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How Writings Is Like Pizza

I’ve just finished watching cult favorite sci-fi show Firefly. Yes, for the first time. Yes, I realize this means I need to turn in my nerd badge.

Forgive me for blogging about this about a decade after the fact. That’s the Internet equivalent of the dawn of mammals. Just think of it like a trip back in time.

There’s a lot wrong with the show, but there’s also a lot that was really well done. It got me thinking about how long form writing is a lot like pizza. Like a good pizza, a good TV show, or novel, comic book or whatever is built out of three layers. Each layer is important, and each has it’s own function. You can even remove one of the parts of the stack and still have a tasty experiment with whatever’s left, but it won’t really be pizza.

IMG 1992

The crust is the foundation upon which your pizza is built. It props up the other ingredients and gives your pie it’s own unique character. It’s made from simple ingredients, usually just flour, water, salt, and yeast. But even slightly altering those proportions will make for an entirely different experience.

Similarly, a story is built on it’s grand themes. Every Oscar™-bait movie and every cheap romance novel rests on a foundation of ideas. It’s the bottom strata. That’s why the call it subtext. These are usually broad, over arching motifs. Even terrible stories have some kernel of idea at it’s center, whether the author realizes it or not. This reveals the work’s view of issues such as love, family, gender relations, trust, or even north Atlantic cod fisheries. These ideas are baked into the very language (visual or written) of the text.

Resting on the subtext is the plot. This is the general flow of action. Like the sauce on a pizza, it’s meant to lubricate the story. It keeps the characters and dialog from sticking on one spot. Also, like the acidity in a good fresh tomato sauce, the plot provides tension. It keeps us on our toes. A story without plot is like a white pizza. There’s nothing to cut through the fattiness of a bunch of people sitting around talking about nothing.

IMG 1995

Finally, you have the dialog. If you’re someone like David Mamet, the dialog and plot end up melting into each other, like the cheese and sauce of a good NY pie. In the end you just have a molten, goey mass. Each element plays it’s own part, and each is essential.

But that’s only one style. The dialog and plot could each float in a sea of motion. Little islands of characterization in the midst of adventure or intrigue.

There are, of course, more than three possible layers. When writing, you can have offbeat side trips, subplots, red herrings, or deus ex machina. There’s no end to the ways you can personalize your story. As soon as an archetypal story in any given genre is created, writers start finding ways to play around with the formula. They twist expectations. They maybe rearrange ingredients. The basic elements but the proportions can always be tweaked, and you can always throw something weird in there just to say you did. It’s a part of our creative impulse.

I think many of us would be okay with eating pizza every day, provided it was made with care, using quality ingredients. But I know I wouldn’t want to eat the same pizza every day. It’s important to keep it exciting.

Ultimately, like great pizza, a great work of fiction is about balance. All the elements must be applied judiciously to create a whole that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. You may have some dialog that you can’t bear to part with, but if it doesn’t work within your larger plot structure and overall theme, don’t think twice about it. Junk it. A writer’s cutting room floor is often full of his best lines, and the finished product is usually better for it.

What does this have to do with Firefly, you might ask? He wrote passionately about trust and family. He made the stakes seem high for the characters, if not necessarily plausible. The plot was hit or miss. Sometimes it was a tightly wound thriller, while other episodes seemed contrived. And the dialog? More often than not, it was just plain cheesy.

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