, you are sitting on a wicker chair. She is resting on the loveseat, looking outside. Your chair is tough, itchy on your bare legs. You think it’s about to rain. I want to see the hollow tree, she says. Let’s go find it, okay? The hollow tree is an hour away but she wants to see it, so you get up. In the kitchen, you make two sandwiches and wrap them, and then change into outdoor clothes. It’s already getting late.

I don’t think this story is very good. And I think the principle reason is that the writer is not narrating enough. Certainly, it’s only the start of the story, and maybe the writer will open things up later. But from a reader’s perspective, it feels like that the writer is keeping me distant, and I’m not sure why. And while this problem seems somehow connected to the choice of POV—the decision to write in 2nd person leaves the protagonist hazier than he or she would be in third (we would, if nothing else, know the character’s gender and name)—that POV choice is not the root of the problem.

The story just isn’t telling us enough. This lack of “information bloodflow” saps urgency from the plot and vitality from the main character.

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How Top Chef Understands Point of View

Top Chef is a fascinating study for narrative technique because there’s relatively little action on show. If we were simply watching a bunch of people cook, the series would not still be on the air. Although in the Top Chef spinoffs, Masters and Duels, there is a fair amount of filmic special effects, like “dramatic” slow motion or stop-motion hurry-hurry, in the original series, the directors generally avoid such techniques.

They concentrate, instead, on telling stories. And they seem to believe that to tell a satisfying story, you have to narrate an awful lot. You have to deliver far more information, and with more detail, variety, and repetition than most workshop stories ever dream of doing.

The craft lesson of Top Chef is that readers / viewers don’t respond to action alone — the “action” is just ten cooks chopping vegetables. Rather, it’s the meaning of that action that keeps people hooked. And we get that meaning through the information being narrated to us.

Here’s a particular piece of drama that happened during season 8.

Now, I can show you, dear readers, this part of the show, because the clip is on Youtube, but I have no idea if the person who uploaded it had the rights to do so. (If, Bravo’s legal department, you’re reading this post, don’t be angry at me. I’ve paid money for several seasons of Top Chef!)

During the early part of episode 11, one contestant, Mike Isabella, wins a challenge by using another’s contestant’s recipe. In terms of actual filming, we see very little, and it’s over fast: Paula Deen has set the contestants a deep-frying challenge, and so we see all six of them hurriedly frying bits of food. Top Chef invests little energy in showing us how Mike Isabella actually cooks his fried chicken oysters. In fact, in the clip linked to above, you might barely be aware anything happened.

That’s not the point. The show, instead, invests a huge amount of time explaining the meaning of that action. And to do this, Top Chef creates multiple “half-scenes” before and after the event, as well as using a range of point of views—“first person” interviews, close up reactions—to give us what feels like a complete insight into the event.

The first half-scene occurs before the episode’s credits have finished rolling. Two of the contestants—Mike Isabella and Antonia Lofaso—are sitting with a third, Richard Blais, looking over his notebooks of recipes. Richard Blais is the famous “professor” of Top Chef, cerebral and neurotic, and so this glimpse of his diagrams and notations just feels like the sort of thing we would expect. It feels, at the time, just like “character background,” a bit of realism to bring us closer to the action.

Then, once the chefs are in the Top Chef kitchen, and the frying challenge has been set, the action of cooking is cut through by multiple “first person” interviews with both Mike Isabella and Richard Blais. In the first cut-away to interview, Mike Isabella explains to the camera that he will respond to Paula Deen’s frying challenge by making a chicken oyster, something he says is “a little more unique.”

He adds, casually, that he and Richard Blais were “talking about a similar dish this morning—I saw a picture in his book,” framing his use of Blais’s idea as though it were a collaboration.

At this stage, the viewer is likely unsure how to take Isabella’s remark. We’ve only had one half-scene (the notebooks), one not yet finished full scene (the deep-frying contest), and a single commentary from Mike Isabella. Our sense of the scene’s meaning is still unclear.

Additionally, other stuff is going on at the same time. Richard Blais is busy freezing mayonnaise in liquid nitrogen, for instance. A second interview with Mike Isabella, however, prompts us to judge Isabella more harshly: he piously disparages the other contestants’ dishes for being too complicated, including Richard’s. He remarks, smugly, “at the end of the day, less is more.”

The scene moves, around the 3:50 minute mark of the clip, to its crucial moment: as Paula Deen tastes each dish in turn, Mike Isabella announces his fried chicken oysters.

There’s a close up of Richard Blais’s face: he looks annoyed. In voice-over / interview, we hear him commenting that Mike’s dish sounds “very much like something in my notebooks.” We see a momentary flashback to that half-scene from the start of the episode, the notebooks at the breakfast table. Then, in first-person interview, Richard Blais concludes, “it’s plagiarism,” and, during the scene itself, he remarks to the nearest camera, “That’s my dish.” Paula Deen, however, not hearing this comment, awards the win to Mike Isabella.

The viewer, perhaps, is not yet convinced of the scene’s meaning. After all, in later interviews, Isabella continues to defend his actions. And we, the viewers, aren’t chefs. Perhaps in the restaurant world, borrowing a recipe isn’t that big a deal.

Finally, however, after the chefs have gone shopping for their next challenge, and have retired for the night, three contestants are filmed talking in their shared bedroom, discussing Isabella’s chicken oysters. In a hushed voice, Antonia Lofaso tells the other two, Tiffany and Carla, that Mike’s dish came out of Richard’s notebooks. Tiffany, clutching a pillow, gasps in shock. She can’t believe it. We cut to a first-person interview with Carla.

She looks at the camera and says, “There is man law, and there is chef law. You don’t take another chef’s idea.”

Only then do all the pieces of narrative information coalesce. Now, the meaning of Mike Isabella’s act seems clear; the judgement on his character has been made final.

And this sequence of action and evaluation doesn’t feel overdone or repetitive. It doesn’t feel like “spoon-feeding.”

Instead, it feels satisfying — and meaningful.

How do we fiction writers add more narration to our stories? In the next post of this series, I’ll present how Bickham suggests this should be done.


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